I have known of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall since she won the Man Booker prize for it, but did not read the novel at the time. My first encounter with it was watching the Wolf Hall TV adaptation, which attracted me through the stellar cast of Mark Rylance (Thomas Cromwell), Damien Lewis (Henry VIII), and Anton Lessing (Thomas More). Like many reviewers I found the pace of the TV series glacial, so when Wolf Hall was reissued with a Mark Rylance cover I bought it to see how the novel compared. The novel’s pace is itself so glacial that the TV show appears like a pyroclastic flow in comparison.
The novel is told through the main character of Thomas Cromwell, but in a rather odd extremely close third person perspective. The reason for avoiding a first person perspective is obvious in that it allows access to scenes and thoughts unknown to Cromwell, but Mantell gives the impression of wanting it to be first person. Where a first person narrative would say “I say,” she has “he says,” without making it clear that Cromwell is speaking. Dialogue is important to the novel and takes up most of the novel. This has the drawback of requiring Mantel’s dialogue writing skills to be excellent and unfortunately she falls well short in that department. I was often left wishing that she would allow Cromwell to say, “I don’t want to talk any more,” and let us move on to the next scene.
The theme of the novel is of events unfolding that left no-one knowing what to expect next. The use of the present tense for the narrative fits well into that notion of uncertainty while being in the centre of historic events, especially when trying not to lose your head in the court of Henry VIII. Yet I was left feeling that she was over egging the pudding in showing us too many mundane scenes from Cromwell’s life. In a 650 page book I go easily forego knowing about his stresses over obtaining the best price for bricks to build an extension to his home.
The long-winded and lethargic nature of the book means that some of Mantel’s interesting spins are lost in the sheer size of the tapestry. Of particular note is the working class boys made good camaraderie that is not the normal presentation of the story of Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell. Equally interesting is the depiction of Anne Boleyn as someone manoeuvring for her own power within the context of a very male-centred world.
The characterisation that fails for me is Thomas More. Cromwell cannot understand why More is so opposed to the Protestant reformers, which probably comes from Mantel not really understanding the religious background to the Tudor upheavals. More, like Erasmus, opposed the likes of Luther not because they hated reform, but because they had devoted their lives to bringing it about and saw the Protestant reformation as the ruination of their efforts (as would eventually transpire at the Council of Trent).
Building such characterisations and blending them into a story is what good historical fiction is all about. Unfortunately, Mantel got lost in the minutiae of the period and forgot to move the story along in a compelling way. Had Wolf Hall been cut to half the length it would have been twice as good.
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