“Wolf Hall” by Hilary Mantel

I was initially put off from reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall by its lengthy character list (98 people plus 2 family trees) and guarded reviews from Entertainment Weekly and Publishers Weekly. Friend Kate F recommended it, then it was chosen as a contender in The Morning News 2010 Tournament of Books after it had already won the Man Booker prize; I decided to go for it, even buying it as the queue for it at the library was so long. It went on to win the National Book Critics Circle award, as well as the rooster prize in the ToB.

And so, I wish I could say I loved it more. At 500+ pages, it’s big, but not prohibitively so. Set during the reign of Henry VIII, its main character is Thomas Cromwell, son of a drunk, abusive blacksmith father. He rises to power and becomes a confidant and councillor to Henry during the latter’s “Great Matter”–his desire to divorce Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. Along the way, Cromwell also stealthily aids England’s break with Rome and the protestant reformation.

Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein the Younger

As Mantel writes him, Cromwell is a fascinating, complex character. Yet I found him too perfect. He “can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury.” He knows every language, can psychologize everyone, can remember everything (including the entire New Testament), and makes money as if he were breathing. The book ends when he’s still in his ascendancy, without a hint of his fall, five years hence.

I found the book too much, too. There were so many characters, so many ups and downs, that as I neared the end I stopped trying to remember or go back for which lord this was, or what event that referred to.

I struggled with the writing, as well. Mantel chose 3rd person present tense. I often became disoriented with her third person, till I realized that when in doubt, “he” usually meant Cromwell.

So: Stephen Gardiner. Going out, as he’s coming in. It’s wet, and for a night in April, unseasonably warm, but Gardiner wears furs, which look like oily and dense black feathers; he stands now, ruffling them, gathering his clothes about his tall straight person like black angel’s wings.

“Late,” Master Stephen says unpleasantly.

He is bland. “Me, or your good self?”

“You.” He waits.

“Drunks on the river. The boatmen say it’s the eve of one of their patron saints.”

“Did you offer a prayer to her?”

“I’ll pray to anyone, Stephen, till I’m on dry land.”

Third person, though, allows her access to other characters besides Cromwell, and present tense makes for an immersive feeling of the time. This did convey the slow, agonizing process of Henry’s divorce and remarriage to Anne, yet didn’t endear the book to me.

The book has been almost universally lauded, along with its awards. Mantel writes evocatively and concisely. Cromwell and the characters are fascinating and engaging. Additionally, her choices, such as the ambiguous third person and the abrupt ending, can be seen as brave authorial choices, as noted in Stephen Greenblatt’s review from The NYRB:

The point is not to create an insoluble puzzle but to make you, the reader, do a little work in order to orient yourself. And orienting yourself in this novel always means returning to Cromwell

and Olivia Laing’s in The Guardian:

By ending without a dramatic resolution, she allows the “what happened next” of the historical record to underscore her central, sobering message: that human kindness and idealism are no match for the fickleness of fortune.

In the end, I I found Wolf Hall chilly, distant, and over populated, but still admired it and learned from it.

One Response to ““Wolf Hall” by Hilary Mantel”

  1. Sherry Says:

    My opinion matches yours, but I didn’t finish the book. I got tired of “orienting myself.” The whole process kept me from investing in the character (really there’s only one to invest in), and frankly, annoyed me. I probably read 300+ pages, but the farther I got in the book the more I wondered why.