Wolf Hall
Wolf Hall
Hilary Mantel
Henry Holt and Co., 2009
560 pp., $35.00

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Alan Jacobs

Past Present

What is historical fiction?

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The first thing that I must say about Wolf Hall is that I did not enjoy it nearly as much as I had hoped to, though my discontent has nothing to do with Mantel's imaginative reconstruction of history. The problem is pronouns. Consider these sentences from a discussion between the book's protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, and his patron and employer Cardinal Wolsey (more about them in a moment):

He used to say, "The king will do such and such." Then he began to say, "We will do such and such." Now he says, "This is what I will do."
"But what will happen to the queen?" he asks.

I understood as I read that the first three pronouns refer to Wolsey; only after reading another hundred words or so did I realize that the fourth "he" is Cromwell. Another example: "He says something, the cardinal says something. They break off. Two sentences go nowhere. The cardinal resumes his chair. He hesitates before him; he sits down." And: "He's always sending him bills that he believes he's paid; I need a household accountant, he thinks."

There are dozens of passages like this in Wolf Hall. Again and again I had to go back and re-read passages to figure out who was speaking to whom (or who was thinking what). In every case I managed to figure it out—I think—but not without paying a price in frustration and loss of attentiveness. I understand why Mantel does this: she writes consistently from Cromwell's point of view, and the pronoun distances us from him less than the use of his name does. But the book reads as though it had been written in the first person and then, at the last minute, shifted to the third. If I had not agreed to write about Wolf Hall, I might not have finished it, despite its many merits. Given the accolades the book has received, it can't be that many readers have shared my annoyance, but book reviewers are human too; thus this confession.

That said, let us set the context for the book. It begins with a kind of prologue in the year 1500, as a poor boy named Thomas Cromwell is being beaten and kicked by his drunken lout of a father. Thomas determines to leave home and seek his fortune as a soldier on the Continent, and sets off—but when we meet him again, on the next page, 27 years have passed, and he is now an intimate personal agent of Thomas Wolsey, the Lord Chancellor of England, also Archbishop of York and a Cardinal of the church—the most powerful man in the country with the signal exception of the king, Henry VIII. Gradually, but only gradually, we learn that Cromwell has been in Wolsey's service for several years; that he is fluent in several languages; that he had lived long in Italy, and prefers that land to England; that he is a lawyer; that he was once a Member of Parliament; perhaps most intriguingly, that he knows the whole of the New Testament by heart.

It is important that Mantel begins her narrative in 1527, because that year marked the beginning of Wolsey's decline: despite his many and great services to the king, he could never procure an annulment of Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon. This was Henry's great goal—he was determined to marry Anne Boleyn, whom he was convinced would bear him a son—and Wolsey's failure to make that happen led to his dismissal, his arrest, and eventually his death. (He died while traveling from Yorkshire to London to face charges of treason.)

During the years of his power, Wolsey knew all there was to know about the inner workings of Court and Church, but less elevated regions of society were beyond his immediate scrutiny, and in Mantel's telling of the tale, this largely explains his employment of Thomas Cromwell. In the 27 years that span our first and second views of Cromwell, he had lived several lives, none of them especially respectable; and he knew intimately certain social sectors, all of them requiring knowledge of law and skill with money, over which the Cardinal Lord Chancellor of England required mastery. Cromwell's past is revealed to us only sporadically, chiefly through the man's fragmentary memories.

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