Saturday, May 26, 2012

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

The first thing I said when I finished my latest read was “Really?  That book got a bunch of acclaim?  Hun.”  I recently finished Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, the book which won the 2009 Man Booker Prize, which was pimped hard-core by Chapters for over a year, and which a lot of people (whom I respect) speak highly of.  And yet, I don’t get it.

Wolf Hall is yet another addition to the cannon of Tutor literature; the twist, however, is that it tells the tale of Thomas Cromwell.  The problem is, Mantel seems unsure which tale she wants to tell – Cromwell’s professional rise, or his personal life.  Had she written solely about his professional rise, I think I would have been interested, but not engaged – everyone knows the story of Cardinal Wolsey’s right-hand man, who became Henry’s right-hand man until he (like Wolsey) could no longer deliver on expectation.  What would have made this re-telling of oft-tread ground interesting would be the new angle; very few fictional histories come at events from Cromwell’s perspective, and most paint him as a villain.

The far more interesting tale, which I wish Mantel had told, would have been of Cromwell’s personal life.  The vilification of Cromwell is almost common-place in Tutor historical fiction; he’s the blacksmith’s son who supports Wolsey until the Cardinal is on the outs with the King, then he deserts him, or he’s the man who helped the Boleyn’s in their rise to power until they’re on the outs with the King, then he deserts them, or he supports the King’s marriage plans until he can’t deliver and the King deserts him.  But every story has two sides – what made him the man he was that brought him to these impasses?  A history of Cromwell the person would have been an interesting addition to the literary tradition.

But Mantel does neither.  Rather, she straddles the fence and gives half an account of each.  To be fair, so much of Cromwell’s personality and personal life were wrapped up in his work, but Mantel somehow falls short; she isn’t able to pick a lane and stick with it to further develop her plot.  An odd dynamic, however, is that her Cromwell has moments of sheer humanity that make him engaging; the problem is that these moments are few and far between.  Some judicious editing would have helped her cause of presenting a humanized Cromwell.

Besides the fundamental problem this book presents of not being sure of what it’s trying to do for Cromwell, I found it almost unreadable.  For whatever reason, Mantel has decided that she is not bound by traditional conventions about punctuation and clarity; it takes 5-10 minutes of reading to get into a rhythm to come to an understanding of her thought process; without punctuation its hard to tell who is talking; she almost never refers to Cromwell when he’s speaking (instead referring to Cromwell as ‘him’); she jumps from one train of thought to the next without any sort of section break; and it is often impossible to tell who is in a particular scene without back-tracking and rereading to put the puzzle together.  As an illustration (from page 203):

‘She can stand it,’ he says, and Mary says, indeed, she likes a skirmish with someone on her own level.  What are you working there? he asks, and she shows him.  It is Anne’s new coat of arms.  On everything, I suppose, he says, and she smiles broadly, oh yes, her petticoats, her handkerchiefs, her coifs and her veils’ she has garments that no one ever wore before, just so she can have her arms sewn on, not to mention the wall hangings, the table napkins…
‘And how are you?’
She looks down, glance swiveling away from him.  ‘Worn down.  Frayed a little, you might say.  Christmas was…’
‘They quarreled.  So one hears.’

The first paragraph is an exchange between Cromwell and Mary Boleyn, then there is a more traditionally presented exchange between them right below.  The fact that Mantel will and won’t respect punctuation rules at will is incredibly distracting and, in retrospect, I can’t believe I read through 650 pages of it.

A final note, on the title Wolf Hall.  This is probably the worst chosen title I’ve seen in a long time.  Wolf Hall was the country estate of the Seymour family; Jane Seymour (future wife to Henry) makes the occasional appearance here and there throughout the tale, but at no time in this story do Henry or Cromwell visit, none of the action occurs there, and the tale covers a period when the Seymours were, if not in decline, than stagnating at Court.  I think she picked the title because the last passage of the book relates Cromwell’s plan to have Henry stop there as part of his last summer progress with Anne, implying this is when Jane will come to his attention, leading to the end of his second marriage.  Wolf Hall (and the people who inhabit it) are of so little consequence to the story that it seems like Mantel is setting herself up for a sequel.

Final verdict?  I honestly can’t recommend you read this book; it is slowly paced, more often than not confusing, and so close to being something different (something better) that you pick up on it as you read which ruins the reading.  My MA thesis supervisor used to tell me to not wish an author had written something different – it’s their work, they can do as they please, and if you feel they missed the mark, you should write it as you think it should be written.  I often thought of this advice while reading Wolf Hall, and maybe I am being too harsh on it, but as this blog is about my opinions, I get to say what I want.  What I want to say is, avoid Mantel as an author.
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  1. I'm sorry you missed the many pleasures I had when reading this book (and it's sequel). Just goes to show - different strokes for different folks.
    I do agree that the dialogue was distracting (Mantel listened to her critics when she wrote the sequel and made it easier to follow the he said/she said stuff).
    PS I love Pride and Prejudice too and have reread it over 15 times as well as watching the many movies and series over and over again.
    The pleasures of rereading is a whole blog post on it's own though :-)

  2. You mention that Mantel "seems unsure which tale she wants to tell – Cromwell’s professional rise, or his personal life". She is telling both...purposely. At it's core the book is about the intersection of the personal and the political.It's strange that everything you found lacking in the book I found in spades. But the beauty is that Mantel doesn't spoon-feed her reader. She assumes that you are as smart as she is...that you know the history just as well. This then allows the reader to form his own think deeply and thoughtfully about a man like Cromwell. A lot of your criticism seems miss-guided because you're reading the book as biography rather than fiction. You seem focused on what the book isn't rather that what it is. Oh, and forgive me for pointing it out, but it's Tudor not Tutor.