Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Fourth Estate, 2009, 651 p.

Wolf Hall cover

In ways the first few scenes of this reminded me of Science Fiction. It bore the same necessity to introduce a different milieu. Here they describe Thomas Cromwell’s early life as the son of a brutal blacksmith. The book then jumps in time to chronicle his relationship with Cardinal Wolsey, from whom he learned his craft, and his subsequent rise to the position of Henry VIII’s go to man.

Aside:- There is a peculiar fascination for certain inhabitants of these islands endlessly to dissect Tudor times. A few years ago a theory occurred to me to explain this. It is that under the Tudors was the last time in which England was just England (and Wales.) After Elizabeth Tudor’s death the monarch – and one hundred years later the Parliament – had to be shared with the Scots and nothing was quite the same again. Of course the decisive shift from Catholicism also took place on the Tudors’ watch, the beginnings of which are in the background to Wolf Hall.

The character of Thomas Cromwell has not been as exhaustively mined as those of say Thomas More or the main players in Henry’s divorce. As with Cromwell, Wolsey here gets a more sympathetic hearing than I have seen elsewhere.

The narration of Wolf Hall is in third person, closely focused on Cromwell. It uses the pronoun “he” copiously – in most cases meaning Cromwell. However, this occasionally leads to moments of confusion when other male characters are in a scene. It is an interesting decision by Mantel to use this form. Where a first person narration would have immersed us in his world view the formulation has the effect of distancing us from the man.

While well written with some very nicely turned sentences the book is probably too long, with too many characters. They are well differentiated to be sure, but not easy to keep track of. Phrases that particularly struck me were, “Perhaps it’s something women do: spend time imagining what it’s like to be each other. One can learn from that he thinks,” “You get on by being a subtle crook,” – all too true even yet – “The world is not run from border fortresses or Whitehall but in the counting houses, by the scrape of the pen on the promissory note,” “The fate of people is made like this, two men in small rooms,” and of the French wars, “The English will never be forgiven for the talent for destruction they have always displayed when they get off their own island.” To this last a Scot or Welshwoman/man might perhaps observe they didn’t even have to get off “their” island to manifest destructive tendencies.

A power of research must have gone into the book but it is worn lightly and convincingly. As to Wolf Hall itself, the seat of the Seymours, none of the action takes place there and it is mentioned in the text six times at most.

I gather the issues of length and the use of “he” are less problematic in the sequel, Bring up the Bodies. I’ll get round to it.

Pedant’s corner:- A “sprung,” j’aboube for j’adoube, “faces peers”

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