The fate of peoples is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions. This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman’s sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rosewater; her hand pulling close the bed curtain, the discreet sigh of flesh against flesh.
Hilary Mantel’s Booker prize–shortlisted novel Wolf Hall is a book about how the world changes, about those pen strokes and discreet sighs that happen outside the public eye but whose consequences shape history.
Long-time Shelf Love readers may remember that last year I went through a phase of reading about the Tudors, focusing primarily on the works of Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir. They were enjoyable enough, but these books generally made the bedchamber the focus of the action. For Weir and Gregory, the queens are the story. Wolsey, More, and Cromwell are side characters who are only important insofar as they help bring one queen or another into power. The English Reformation is all about Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon, and theology hardly enters into the conversation.
For Mantel, however, Cromwell is the story. He is the one whose pen strokes come to matter. Yes, Henry’s desire for Anne Boleyn—and for an heir—drives Cromwell’s pen to some extent, but Mantel makes it quite clear that the story was far more complicated than that. Theology enters in, as do personal histories, economic concerns, and world events. In its complexity and attention to detail, Wolf Hall rivals the work of Dorothy Dunnett, right down to having a five-page cast of characters and two family trees in the front of the book. The book itself focuses on the years 1527 to 1535, from when Henry first broaches the idea of a split from Katherine to when Thomas More is executed for not supporting the king’s divorce or denying the authority of the pope. Interestingly, the Seymour family—the owners of Wolf Hall itself—remain on the sidelines of the book. Was the title an attempt to keep the reader attuned to the fact that the triumph of the Boleyn family cannot last?
I’m currently taking a class in Reformation theology, so I was delighted to see that Mantel does not give the theological debates of the time short shrift. The various heresies and new ideas that were spreading across Europe and into England become vital to the story. Cromwell himself is conflicted in this area. Here, he compares himself to the confident, committed Catholic Thomas More:
He never sees More—a star in another firmament, who acknowledges him with a grim nod—without wanting to ask him, what’s wrong with you? Or what’s wrong with me? Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says relics, monks, nuns. Show me where it says ‘Pope.’
This chipping away of certainties is central to the novel, and perhaps it is his ability to let it happen that keeps Cromwell from crumbling. He moves with the time, learning to bend with the will of the king while somehow being able to converse with the king’s enemies, from accused heretics like William Tyndale to the disgraced Queen Katherine to the imprisoned Thomas More. Among my favorite scenes in the book were the many one-on-one conversations Cromwell had with the king, with Thomas More, with Katherine, with Anne, and with Anne’s sister Mary. Each of these conversation partners is formidable in his or her own way, and watching the them circle each other, sizing each other up as they spoke, made for gripping reading.
Mantel also has a way with characterization. Two-dimensional characters have little to no place in her novel. With such a large cast, she cannot give each person depth, even in 650 pages, but those characters who have room to breathe feel like real people. The characters are likable and unlikable to varying degrees, but none of them are all-out saints or full-on villains.
The qualities above are all good reasons for Wolf Hall to appear on the Booker shortlist. It deserves to be there as an accomplished work of historical fiction. However, I’m not convinced that it should win. As interested as I was in the story, I couldn’t quite get immersed in the world of the novel. This book did not grip me as Dorothy Dunnett’s works do, or as Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger did. I’ll confess right off that part of the problem could be me, but I do think Mantel could have done a better job grounding readers in time and place. Mantel follows the current trend of writing in the present tense, which usually doesn’t bother me, but in this book there were several times that I couldn’t tell if one incident happened hours, days, weeks, or even months after the previous one.
Another difficulty is in Mantel’s choice to refer to Cromwell merely as “he” most of the time. Even after it’s clear that “he” is usually Cromwell, there are times when other characters need to be “he,” and several passages ended up being almost incomprehensible. Again, the fault here could be with me, but I don’t think I’m a particularly poor reader, and if after multiple readings of a page, I’m still uncertain who “he” is, I think there’s a writing problem. I suspect that Mantel was trying to make us feel closer to Cromwell, but the story itself and his inner thoughts, as in the quote above, do that well enough. A quirky writing choice like this seems like an unneccesary barrier.
These complaints are quibbles; a 650-page novel without any flaws would be a rare thing, and Mantel has achieved something wonderful with Wolf Hall. I understand that she plans to write at least one more book about Cromwell, and I will almost certainly read it. I might even read this again. But I think I’d rather see Waters win the big prize. Her book has nary a flaw at all. It might not have quite the complexity of Wolf Hall, but it is complex in its own way—and I’d argue that it’s more complex than it appears. Of course, I have yet to read Summertime, The Glass Room, and The Children’s Book, and one of those might be even better. (And it’s possible that Wolf Hall gets even better on a second reading, which the Booker judges had time for, and I do not.)