At least a month and a half ago now, I wrote a post noting that Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall had won the Booker Prize, which is actually a pretty big thing here in Britain (I hadn’t heard of it before coming here). I’ve read a lot of books, fiction and nonfiction, about the Tudors. I started reading adult nonfiction about those fascinating folks when I was eleven or twelve. Granted, that is only about ten years–but really, that’s enough to have read plenty about them. I’ve even watched the TV show The Tudors (I don’t recommend it). So yet another addition to the vast pantheon of Tudor stuff seemed unappealing.
But, this book won a big prize and the title intrigued me. I knew beforehand that Wolf Hall was the family home of the Seymours, ie of Jane Seymour who was Henry VIII’s third wife. Wolf Hall, however, is about Thomas Cromwell, not the Seymours. I’ve never read anything about Cromwell, who was a bit shadowy. So I decided to give it a try.
It is a fascinating book, and I’ve personally never read anything like it. It’s told in present tense, which normally would put me off. At least it’s in third person or I would not have started reading it. It is, however, a very close third person, with plenty of elisions, fragments, and questions. Mantel brings us closely into the head of Master Cromwell who seems to revel in people’s fear of him. We become very intimate with him and understand him. He has very high ideals and, no matter the appearances, is trying to not be cruel or unkind. He shows immense care and sympathy for his foster sons. He even tries to keep Thomas More from martyring himself (a losing battle, that). He is also coolly efficient, with a brain that works on several levels at once–as is shown very effectively in a scene where he is carrying on two conversations as once, one with his son about bricks and one with his sister in law about politics.
The detail that is explored truly defies belief. She must have done some massive research–Cromwell is constantly thinking about things like fabrics and their cost, which Mantel clearly researched. This is all part and parcel of the world she builds up. It is a layered world, unsettled, and not based on foregone conclusions. This is a world in which no one knows that Anne will end up beheaded, that the Protestants will enact an iconoclastic Reformation, that the Holy Roman Emperor won’t intervene in English affairs, that Thomas Cromwell will eventually be brought down, too. She brings in the uncertainty of a world that was just beginning to turn into the legalistic, Protestant state we know today (both in Britain and in the US, which inherited the traditions of the Reformation).
It is a thick book, but it moves quickly along, mostly due to the shortcuts she takes between events and the way that scenes start right in the middle of the action. This could, however, cause some trouble for those who aren’t familiar with the Tudor period. I was not caught out, but I fear that large chunks of the text might be unintelligible to the uninitiated because names and places pop up without much explanation. For instance, a Hans suddenly pops up with no introduction. It didn’t take me long to figure that this must be Hans Holbein (it still gave me pause–who the heck is this Hans?), but what if someone didn’t know who that was? Granted, there is a list of characters at the beginning, which I used a few times to look up Cromwell’s family. But she doesn’t give the reader much chance to catch his/her breath.
The writing style had two big setbacks: the use of “he” and the use of quotations. Cromwell is usually “he”. This is okay; he is a man. When there is more than one male in the scene however, which is often, it becomes very confusing as to who is talking/acting. Now, I can see the use of this. Because he is referred to all the time as “he”, we become very close to him. Cromwell is “him”, not “Cromwell”; it works similarly to the I in first person. This causes a lot of confusion, though, which I suppose serves to create a more dreamlike, stream-of-consciousness feel. It took me a lot longer to read the book because I had to keep going back over sentences to figure out who “he” was.
My other major qualm was the quotation marks. Reading British single quotes is hard enough, but Mantel seems to dispense with them arbitrarily. One part of a conversation is in quotes, the other is not, it is simply part of a paragraph. The line is clearly dialogue but isn’t in quotes. Why? I admit I got used to it, but it did make it difficult to distinguish Cromwell’s thoughts from his words and other people’s words. It was also so arbitrary. I think I see the point: Cromwell is internalizing the words and they are more like bits of a dream–again creating an almost out-of-body sensation.
At the end of the book, I found I had enjoyed the journey. I also felt as though something was missing–such as, oh I don’t know, Anne’s downfall, the rise of Jane Seymour, Jane’s death, and Cromwell’s eventual fall from grace. From what I understand, there will be a sequel, which will be very welcome to me. Still, the ending had a very “to be continued . . . ” feeling about it, which one wouldn’t expect in such a massive book about a subject that has such a clear ending to it (you know, Cromwell’s death).
All in all, it was a fantastic book, so much so that I checked out A Place of Greater Safety from the library and have just started it. This, at least, has some relevance to the Affair of the Diamond Necklace; it’s about the major players of the French Revolution.