Winner of the 2009 Booker Prize, no less — and a model of what an historical novel can do. After all — who would have thought the world needed another book about Henry VIII? What Hilary Mantel does, though, is tell us much more than what happened at the English court in 1527-1533. She tells us why we should care.
One of the challenges/thrills of reading historical fiction is that it sets up a conversation between the era it’s written in and the era it’s set in. The normal convention is that the narrative voice partakes of the target period. The narrator might use prose with a flavor of 16th-century formality, for instance. As an author you would certainly try to avoid anachronisms, not only in your vocabulary but more importantly, in your characters’ actions, emotions, perspectives.
Not so Mantel. She uses a contemporary voice: “… the king is cutting a deal.” (I confess, that jarred.) A chapter early in the book starts, “They are taking apart the cardinal’s house… They are bundling up parchments and scrolls…; they are taking even the ink and the quills.” Who wrote that, David Byrne? Yet what I’ve left out, in the ellipses, is the concrete business, the “missals and memoranda and the volumes of his personal accounts.” (Beautifully written, no?) What’s more, the characters have relationships very similar to our own. None of this attempting to understand how people thought and acted Way Back Then: they are just like us. They are friendly, venal, warm, direct, intimate, insecure… everything. Just on a very big stage, with very big implications.
In fact I couldn’t help thinking that Wolf Hall provides a way of looking at modern politics. Thomas Cromwell, the central character, is Henry VIII’s fixer, a lawyer who has knocked around the world and knows how to get things done. His morals are — flexible. He understands, as Henry and his aristocrats do not, that the world is run “Not from castle walls, but from counting houses.” And Henry, well, he reminds me of someone we used to know: “Sometimes he seems hapless, sometimes feckless, sometimes a child, sometimes master of his trade. Sometimes he seems an artist, in the way his eye ranges over his work; sometimes his hand moves and he doesn’t seem to see it move.” Am I the only person who thinks that sounds like George W. Bush? One of the narrative threads of the novel is the conflict between Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More, a courteous battle between the two cleverest men in the realm, one of whom ended up a saint.
I have only one complaint. The book is entitled Wolf Hall. That is the home of the Seymour family, as in Jane Seymour, Henry VIII’s third wife. Jane is a character in the book and her family home is cited as something of a den of iniquity. But we never see it. (A visit is planned on the last page of the novel.) So why is the book not called “Austin Friars,” after Cromwell’s home for most of the story? Giving it this title casts the reader’s thoughts forward, to Henry’s marriage to Jane… but it was the marriage to Anne of Cleves that precipitated Cromwell’s fall from favor. Does Wolf Hall stand for disorder, for the ruin of Cromwell’s success, which depended on Anne Boleyn’s support? The title has the strange effect of projecting the fiction into the character’s future, somehow extending the narrative beyond the actual book. But it’s very odd.