Hilary Mantel’s sprawling, Booker Prize winning novel Wolf Hall is set in England during the sixteenth century. Narrated by Thomas Cromwell, it is an intimate look into the life of King Henry VIII and the cast of historical figures who surrounded him. More importantly, it is an examination of the clash between the Roman Catholic Church and the royalty – a battle of wills and politics that turned deadly for many as King Henry sought to divorce Catherine of Aragon (who could not give him a male heir) and marry Anne Boleyn.
Since Christ did not induce his followers into earthly power, how can it be maintained that the princes of today derive their power from the Pope? In fact, all priests are subjects, as Christ left them. It is for the prince to govern the bodies of his citizens, to say who is married and who can marry, who is bastard and who legitimate. – from Wolf Hall, page 435 -
This tumultuous time in history was defined by the struggle between Catholic power and Protestant will; a time when players could change sides in an instant and the charge of treason meant certain death. The Protestant Reformation, headed by Martin Luther, plays a large part in Wolf Hall and leaves one to wonder which side Cromwell was really on. It is a complex and complicated history into which Mantel drops her characters. Readers who lack adequate knowledge about English history in the 1500’s may find themselves lost in a sea of details and characters (many who share the same first name); and find themselves struggling to get through this densely written tome.
Mantel writes her novel in the present tense – an interesting choice for historical fiction, but one which I think worked to her advantage. She also picks the perfect protagonist to drive her story. Cromwell is an interesting historical character. In Mantel’s book, he is richly imagined…a man who is is able to sidle up to the King of England and play one man against another in order to ensure his place in history, while at the same time is a loving family man who grieves so much for his wife and two young children (who die from illness), that he never re-married. The stark contrast between empathetic father and manipulative, driven lawyer helps define the internal conflict of the novel.
It’s beautiful, he says, not wanting to spoil his pleasure. But next time, he thinks, take me with you. His hand skims the surface, rich and soft. The flaw in the weave hardly matters. A turkey carpet is not an oath. There are some people in this world who like everything squared up and precise, and there are those who will allow some drift at the margins. He is both these kinds of person. He would not allow, for example, a careless ambiguity in a lease, but instinct tells him that sometimes a contract need not be drawn too tight. – from Wolf Hall, page 187 -
But it is no use to justify yourself. It is no good to explain. It is weak to be anecdotal. It is wise to conceal the past even if there is nothing to conceal. A man’s power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face. It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires. – from Wolf Hall, page 294 -
Another strength of Wolf Hall was Mantel’s sardonic sense of humor which comes through in pithy dialogue between the characters. Cromwell’s observations of Anne are priceless…and Mantel reveals the ridiculousness of some of the royalty, as well as the Church.
Despite this and her excellent characterization, Mantel chooses to use an ambiguous pronoun. Her use of “he” (to identify the narrator) instead of “I” consistently confused me. I often found myself going back to re-read a passage in order to understand who was now speaking or acting. Often the “he” in the sentence did not match the subject which made it all the more confusing. Mantel’s disregard for this grammatical “rule” took away from the story for me. I found myself often setting the book aside in frustration. I could not completely immerse myself in Cromwell’s complex world. I felt as though I were reading a book, rather than falling into a story.
I wanted to love this book. Passages where Mantel let her gifts as a writer shine, left me feeling that this book should have read better. I should have flown through it in record time, exclaiming at the scope of what I had read. Instead, I found myself relieved to have finally finished the book after nearly three weeks of slogging through its pages.
Many readers are raving about Wolf Hall…I suspect most of them had a good understanding of English medieval history and so could sort through the ambiguity of Mantel’s prose. Sadly, I am not one of them. Although I admire Mantel’s writing ability, I have to admit, I really did not enjoy this book. Mantel is apparently going to be publishing a sequel to Wolf Hall. I think I will skip it.
Some might like this book.