Boleyns, Bards, and Beatles, oh my!: A review of Wolf Hall

I did it. I finished Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. All 650 pages. My book club discussed it a couple of weeks ago. At that point, I was about 100 pages from the end, and I was not the only one. I have finished it now, mostly out of sheer stubbornness. Last week, Mantel won another Man Booker Prize for the sequel, Bringing Up the Bodies. I thought, “Oh, great, now I really have to finish Wolf Hall.” So, I did. Finally.

When the book club decided to read Wolf Hall, I was excited. I love historical fiction. I am a great fan of Sharon Kay Penman’s books on medieval England and Wales and Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody novels about Victorian Egypt. I thought it might be fun to read about Tudor Britain for a change. But, while reading Wolf Hall, I remembered why I have not managed to read Philippa Gregory’s novels on Anne Boleyn and other royal consorts. I don’t really like Tudor Britain. I like Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine and their progeny, and then I prefer to skip several generations to Elizabethan or Victorian England. War of the Roses? Just a little skirmish among family. Henry VIII and his six wives? Get a room, people.

Wolf Hall is the first book in a trilogy about the court of King Henry VIII of England. The book is told from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, who begins life as the son of a poor blacksmith and ends it as Lord Chamberlain of England. His rapid rise under Cardinal Wolsey and eventual fall from Henry’s grace is the vehicle through which the reader learns about life at Henry’s court. The narrative structure is not omniscient, but not first person either. It is a strange third-person, first-person, almost stream-of-consciousness hybrid as if the reader is observing Thomas from outside, but still privy to his innermost thoughts. That technique can be difficult for the reader at first. Mantel’s overuse of the pronoun “he” sometimes leaves the reader wondering which “he” is meant and does not help the reader settle into the book. The book also contains sentences that look like they should be in quotes, but aren’t. Other readers have been quite puzzled by this usage. Even as an editor, it took me a few pages to realize what was happening. These sentences are internal monologues for Thomas Cromwell. He does not speak these sentences to the other actors in the scene; he merely thinks them. I am not sure I agree with the editorial decision to leave these monologues without typographical cues for the reader. But, in this age of ebooks, I am not sure italics would have been an effective means, either. Something tells me the editor and writer had entire hour-long conversations and numerous email exchanges about pronouns and italics.

History has not been kind to Thomas Cromwell, but he is portrayed sympathetically in this book. Here, he is a husband and father just trying to make his way in the world, not the devil who executed Thomas More. Sure, he is ambitious and ruthless, but somehow it seems he is working for the greater good. He is a central figure in the events discussed in the book, but his story has not really been told like this before. That novelty is interesting, but, ultimately, I don’t feel that I have gained anything new from Cromwell’s perspective. So why bother writing the narrative from the perspective of yet another dead, white male? Is this book a response to all those “chick lit” books about those Boleyn girls?  Is that why the Booker judges liked the book? Perhaps.

For some reason, this book reminds me of The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. I am not sure why. Maybe it is the unusual narrative technique. Maybe it is the confusing use of the pronoun “he.” Maybe it is this quote from Macbeth that keeps popping into my head:

 

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

 

That final sentence sums up how I felt at the end of this book. This book reads like a history book, but lacks the analytical component intrinsic in good historical narrative. It is a novel without a plot. That is not to say that the book is not well written; it is. But, it does give the impression of a collection of facts rather than a collection of stories. A good historical fiction writer chooses the facts and creates a story that explains them. Mantel seems to have failed in that regard.

Spoiler Alert! 

Although Thomas More’s beheading marks the end of the first book in the trilogy, it seems like an afterthought rather than a denouement. It does not come as a shock, if you know the history, but it somehow seems like just another day in the life of Thomas Cromwell. If only the Beatles had written this book, it would have gone much faster.

 

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