Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel
Wolf Hall (2009) by Hilary Mantel is a tour de force. After re-reading it, I am still marveling at the rich prose and psychological depth of Mantel’s characters—particularly Thomas Cromwell, the novel’s focus. As Cromwell rises from blacksmith’s son to the position of chief advisor to King Henry VIII, the author bases the plot on true events, so the story isn’t really new. What sets it apart from conventional historical fiction is technique—with stream-of-consciousness carrying both plot and character.
It’s a technique that focuses on the emotional-mental state of a character and presupposes that the disjointed, even illogical qualities of mind can tell more of a story than a straight narrative. Mantel uses it here to create a style that is uniquely her own. She pulls us in from the first sentence onward so that we are fully engaged in the enigma that is Thomas Cromwell.
Spanning the years from 1500 to 1535, Wolf Hall is Cromwell’s story. Under Mantel’s skillfully woven spell, we see it all–every abusive punch Cromwell suffered as a child, every affront to his self-esteem and capability. He morphs from a runaway street-punk to penultimate servant, first to Cardinal Wolsey and finally to Henry VIII himself.
Wolsey is one of the most powerful men in the Catholic Church, and from him, Cromwell learns how to wordlessly serve a master, how to wield power and gain reward for his service. Although Cromwell is ruthless, cold, calculating, and completely egotistical, he learns to use his kind, philosophical, brilliant, and generous qualities as a means to an end.
By the time he has become Master Secretary to Henry VIII, Cromwell has also learned from Wolsey’s mistakes and becomes the clever servant, anticipating and meeting Henry VIII’s needs even before the king knows what he wants.
Mantel’s cinematic writing style draws us right into the milieu that is Tudor London. By writing in the present tense, she keeps us in the moment, even though we are in a different time and place.
By retelling and reshaping material that is already familiar to many of her readers, Mantel’s generosity is unrelenting from beginning to end, never cheating us by giving short shrift or none to a name, a place or event. By writing from Cromwell’s point of view, in the third person, with Cromwell always referring to himself as “he,” Mantel makes us see a man whose soul, or psyche, is divided from the physical being. It is as if Cromwell is watching himself go through the motions with all the attendant memories, feelings and sensations, but at his psychological core, he sees himself as a kind of observant participant.
If the book has any failing, it is a lack of clarity around this point-of-view. Sometimes we don’t know whose mind we’re in, so to speak. As the story develops, and Cromwell serves first Wolsey and later King Henry VIII, it becomes difficult to separate the consciousness of one character from the other. While she does effectively reveal a unity of purpose–philosophical, political and otherwise–between characters, it can be confusing. For that reason, the tangling of characters is a problem and is most noticeable when there are three or four present in a scene.
Even if we do, as readers, become a little confused along the way, Mantel has created such strong characters and has plotted so carefully that we don’t mind too much. If we have to trace back now and again to figure out who’s who, it doesn’t seem annoying. We are likely to find details that we previously missed.
Detail—it’s one of the great strengths of this novel. This is especially good for those of us who have forgotten what little history we knew about the Protestant Proclamation and England’s separation from the Catholic Church.
A caveat, however: this is fiction and not to be relied upon for our knowledge of Tudor history. On the other hand, Mantel does bring it vividly to life. She wraps us all up in the drama of real events, imagining for us the character and events that are not in the historic record. Mantel’s account shows us Tudor society and how it might have been for Cromwell and Thomas More–and for Henry VIII, not to mention his rejected queen, Catherine of Aragon as well as his lover, Anne Boleyn, whom he eventually marries.