Sunday, August 22, 2010

Wolf Hall (Historical Fiction)

Author: Hilary Mantel
Publication Date: 2009
Length: 532 Pages
Cost: $27.00 for the hardcover
Where Did I Hear About It: A combination of an interview on BBC Radio 3's Nightwaves program and an independent search for recent historical fiction led me to this book.

The Backstory

Thomas Cromwell, mysterious minister to Henry VIII, is the subject of this novel. The reader will see the events of the English court between 1527 and 1535 through his eyes, and through this lens, the reader will be more extensively introduced to a cast of characters often hovering in the background of other Tudor histories and novels. The reader meets Thomas More, Stephen Gardiner, Thomas Cranmer, and Cardinal Wolsey with a more intimate glimpse than ever before. It is Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Princess Mary, and Katherine of Aragon who are relegated to the background of the novel, even if the events surrounding them do drive its plot.

The novel begins with an event in Cromwell's youth--an escape from a brutally cruel, drunk father abroad where the reader learns later he becomes acquainted with business. In 1527, Cromwell is in Cardinal Wolsey's service, arguably the most powerful man in England at the time. Between the events surrounding Henry's attempt at divorce from Katherine and the introduction of Anne Boleyn, Wolsey is stripped of power and eventually condemned to die. Cromwell, because of his complex personality and ability to maneuver the court politics of the day, rises rather than falls after this, becoming Henry's chief minister. A growing murmur in the background is the dispute over the administration of the English church--Henry's usurpation of control from the Pope and the beginning of the dissolution of the monasteries under Cromwell's observation. The text is full of references to people and events of the day--even the references to food, gifts, and minor characters are essentially accurate, if not based on the best possible information.

The novel ends in 1535, focusing on the events of that year, including the execution of Thomas More.

What About The Book?

This is probably the most detailed, historically accurate portrait of Tudor England at this time that has been put into novel form. The research is exceptional, and Mantel finds a way to weave even the most insignificant events and people into the narrative. Mantel supplies a list of the different characters in the different parts of the book at the beginning of the novel, which is a help to those who do not know the history.

Unfortunately, this isn't a very compelling read. It took me a very, very long time to finish it, and often, I had to think to pick it up. Better novels draw the reader back to them in ways this one does not. I think the novel suffers from two main problems--a lack of endearing characters and the fact that it is a historian's historical fiction.

The characters aren't particularly interesting people. The choice of Thomas Cromwell is a unique one, and much to be applauded. However, you don't finish the novel feeling like you "know" him any better than you did when you started, and this may have been Mantel's intention. Seeing the events through Cromwell's eyes makes him fade into the background, and constant references to his unknown past, his "shady" character, are many, and do not draw the reader into this largely mysterious figure. Most of the figures that surround Cromwell on his own level feel very interchangeable--Wolsey could be traded for Gardiner or Cranmer, and the reader wouldn't notice the difference. One of the problems is the sheer volume of characters. This is accurate given how many people would have been a part of Cromwell's life, but it doesn't make for easy reading, especially for someone who doesn't know the history well. As a result, you don't get to know anyone at all, and it makes it hard to feel anything for the characters as they experience some of the difficulties of the times.

Mantel is interested in the history, and she writes it without sacrificing it to the action of the novel, which is something nearly everyone who writes anything fictitious about this time period does. I am very impressed by that. However, her focus on the history sacrifices a great deal of character development and description of place, of the setting. Most of the work is dialogue-based, so you don't get a sense of the scene at all, and informed readers can probably fill this void with what they know of the period. You don't even learn where the places most often visited by the main characters are in relation to each other. Because she wants to include all of the important events of the day, I think this leads her to incorporate many more characters than safely make up a novel that is readable to historians and non-historians alike.

The title, Wolf Hall, is an odd one, and this baffles me even to this point. Wolf Hall is the family home of the Seymour family, the family from which Henry VIII's third wife comes. Wolf Hall is referenced only a few times in the whole work, and although Seymours do appear now and again, this is well before their rise with Jane's marriage. There is a key reference at the end--one I won't spoil for those who may read this book--that was probably meant to imply the "future" that the novel doesn't cover, but I really think that this title falls very, very flat and even misleads the reader. When I first picked up the novel, I thought it was going to be about Henry's decision to be rid of Anne, his marriage to Jane, and the birth of his son, Edward. The book covers the period before this is even a thought, and I was surprised by that--I am sure I am not the only one who would be.

Rating: This is tough--as a novel, I'd probably give it a 6, but as a historical fiction that is actually historical, it gets a 9.
Buy It or Borrow It: Borrow it--given how much hype it has had, it will definitely be available somewhere accessible for you. However, if it starts to bore you, you may want to put it down rather than wait for the action to draw you back in because it won't. There is A LOT to admire here in the history and in fleshing out at least some of Cromwell, so it is more than worth a try.


Kittie Howard said...

Great review! Thanks for the honesty. Love books from this period. But I'll take your advice and get it from the library. Pilgrimchick, are you sending out pings? (Google Ping-o-matic if you're not, plse.) You don't show up on my blogroll. Your blog is fabulous, very articulate and well-written...don't want to miss it.

Know what you mean about lemon trees. I was enthralled, would stop during my walks and just look and smile.

Kittie Howard said...

Don't know why but my previous comment didn't take...did I forget to type in the scrambled word...hmmm? And you showed up on my blogroll, yay!! -- Anyway,love books from this era; appreciate your candor. Sometimes the authors drop the ball when historical info gets flimsy. -- And, thank you for your comment; I too am enthralled by lemon trees...something happy about them.