Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Wolf Hall - Rush out and buy it now.


I'm on record as being the sort of person who doesn't automatically rush out and buy the whole Man Booker shortlist. Or even the eventual winner. Actually, my automatic tendency is to curl a lip and think 'not for me, I think'. But I really did rush out and buy this year's winner – Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall.


I've read a couple of Hilary Mantel's other novels and been very impressed; also slightly at a loss to know why she isn't more widely read. But Wolf Hall knocks them into a cocked hat.

OK, I suppose it was a pretty fair bet that I'd like it – it's a historical literary novel – my absolutely favourite genre, if genre it be; but it is an absolutely cracking read.

I must admit I did groan slightly when I heard that it was about Thomas Cromwell – not another novel about the Tudors, I thought. But this is not another novel about the Tudors. This is very much a novel about Cromwell – who, as if his centrality needed emphasising, is 'he' throughout the text. I'm not sure Mantel ever refers to him as Cromwell herself after the first chapter – she lets other characters do that. And they do refer to him, a lot, though they're not always so polite as to call him Master Cromwell.

Because I'm fundamentally a medievalist and find other periods of history less compelling, I have to confess to not knowing a huge amount about Thomas Cromwell. OK, there's Hans Holbein's painting which makes him look like a toad - kind of sticks in the mind, though I can't say that he looks particularly like a murderer, an appearance several people accuse him of in the book. But then my knowledge runs out with CJ Sansom's rather machiavellian Cromwell in the Shardlake books and the nastier version in Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons. Bolt's play portrays Cromwell as the jealous, scheming villain who is out to bring down hero of the hour and popular saint, Sir Thomas More. Mantel does it the other way around and, I have to confess, I found her version more convincing. Bolt's More was heroic – yes – but chilly, too, as fanatics are prone to be. Mantel's Cromwell is anything but chilly – he is a humane pragmatist who combines a very street-smart kind of wisdom with a deep understanding of what makes individuals tick and a vast capacity for loyalty. Portrayed as unswervingly faithful to his patron and mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, even in the latter's downfall, Wolf Hall's Cromwell is a man it is very easy to like – as even the haughty and autocratic Duke of Norfolk discovers. And it is his commoner's disarming lack of personal vanity, coupled with an uncanny ability to make things happen for Henry which sees him rising up the notoriously greasy Tudor political pole.

It's not just Cromwell himself who is humane in Mantel's Tudor court. Unlike many other fictional Tudor-fests – both on TV and film as well as in novels – there are no monsters here; though Thomas More in his unyielding fanaticism and unlikeable treatment of his family comes close. Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk and Anne Boleyn's uncle, is usually presented as, essentially, a ruthlessly ambitious pimp of his neices. Whilst Hilary Mantel doesn't let him off this particular hook of accusation neither does she major on it, allowing us to see Norfolk as a rather more human character, one whose initial antipathy to Cromwell is worn down by the latter's sheer, unremitting competence and utter failure to pretend to be other than he is.

On the whole, it's the women who come off worst. Whilst in Cromwell's immediate household (a wonderful place – a cross between a job centre and a refuge) the women are feisty, opinionated and generally full of the usual human foibles, those at court are an unappealing bunch. Chief amongst them, of course, is Miss Unappealing 1533 herself, Anne Boleyn. Mantel's Anne is calculating, selfish, ambitious, jealous and ruthless. It will be interesting to see whether she can – or indeed wants to – generate any sympathy for La Ana, as the French ambassador calls her, in the sequel to Wolf Hall.

Jane Seymour – whose destiny the reader knows, as the characters do not – emerges as a the only kind woman at court and as someone Thomas Cromwell has more than a passing interest in. And it is the Seymours' family seat in Wiltshire that gives the book its name. This confused me, initially, as Wolf Hall itself receives very little attention in the book beyond the recounting of a notorious and quasi-incestuous scandal which took place there. Then I realised – Wolf Hall would actually be a wonderful alter ego name for the Tudor court where, as Cromwell says on more than one occasion homo homini lupus – man is a wolf to man.

Unlike many historical political novels Wolf Hall takes zero time to get into. We are plunged in to Cromwell's abused childhood and, within a few pages, he has fled his brutal father and packed himself off to the continent to make his fortune, returning in the next chapter after a decade and a half as Cardinal Wolsey's right hand man. At first, I thought this opening chapter was simply an attention-grabbing device on Hilary Martel's part but, as the book progresses, you realise that she is making the reader privy – as nobody else in the book is except Cromwell himself and his despised family – to the truth about his origins. Wolsey, obviously delighted with his diamond in the rough protege, has told numerous scurrilous stories about Cromwell's upbringing and it's amusing to see who has been told what and who has believed what. But then, it becomes increasingly clear, as the book progresses, that it is possible to believe anything of the king's fixer.
Thomas More says of him 'Lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning, and when you come back that night he'll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks' tongues, and all the gaolers will owe him money.' He has the knack of knowing what to do, who to placate, who to threaten, who to pay off, in any given situation. And he does it with charm and wit and we love him. That's why over 600 pages in his company still feels insufficient.

The priviliged-information trick of the opening chapter is hardly Hilary Mantel's only clever device. The whole book is an object lesson in historical fiction writing. She manages to convey a flavour of the speech of the time without ever resorting to gadzookery or making it feel anything less than fresh and authentic. You can hear the characters speaking, they're then and they're now – it's the true historical writer's trick.

And how does she manage to encompass so much politicking, so much grandeur, so much intrigue in 672 pages and still write a book which feels so light of touch? Answer – she never labours a point, sometimes she barely makes a point, allowing the reader the satisfaction of grasping what she is talking about without having it spelled out. Time and place are beautifully conveyed but in the small details of recipes, lacings, books; a hanging here, a painting there. I was dribblingly grateful to be spared endless details of what everybody was wearing – Wolf Hall has no acres of velvet, seas of brocade nor bushels-full of seed pearls - only occasionally do we get an insight into what people are wearing and it's always relevant, always tells us something about the character.

So as to help the narrative and the reader along, Mantel also surrounds Cromwell with younger men (as I'm sure he would have himself) which means that he always has a reason – other than the need to explain things to the reader, I mean – to unpack what's going on, what he's thinking, why he's doing what he's doing.

I could go on but that would involve going and getting the book and prising it from the Other Half's desperate fingers, so I will stop and just urge you to go and buy Wolf Hall – now, don't wait for it to come out in paperback, it's the sort of book (and I rarely say this) that you need to own in hardback. Except, as I know to my cost, that it's ruinously heavy for reading unobtrusively in bed...

If all Man Booker prize winners were this good, I'd be waiting on the bookshop's doorstep on shortlist morning, ready to devour the lot.

12 comments:

Tim Stretton said...

Alis, I was going to wait for the paperback (especially as not all MNWers loved it as much as you) but your review is swaying me.

It's hard to imagine the book won't push most of my buttons. It's not out in paperback until me and the hardback is only £8.54 on Amazon...

Alis said...

Yikes - who didn't love it? I need to quickly round up some MNW blogs!

Aliya Whiteley said...

It was me, Alis. I hated it. I couldn't even finish it.

(Stands alone on the 'hating Wolf Hall' ferry and waves fornlornly to her friends on the dock...)

Tim Stretton said...

Another writer friend gave up halfway through too. Clearly it divides opinion!

Alis said...

Aliya - why did you hate it so much?
Tim - why did your friend hate it?
I'm fascinated...

Aliya Whiteley said...

I am so over the whole Henry VIII thing, and the idea that delicate political machinations are taking place by men with enormous brains.

I spose I found her idea of Thomas Cromwell a bit impenetrable and unrealistic, and I felt that I was being led through a series of underdeveloped vignettes rather than through any kind of meaty character study. Everything felt skimpy to me.

And I'm utterly fed up of the idea of Anne Boleyn as some temptress. Blah. I didn't feel the book said anything new about that period. But then, I didn't finish it. And who needs new? Just me, apparently.

It's unlike me to really hate something. I'm quite surprised at myself.

Frances Garrood said...

Hmmm. Do I read it now, or don't I?
I know I have mixed feelings about Mantel, but it's so long since I read any that I can't remember why...

Aliya Whiteley said...

And - now I'm on a roll - I didn't like the way the narrative moved through time periods, which felt like a writerly trick. I didn't get a feeling of flow because of that.

And it felt cerebral rather than emotional. I like books that make me feel emotional.

I'll shut up now.

Alis said...

Hmmm.. I suppose I quite admired the writerly tricks, so clearly I'm more easily impressed than you - one of the things I struggle with is getting over the whole passage of time thing.

As for Anne Boleyn - didn't her sheer unpleasantness make you react emotionally - it did me - I wanted to give her a slap!

In our family, the sort of person she is always generates the response - NAS - needs a slap...

Frances Garrood said...

After all that, I've decided I won't read it. Thanks, folks.

Tim Stretton said...

To counterbalance Frances, I have moved this up my reading schedule.

I've read a bit too much Philippa Gregory over the past 18 months but I'm hoping this will refresh the Tudors for me.

Alis said...

Hi Frances - glad to have been of service!

Hi Tim - I'm a fan of Philippa Gregory's but I know what you mean about reading too much. You'll certainly find this different in both tone and attitude to the different characters. I do hope you enjoy it after my hearty endorsement!