‘Wolf Hall’ – some thoughts

Portrait of Cromwell, by Hans Holbein 1532-33

I watched ‘Raging Bull’ the other night, though it was more like a test of endurance than a simple pleasure: it is such a claustrophobic, clenched-fist of a film, there is such an air of masochism about it, and it is so dominated by De Niro. The fights are astonishingly filmed, camera tight to his gloves, wheeling about, never leaving the ring, orbiting him, a helplessly drawn satelite.

Thomas Cromwell exerts the same planetary pull over Hilary Mantel’s 650 page Wolf Hall, set in the crucial decades which saw Henry VIII marry Anne Boleyn and declare himself head of the Church of England. The son of a blacksmith, he forces his way into the Tudor Court by a combination of machination, opportunism and sheer determination, eventually finding the favour of the king and becoming one of the most powerful men in England. He is a smooth-tongued political genius with a quick and capacious mind – ruthless and affectionate, calculating and loyal: a man who looks like a murderer.

It is fair to say that Cromwell encompasses the novel: it moves where he moves – indeed its length is in many ways a testament to his stubborn vitality.  Stylistically, the writing is restrained, sometimes curt, though Mantel is an expert wielder of a dry aphoristic wit and there are occasional flashes of lyricism. Aptly for a novel about politics, dialogue dominates, though Mantel hardly ever mentions the protagonist by name. Instead, the third person ‘he’ becomes a sort of epithet for Cromwell in the same way it signifies divinity in the Bible – one feels after a while that it ought to be capitalised. It’s a clever – if precarious – device, because consequently the reader is made to feel at one step removed from the character over which the novel obsesses. It could easily become a frustrating or confusing authorial tick but doesn’t, because it embodies Cromwell’s impenetrability and omnipresence in the novel so succintly.

Yet reading Wolf Hall is a strangely illusory experience for such a doorstop of a book. To the author’s credit, it never becomes stodgy or ponderous. This, at least in part, is because it is a historical novel concerned with such familiar events which only describes a fraction of the whole story – Mantel is apparently already writing a sequel. It ends abruptly, almost arbitrarily, four of Henry’s wives yet to have their misfortunes visited upon them, Cromwell having not changed substantially throughout, future events bearing down on the reader but remaining unwritten. Despite its bravura and boldness of imagination, the novel has an inherent flimsiness, an allusiveness: it is an odd thing, after all, to be reading such an immersive fiction of the real life of someone whose name is first learnt in primary school. Wolf Hall is a monument to that man, casting a long shadow, for in a very real sense this history is changed by our reading of it.

*still reading Heart Songs

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4 responses to “‘Wolf Hall’ – some thoughts

  1. What a fabulous review! I’m waiting for my copy of Wolf Hall to arrive (well, all the Booker shortlist – the Book People do a great deal but you pay for it with frustration at the lengthy delay in delivery) and I will read it now with your images in my mind.

  2. You make a very good point about the biblical “he”; given the subject, it seems deliberate.

  3. Wolf Hall got all stirred up again reading this, and your review is great (planetary pull – well put).

    The ‘he’ device used for Cromwell took a bit of getting used to. At first, I didn’t like it that much. And then I loved it. And then, even better, I stopped noticing it. It ingrains Cromwell’s omnipresence, for certain, but impenetrability…I’m not sure. I found that the ‘he’ made Cromwell more permeable, not less. The soft quickness of it sets you if not inside his head, then at least at his shoulder. Reading, we are to Cromwell what ‘he’ is to Henry – shadow and interpreter, sometimes convinced, sometimes in need of convincing. We see better how they are together, the two of them.

    The ‘he’ trick is just one of the ways that Mantel dovetails contextual plausibility with narrative telling-power. The way she tells the story makes England as it is now, full of one-bedroom flats and single-portion meals, disappear. It conjures a world structured along other lines, a world where everyone is someone’s man. The complex social map of it is poised between feudal pecking order (stamping, creaking Norfolk) and the new political landscape of merit and bureaucracy. It’s a taxing imagining, and for it to be sustained, I reckon we need to stick close to our guide – we need to hear his voice clearly, be near enough to take hold of his arm. We need Cromwell to be as familiar as ‘he’.

    I see what you mean about the flimsiness, the breezy quality the book has. But then, does the inhabiting of another’s life have to be a weighty thing? Though it was disconcerting at times, the fluidity of Wolf Hall seemed a great antidote to the stuffed, heavy feel that creeps over when considering Historically Significant folk. Mantel does have a weirdly light touch, in choosing what to show and tell, in her flitting between the crucial and the insubstantial. Griefs are set down with brevity, the plans for laying out a new garden are worried over. It’s an odd combination of brisk pace and mortal detail that doesn’t always satisfy.

    But that brisk pace lets time sweep through in an unstoppable flood: one day you’re a river-brat brawling in the mud, the next, you’re the coming man, with a household and silver plate and daughters married. This sense of temporal inevitability helps articulate the wider significance of Henry’s doings, gives impetus to the political wrangling over the Divorce. And then, the richness of ephemera in Wolf Hall (the account books, the pet dogs) usefully grounds the more emotionally tricky moments. The mortal detail of day-to-day life turns Liz’s unquiet ghost into flesh, makes the recurring ache of her presence as tangible as Cromwell’s old knuckle-wounds, the way they bother him when the weather’s damp. Wolf Hall doesn’t always satisfy, but it has it’s reasons.

    With all the ingrained knowledge of this period, six wives and the newborn Church of England, the arc of the story does seem to be left hanging. But for all that, it does match the way a life really moves: the tension and the sifting of possibility are what occupy the hours, and then the blinking and the taking stock. Crisis itself is mostly the work of a moment. We probably don’t need to be told that Henry beheads Anne and marries sweet Jane: instead, we get to watch the intrigue and motive and pragmatism and rivalry, all the pin-steps taken towards this known future. Or maybe she’s saving the beheading, for the sequel?

    I finished this book with that dreamy, bereaved feeling. It took me a full 50 pages, though, to realise that this Cromwell is not Oliver from the Civil War…no relation, apparently. :)

    [I got around to clicking on your blog! It’s great (better than cakes for sure). But there should be more of it. Sorry for the long post – prompted by the interesting review! – Beth]

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