Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Only fitting that if I fit another blog post in before the New Year, it's a review of the year's most lauded books - I don't think there are any particular spoilers in this, unless you're unaware of the history of the Tudors!

Popular and critical favourite for this year's Booker, it's little surprise that "Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel has received such acclaim, as its in many ways a tour de force, a big, baggy, ambitious novel, that at the same time is highly readable. I've ripped through it since Christmas day, not bad for a book of 650 pages, fitting in between Dr. Who and the Christmas Turkey. What it is about the Tudors? I did them at school - early at school - and found them boring even then. Too many different kings and queens, too much intrigue, a world that seemed to be decided at the high table of a dozen houses in the country. Yet we keep coming back to them. Whether it's Shakespeare's plays, "A Man for All Seasons", the TV series "The Tudors", films about Elizabeth I or now, "Wolf Hall." I must admit I don't share the fascination, and so I came to "Wolf Hall" erroneously thinking it was about that later Cromwell, Oliver, not Thomas Cromwell, fixer in the court of Henry VIII. Clearly, despite all the media coverage, I'd not been paying attention! Anyway, from the first few pages you're transported - and the word is the correct one - into Tudor England, or rather, Tudor London. The country we know was so much smaller then, a rump island on the edge of Europe, its leadership the source of constant warring between different factions of nobles, and still, at the start, a Catholic country ruled spiritually from the Vatican.

In many ways, "Wolf Hall" is less about Henry VIII than about the birth of Protestant England. It is Tyndale's bible that has had more of an effect on the English-speaking population in a few years, than any other book in history. Read the Bible in your own tongue and the interlocutors - a priestly class that is appointed by a Pope, and owns a third of the wealth of the country - are now to be questioned. Though Tyndale and his followers are liable to be executed as heretics, amongst the educated classes it is not unheard of to be reading the book. Yet it is Henry's wife's inability to give birth to a surviving male heir that is equally vital - for the English succession of the Tudors was bloodily fought  for. In a world wracked with plague, another king dying or without legitimate succession threatened not just the succession but this newly minted England.

It is this world that the risen Thomas Cromwell, from a poor background, now takes centre stage, an actor adept in the most dubious roles of the day: lawyer, financier, merchant. We see history not through its kings or warriors but through its accountant, its fixer. The novel's therefore a somewhat quixotic project, centreing on Cromwell, and the approach is not alway successful. For as Cromwell rises, the major highlights are not the milestones of history, but of his own advancement. Lord Chancellors come and go almost accidentally, even if Cromwell is at some point involved in the action. Cromwell is courtier to all the leading players of the day, Wolsey, More, Anne Boleyn and Henry himself; a Tudor-age Zelig. It's hard what to make of Mantel's Cromwell; for he is a historical character brought to life, and yet to gain our sympathy for him as a character, we spend alot of time in his thoughts and in his dreams. It is hard to imagine such a man of figures and statutes having the hinterland that Mantel gives him; or, given the world he moves in, such a fascination and interest in the domestic. One might question her choice of protagonist, but can hardly doubt her ability to bring him to life. Tudor London is almost palpable - a small village - with the court of the many-faced Henry at the centre of it. Few, other than Tudor scholars, will not get lost in the gigantic cast of nobles and churchmen that people Mantel's novel, and there are times when the writers' familiarity with this cast fails to be passed over to the reader.

Mantel's stylistic choices are particularly strange. The novel is in the present tense, with Cromwell rarely referred to by name but as an all-seeing "he". This strange decision does give the novel a claustrophobia, somewhere between first person and localised third, but it also confuses the hell out of the reader at times. There are whole pages that are incomprehensible, as if they've been taken from a novel twice the size, but the explanatory chapters are missing. It's probably this stylistic oddity that would have made the Booker judges think twice. Yet you feel there is some method in this madness. For the febrile world of Tudor politics requires this kind of intimate chaos. Without giving us a primer in Tudor jurisprudence, how else can we get to the heart of the intrigue? Oddly, since I doubt he's a writer Mantel's been compared to before, it is James Ellroy in "American Tabloid" who most comes to mind. You take Mantel's Tudor court in the same spirit as Ellroy's cast of CIA operatives, corrupt politicians and the like in 60s America. She could do with a little of Ellroy's zip as well, for the novel at times lumbers along in the foothills of her - no doubt - copious research.

It's a strange place for the English novel to find itself, at the court of King Henry VIII. For its a period which feels like the birth of England, losing its dependence on the European aristocracy that conquered us, then shepherded the nation. You can probably,.at a stretch, find parallels with Blair, Campbell and the Iraq War in the diplomatic intrigue, but it would be a stretch. The novel seems to work in reclaiming (rewriting?) a key part of history - yet it's not clear where any sympathies lie. Cromwell's lie with the dreadful Wolsey, yet surely ours cannot? Modern England stems from our nationhood, our parliament, our separation from Rome, our English Bible(s), our laws, finance and commerce, even, though a republican hates to say it, our royal succession. It seems, oddly for an historical novel, a very personal project - the writer is so deeply immersed in the period and the characters, as well as that difficult writing style, that it's hard not to see it, at times, as something not for the world. The lack of certainty about Mantel's motives extend to the title, "Wolf Hall", residence of the Seymours, hardly present in the book. This is, you feel, (and interviews with her indicate it to be the case) only the first half of a longer novel. Good as "Wolf Hall" is, and it is, in many ways, an excellent novel, it does fail to transcend its material - rooted as it is, in both Mantel's immersion in her subject, and in the immutable milestones of the history book that it never quite moves away from.

Yet if that's a little too critical, focussing on the novel's problems, it's achievements are also real. I don't read enough historical fiction to know where Mantel sits compared to other tellings of the period - a lot, I think, is taken for granted, and probably rightly so. How to approach Henry VIII and his separation from Rome in any sort of new light? In this she succeeds admirably. The book takes you in to a world that is only very slightly like our own. The viciousness of the punishment's meted out to "traitors" would make a Taliban blush; and reminds us how religious absolutism has no place in a civil society - or rather, that a society cannot function civilly where that is the case. Serving the king, whether as Lord Chancellor, wife, or in any minor role, is no protection against his capriciousness. In securing the state for Henry and the Tudors, Cromwell and others replaced one kind of absolutism - of the Pope - with another, to their own detriment, eventually. Since finishing the book I've been reliving it, as it does provide a rare immersion in a world that is both imagined and real. It is Mantel's absolute obsession to the detail of the period that eventually becomes not the book's achilles, but it's triumph. Closing the book at the end, you'll find Tudor dirt wedged between your once clean fingernails.  


Anonymous said...

Brilliant review.

I found it hard to be critical of Mantel after reading 'Wolf Hall' but I agree that is fails to 'transcend its material'.
I particularly liked the stylistic choices you mention; the ominipresent 'he' reminded me not a little of its capitalised biblical equivalent.


France said...

I love historical novels, especially the Tudor period. I was so looking forward to this book. What a disappointment. I finally put it down after reading 1/3 of it.
It was so difficult to follow who was talking from paragraph to paragraph. The whole story was disjointed. There was no flow of either narrative or story. It could have been an interesting story, but this book did not convey that.