Hilary Mantel certainly doesn’t need any help or favourable reviews from me for her work: she’s wowed all the professional critics and absolutely dominated the literary scene over the last few years, scooping up pretty much every major award going with her most recent two novels, Wolf Hall and its sequel Bring Up The Bodies, both set in the court of King Henry VIII.
Usually, the label ‘award winning’ when applied to a novel is a clear sign that it’s not my type of book and that I should steer well clear: I tend to go for the sort of genre fiction that awards committees wouldn’t look twice at (thrillers, mysteries, science fiction, that sort of thing.) Nor did the subject matter appeal to me, since if there’s one tale in history that’s been done to death over the years in various page and screen adaptations then it has to be the tale of England’s much-married 16th century monarch.
So how was it from such unpromising signs and portents, that I ended up reading this book? Well, I blame George RR Martin. I’ve recently finally been drawn into the world of Game of Thrones and become mildly obsessive about it, but I have an aversion to reading the books so soon after seeing a TV adaptation (or vice verse) so when it came to finding a book to read while waiting for the new HBO episodes I went looking for something “similar to Game of Thrones.” You might think that meticulously researched historical faction couldn’t be further from Martin’s fantasy world of Westeros, but you would be wrong: the thing that appealed to me about Game of Thrones is that it’s not a story stuffed full of orcs, goblins and elves but instead takes its inspiration more from the medieval War of the Roses and its aftermath than it does from anything in Tolkien’s writings.
That was enough to get me to download the e-book ‘sneak peek’ of the first pages of Wolf Hall, even though I wasn’t expecting much. Instead, it gripped me from the very first line, and the hold only grew as I read on.
That all-important first chapter is a prologue back to the central character’s childhood years: the person in question being one Thomas Cromwell, a man not usually served well in previous tellings of the Henry VIII story. He’s usually seen as some dark, malevolent Svengali at the heart of the royal court, an English Machiavelli who somehow rises from the humblest of beginnings to become the right hand of the most powerful person in the country besides the king, the Archbishop of Canterbury Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. That’s a feat in itself for Cromwell; but then when Wolsey falls out of favour and dies in disgrace, Cromwell somehow not only survives the disaster but thrives to become if anything even more powerful than his mentor, emerging as Master Secretary running the entire country on Henry’s behalf.
Since Mantel is writing this story from Cromwell’s perspective, we see the man who is usually portrayed as the dark, bruising presence in the shadows as a thoroughly human being, beset by the same worries and flaws and tragedies and desires as any other. Mantel explains his almost supernatural rise to the top of England’s power game via his mercurial intelligence and voracious appetite for knowledge, his rigorous pragmatism and his almost limitless patience: only once in the entire book does his temper erupt and get the better of him. Cromwell the Putney blacksmith’s son with ‘the face of a murderer’ is shown as an astute modern politician and people manager, but also a man who plays surprisingly fair with those around him – even enemies who deserve far less. This might be an overly kind to him given the known facts and a rather biased way of presenting Cromwell, but every person should be the hero of their own story and so here it feels right; and in any case, even the most cruel and mean of adversaries in this story are themselves shown more sympathetically that you usually find in black and white retellings of the story. Cromwell can see the good in all, but also the searingly bad: he can weigh up the amount of each and come to a price for the whole, then present the resulting bill of goods at just the right moment to leverage to perfection his own plans. These plans lay the foundations of a more modern England arising from the shambles of the farmyard and slums that Cromwell was raised in. In Mantel’s telling, Cromwell is the man responsible for taking England out of the hands of priests and feudal lords and starting the process of making it instead a land of laws and parliamentary rule.
Wolf Hall is the story of Cromwell’s early fall under Wolsey and then his rise to greatness in his own right, which is inexorably linked to the story of Henry’s obsession with Anne Boleyn. That sets the king on a course to void his marriage with Queen Catherine even at the cost of a schism with the Pope who forbids the divorce. Along the way, first Wolsey and then his replacement as the king’s right hand – the mercilessly devout Sir Thomas More, usually the hero of the tale – are among the casualties. But Cromwell is shown as the one man who can bend to the wind and ally himself with whomsoever he needs, even those who did down Wolsey – while at the same time never forgiving the debt of honour owed. The book finishes with Henry and Anne married but the cracks already beginning to show: and Cromwell setting the itinerary for the king’s summer hunting party that will – the final page notes – finish with the king and Cromwell stopping over at the Wiltshire home of the Seymour family, which will trigger a fateful meeting between Henry and the daughter of the house. The daughter is Jane and the name of the Seymour home is Wolf Hall, almost the first time it is mentioned in over five hundred pages. By its own title, the book is now consciously positioned as a post-modern prologue for the convulsive bloody aftermath to follow.
When the story of King Henry VIII is told, it’s invariably this early part – Henry, Catherine, Anne, Wolsey and More – that is the most well-known focus. In the history books, Cromwell comes in toward the end, after More, just when the storyteller’s attention is beginning to wane and he just wants to get through the final details and finish up. Hence Cromwell and the new Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Thomas Cranmer tend to lose out to the first duet of Thomases, and the queens that follow Catherine and Anne similarly tend to get short shrift as understudies to the former leading ladies. Mantel’s genius in this novel is to reposition the focus on the middle of the tale via Cromwell, allowing him to still recount the earlier tale through his fresh take on the familiar main protagonists while also pulling us into the next stage with as fresh an enthusiasm for developments as ever we had for the first.
Mantel’s evocation of England c.1535 is a beguiling and engrossing one: if the purpose of literature is to take you to worlds and show you experiences you otherwise wouldn’t have then Wolf Hall achieves this in spades. As you read on, it’s almost easier to think of the court of King Henry as more real than the world outside your real life front door, it’s that beautifully conveyed. The book uses modern language so that archaic speech is never a barrier, and the details similarly never get in the way of what at heart is a cracking good yarn. But nor does the writing take any prisoners: you’ll need your wits about you to keep with who’s who and what’s going on at any given stage.
That’s especially because Mantel breaks more than a few of the rules of ‘good writing’ along the way – not least the choice of title, which as mentioned is far more a promise of the second book to come rather than anything to do the one in your hands. Chapters can vary from a couple of pages in length to over a hundred; scenes can jump almost at random between times and locations, back and forth with dizzying speed and not always well signposted. Flashbacks within flashbacks can take you back in time a week, a month, a decade or a century with such alacrity that your head will spin, nesting dolls that still expect you to keep everything straight along the way and pick up where you left off. At the same time, there are shadows and nods to the future around every corner to keep you on your toes in the other direction. And it can be bafflingly hard at times to work out who is speaking at any given time, as ‘he’ can refer to any one of three or four participants in a scene and Mantel seems to almost wilfully delight in obfuscating just who it is at any given moment.
Is this ‘bad’ writing? Your high school English language teacher would have given you hell to pay for writing in such a slapdash manner when you were 11 or 12 and surely demanded you rewrite your essay more formally following rules of grammar and structure. But Mantel hasn’t won all those awards for nothing, and the book demonstrates the difference between someone who doesn’t know the rules and breaks them through ignorance, and a true mistress of the art who knows the rules full well to the extent that she can bend them to her will and make them fluid in a way that frees the story from such petty concerns and allow the language to fly free. In the end you no longer care specially who ‘he’ is that is speaking, because it doesn’t matter: you’re there in the room with them, everyone talking at once. It might even be you saying the words, it hardly makes a difference: the scene is alive in your mind, playing out with the vigour and vibrancy of any high definition motion picture.
As I think is clear by what I’ve written to this point, I consider Wolf Hall to be a quite magnificent and extraordinary literary achievement; a book that had me mesmerised throughout and left me feeling almost bereaved to have finished – even knowing that (after a bit of a break!) there is already a second novel to consume, and then still another that Mantel is writing to finish the trilogy. Wolf Hall is a book that works as historical fiction and character study, but also as a political thriller and absorbing study of the wielding of power and of religious faith, all wrapped in a dangerous and claustrophobic tension where sudden death awaits any misstep to those paying the game. Overall, it’s as potent a fantasy world as anything that Tolkien, Martin et al could possibly devise, proof indeed that historical truth can be far stranger, more powerful and gripping than even the most inspired imaginings; at least, it is when brought to us by an author so completely on top of her own game of thrones.
Don’t be put off reading Wolf Hall and its sequel(s) because of the ‘award-winning’ aura of the books: for once, they have it right. There is little else in the current literary scene to compare. In fact – and I really didn’t expect to say this – all those fantastic awards still haven’t yet done Hilary Mantel nearly enough justice.
Wolf Hall is currently out in paperback, as well as all main e-book formats including Kindle and iBook. Bring Up the Bodies is currently out in hardback and will be published in paperback on May 7, 2013. It is also available in e-book formats. Both books are being adapted for television by the BBC to be shown in six-parts later in 2013. The third book in the Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, is currently being written.