Sunday, November 1, 2009

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

I was prepared to dislike Wolf Hall, or at least be bored by it. Just between the two of us, Dorothy Dunnett ruined the 16th century for me. Oh sure, I pick up novels set during that time period, but I often end up putting them down before the end. And even if I finish them my conclusion is always: "That was just not as good as Dunnett".

Wolf Hall won the 2009 Mann Booker prize though so I thought maybe it was worth the risk. But I was doubtful. Does the world, I thought, really need yet another book about England in the 16th century? Does the world really need yet another novel involving Henry and Anne Boleyn? And even if the answer to both of those questions were "yes", I still wondered if the world needed a novel about, of all people, Thomas Cromwell?

I mean, I attended a Catholic grade school. I know that Thomas Cromwell was not a nice man. I know that he did not come to a good end. And I know that he didn't become even more interesting after his death like Thomas More did. How could anyone write a novel with Thomas Cromwell as the main character?

On the other hand, I read Shakespeare so I knew that Macbeth was a bad man. Then I read Dorothy Dunnett's King Hereafter.

So I read Wolf Hall. And I really liked it.

Mantel does a lot of things right, starting with the fact that she doesn't try to write in any kind of faux Shakespearian style. Her language is modern and her style is almost conversational.

When he once, as a test, explained to the Cardinal just a minor point of the land law concerning - well, never mind, it was a minor point - he saw the Cardinal break into a sweat and say, Thomas, what can I give you, to persuade you never to mention this to me again? Find a way, just do it, he would say when obstacles were raised; and when he heard of some small person obstructing his grand design, he would say, Thomas, give them some money to make them go away.

And yet, even using this conversational, almost 21st century style, Mantel transports us into the 16th Century. It is a brilliant achievement.

I think that probably most people who pick up this novel know that Thomas Cromwell came to a bad end. They may not remember how or why, but they probably know something bad happened to him. So part of the challenge for Mantel is not having our knowledge of the future overwhelm the present moment in the novel. I think that must be partly why she chose to use a conversational style. But also, and maybe more importantly, she writes the novel in the present tense. At first I thought that would be annoying, but I got used to it.

Mantel is also very good at painting a picture of the time period and the locations. Her descriptions verge on the poetic. Here the King's men are repossessing all of the Cardinal's possessions:

They take down the tapestries and leave the bare blank walls. They are rolled up, the woolen monarchs, Solomon and Sheba; as they are brought into coiled proximity, their eyes are filled by each other, and their tiny lungs breath in the fiber of bellies and thighs. Down come the Cardinal's hunting scenes, the scenes of secular pleasure: the sportive peasants splashing in ponds, the stags at bay, the hounds in cry, the spaniels held on leashes of silk and the mastiffs with their collars of spikes: the huntsmen with their studded belts and knives, the ladies on horseback with jaunty caps, the rush fringed pond, the mild sheep at pasture, and the bluish feathered treetops, running away into a long plumed distance, to a scene with chalky bluffs and white sailing sky.

She is also very clever in the structuring of the first part of the novel. She keeps the reader off balance by shifting the scenes in time without any warning. The novel opens with Thomas Cromwell as a boy of 15 or less then suddenly shifts to Thomas Cromwell as a 40 year old man, then shifts back about 10 years. And amongst all of these time shifts there are further flashbacks that give glimpses of Cromwell's life as a young man.

Historically, the background of Thomas Cromwell is murky. He was not a nobleman so there was no one keeping a record of his every movement from the day he was born. He was low born, the son of a blacksmith. It seems that he spent time on the continent during his youth working for the Italian banking houses before he returned to England to become a lawyer.

So it is appropriate that all of these brief flashbacks offer only glimpses of his past because historians only catch glimpses of Cromwell in his youth. I did wonder if people who didn't have an already strong background in 15th and 16th century banking would completely understand the connection between cloth merchants, and pawn brokers and Italian banking but I also am not sure it really matters. Personally, I don't know enough about Thomas Cromwell to know if all of these flashbacks are grounded in reality or are the product of Mantel's imagination. But while I was reading the novel I was never pulled out of the moment by my rational mind asking that question - I just went with the story. It was only when I was finished that I wondered. So, whatever the answer, Mantel was successful in building a story.

Finally, kudos to Mantel for (completely unexpectedly) making Cromwell a sympathetic character. She draws a picture of him as a family man who loses most of his family in the many plagues that hit London during those years. He fills his household with his nieces and nephews and young people who need a place to live. He feeds the poor from his kitchen. He is not warm and cuddly but he has a core of inner decency. This is not a Thomas Cromwell that we know but Mantel makes this new Cromwell believable.

There were a few things that I didn't like about Mantel's style. I really disliked her use of pronouns. Often, throughout the novel, Cromwell is referred to simply as "he" and this makes for a lot of confusion. For instance, here is a simple paragraph:

Bishop Fisher is seated, his skeletal hands resting on an ebony cane. "Good evening, my lord," he says. "Why are you so gullible?"

You would be forgiven for assuming that the second sentence in that paragraph is dialog said by Bishop Fisher. But you would be mistaken. It is Cromwell, addressing Bishop Fisher. This occurs regularly and I often found myself re-reading paragraphs (even sentences) in exasperation trying to figure out who she was referring to in them. Throughout the novel Mantel does things that I think she intends will keep the reader off balance and pull the reader away from preconceived notions about Thomas Cromwell. Perhaps that is what she is trying with the excessive use of pronouns, but I mostly found it confusing.

I also thought that the novel lost a little momentum about three quarters of the way through. Mantel switched to a more linear time line and it became a more traditional historical novel. The conflict between Cromwell and Thomas More is legendary so it isn't as if Mantel could ignore it. And Cromwell's attitude towards More in the novel, a mix of respect and abhorrence, is perfectly drawn and adds to her portrayal of Cromwell the man. But it seemed to me less interesting than Cromwell's interactions with the Howard family. Perhaps because I found More less interesting than the other characters.

And, although the novel is called Wolf Hall, we never get to Wolf Hall (the home of the Seymour family) in the novel. Based on the ending we can assume that the sequel (oh yes, there will be a sequel) will begin at Wolf Hall but it seemed odd to name a novel after a location that isn't a part of the story in any direct way.

But the strengths of the novel far, far outweigh the few weaknesses. I highly recommend it.