Sunday, November 17, 2013
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
In Ford Madox Ford's The Fifth Queen, Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's chief advisor, is a shrewd, conniving man who works tirelessly to discredit and destroy Catholics in England. In Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Cromwell is equally shrewd and cunning, but with a golden heart to boot. Ford’s Cromwell is a self-serving Machiavel; Mantel’s grieves for his dead wife and children, serves his king out of loyalty and perhaps love, and feels remorse for Thomas More’s public execution.
Unfortunately, Mantel’s Cromwell is also pretty dull. She works hard to rehabilitate his image, but why? Why, for instance, does Mantel feel the need to provide for Cromwell no fewer than four different “son” characters to act out his fatherly wisdom on? Why do we need to know that he had an abusive father? Ford’s vision of Cromwell makes sense in light of his Catholic dogmatism, but what is it that Mantel wants to say about the Reformation, or God, or human beings? Maybe there are answers to these questions, but the book is such a muddle that it hardly seems worth trying to pry them out. (The passage I quoted above is, I think, one really nice exception to that muddle-ness.)
Part of what makes Wolf Hall such a difficult experience is its insistence on historical completeness. The bare bones of Cromwell’s story are pretty fascinating: His intimacy with his predecessor, Cardinal Wolsey, hounded out of office by Henry for failure to procure a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. His role in the break from Rome and the establishment of Anne Boleyn as queen. His struggle with More over the Oath of Succession, and the hand he has in his execution. But these moments get lost in a torrent of historical minutiae and a superflux of historical characters. The cast is so enormous that Mantel provides a reference table in the front in case you forget who is Thomas Wolsey and who is Thomas Wriothesley and who is Thomas Audley. (Also, cracking jokes about how the world seems to be made up of people named Thomas doesn’t make it any clearer.) I understand the rationale behind being faithful to history, but this is a novel, and not a textbook; so many of these people occupy such similar niches that deciphering the plot can be maddening. Mantel’s writing is accomplished, but trying to differentiate all these characters through voice and description is a task only Shakespeare or Dickens could tackle.
So there’s six hundred pages of that, and then you realize: There are two sequels. This story’s only a third of the way done! Who, outside of the most devoted early modernist, has the energy to pick up the next novel, Bringing Up the Bodies, after making it through Wolf Hall? Not I. Which is a shame, because like a lot of people, I think the story of Henry VIII’s life is fascinating. Maybe I’ll just start watching The Tudors instead.