After a big break from blogging I am delighted today to welcome guest reviewer Alison Gibbs to the blog. Alison recently read and I believe ultimately enjoyed Wolf Hall by English author Hilary Mantel. Today Alison shares her experience of and thoughts about this book with us.
Alison Gibbs has been writing professionally for over 15 years, producing copy for the not-for-profit sector. Her short fiction has been published and broadcast in Australia and Great Britain and shortlisted for several national and international prizes. She is currently undertaking her Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Technology in Sydney.
IN THE LONG HAUL, WOLF HALL IS A RICH AND REWARDING READ
And so I reach the end of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall – perhaps one of the longest halls I’ve ever walked! I must begin by admitting that I made two concerted attempts to get into this book, a fact I found really confounding. This Man Booker-winning novel (and its sequel) have not only been well received by the literary elite but have enjoyed enormous popular success. I’ve sat in packed auditoriums at writers’ festivals to see Mantel interviewed and questioned by crowds of adoring fans. And here was I, an avid and reasonably competent reader, struggling with it.
I’ve thought long and hard about this and hope that my reflections here might help others break through the barriers I encountered and enjoy Wolf Hall as much as I eventually did. Ultimately it is a triumph of the imagination – a rich and wonderful read.
Mantel’s decision to flesh out and champion the much maligned Thomas Cromwell at the expense of the romanticised figures of Anne Boleyn and Thomas Moore was not only brave but inspired. Cromwell is an interesting character in the Reformation saga – a man of exceptional intellect and political instincts operating in an environment where the wrong move or allegiance could cost you your head.
The fact that little is known about him gave Mantel broad licence. As she explains in a fabulous interview at the end of the book, she used the very sketchy historical record to imbue her Cromwell with an acerbic wit and humanism radical for his time. We see him as the hard and shadowy political fixer and bully, but also as a fiercely loyal and loving family man who has managed to rise above a humble and brutal childhood. We are privy to the sympathy and respect he feels for the discarded Queen Katherine and his anguish at the executions of various intellectuals charged with heresy. Even while he’s going about doing the King’s dirty work, smoothing the way for the royal divorce and Britain’s split from the Roman Catholic Church, characters like Queen Kathryn, her daughter Mary Tudor, Chapuys the French Ambassador and, at turns, Thomas More, are not immune to his charm.
“I shall be sorry if I don’t see you again,” Katherine tells him at one point, following her ejection from the court. “You are so much quicker in conversation than the dukes.” He has travelled to see her at her new estate to inform her of the terms of her divorce. This is one of many lively and wonderfully realised dialogues in the novel that give dimension and complexity to historical figures like Kathryn of Aragon and Anne Boleyn.
So what did I initially find so difficult and distancing about this book?
Firstly, it was the exceptionally intimate point of view. Intimate third person narration is nothing new for readers of contemporary fiction. However Mantel takes this concept to a new level. We so totally inhabit the character of Thomas Cromwell that she often feels it unnecessary to name him or even acknowledge his presence in the room. After reading entire pages of dialogue between King Henry and some other character, you suddenly come upon a paragraph told from the point of view of ‘he’. Which leads me to:
Wolf Hall – Reading Tip 1: the ‘he’ in this instance is always Thomas Cromwell.
Realise this from the outset and you’ll save yourself a lot of flustered re-reading. I did a straw poll among my friends and found an interesting dichotomy. Men didn’t seem so bothered by this nameless ‘he’ pronoun thing – some didn’t even notice it – while the women almost unanimously said it drove them nuts. About 200 pages in, it no longer bothered me. But do be aware of it and don’t let it get you down.
Wolf Hall – Reading Tip 2: Brush up on your Tudor history.
Mantel does assume an amount of historical knowledge, particularly the role of figures like Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas Cranmer, various Dukes etc. While most of us are familiar with what she describes in interviews as Britain’s favourite soap opera – The Six Wives of Henry VIII – a quick visit to Wikipedia helped me come to grips with the political events and characters portrayed in Wolf Hall. It provides a useful framework and adds to the dramatic tension to know the eventual fate of the characters as they appear, or the role they will eventually play in Cromwell’s own downfall. I would also suggest making good use of the list of characters and households at the front of the book. History is unforgiving when it comes to Christian names – there are eleven Thomases in Wolf Hall, seven Johns and a fair scattering of Henrys, Richards and Annes.
Neither does Mantel go out of her way to make things easier for you. Towards the end of the novel we are told that ‘Hans came to lunch’. A warm conversation ensues between Thomas and his guest but it was only when I checked the list of characters at the front that I realised we were lunching with Hans Holbein, the famous Tudor portraitist. Sigh – back I go to re-read the start of the chapter. It is probably consistent with Mantel’s strict adherence to the Cromwell point of view that she didn’t see fit to throw in a surname upfront but it’s a good example of how frustrating this novel can be.
Ultimately, however, I found Wolf Hall an extremely satisfying read. Mantel chooses to focus on a fascinating few years of history and breathes life into events and characters that have become diminished by their endless portrayal in film, documentary and lurid television drama. It was hard work at times but here I am, at the other end, looking forward to reading the sequel Bring up the Bodies.
Thank you so much Alison for sharing your review with us today. I look forward to the opportunity of sharing more of Alison’s reviews in the future.