Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, is a masterpiece. It is one of the best books I will ever read.
I know this because I’ve lost count of the times I’ve paused over a page, muttered ‘Fuck off’ at the sheer and dazzling quality and control of the form and the narrative, and then carried on reading, a little bit sick at the work I still have to do, learning how to tell a story.
It charts the rise of its protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, in the court of Henry VIII; a rise that parallels that of Anne Boleyn’s. His role in her ascent is presented as instrumental in both their fortunes.
The book’s principle achievement for me is its intimacy with Cromwell, and this is made brilliant only partly by the fact that Mantel has effortlessly gotten inside a man’s head (OK, OK, so it’s not that difficult to understand men…). The achievement resides also in the subtle and consistent feat of the narrator’s eye being subjective and thus unreliable, while in the third person. The third person voice presents views on events and imaginative leaps beyond them in a warm, almost conversational way. Yet to read it, they could easily be Cromwell’s own thoughts, though they are never directly attributed to him. That his thoughts are also directly presented suggests a distinction, but that’s all it does. Thus we have a quite original mechanism by which wider musings on the characters and world are presented as (probably) coming from Cromwell or an intimately knowledgeable contemporaneous biographer/confidante.
The unreliability is apparent in the way that throughout the novel there is a clear dissonance between everyone’s fear of Cromwell, at one telling point even the King’s, and Cromwell’s own repeated acts of clemency, charity and loyalty. He comes across as a hard working and decent man who, with casual and rather glossed over asides, keeps a personal ledger of those that have wronged him, or are indebted to him and those who owe him favours. He takes on wards and sees them set up well for their lives, while feeding those waiting around at the gates to his house. He strives to be a mediator in the various conflicts around the court, particularly with the ousted Mary and Katherine, various heretics and the wider Catholic Church, but there is very little sense of a chip on the shoulder at their attitude to the ‘blacksmith’s boy’ from Putney. Even in his triumph, he alludes only to little more than a chuckle at how Henry’s displays of affection before Norfolk, Suffolk and others, renders them so angry. Yet his loyalty to Wolsey earned such opprobrium and the threat of ruin, that a stronger retribution would have seemed more honest. Clearly we have a faux-objective viewpoint coloured by his own perception, and, interestingly, how our narrator chooses to cultivate that with us, the readers.
Yet this third person narrator, perhaps because of the intimacy, gets into the heart of him on occasion. One such moment is beautifully rendered, as he contemplates a large gilded star and angel’s wings that would be brought out at Christmas when his children were around:
“This year no one has the heart to hang up the star, but he visits it in its lightless store room. He slides off the canvas leaves that protect its rays, and checks that they are unchipped and unfaded…from a peg hangs angel’s wings. He touches them. His finger comes away dusty. He shifts his candle out of danger, then lifts them from the peg and gently shakes them. They make a soft sound of hissing, and a faint amber perfume washes into the air.”
I loved the above particularly for the play on rays of light being sheathed or having the potential to be chipped. The narrator has found Cromwell at Christmas, in a dark room he keeps locked, mourning days gone by, the discarded nativity costumes and decorations. It reinforces him as a family man, and the opposite of his own father, who beat him mercilessly (the opening line, as he is being beaten, is as memorable as Moby Dick’s).
Mantel at times playfully exploits, as in the quote below, this indistinct narrator. Here she weaves in a dream of the future which reminded me of Alan Moore’s From Hell, where the Ripper imagines himself in a twentieth century office that he of course doesn’t recognise as such. Is Mantel here giving Cromwell to muse on a digital future?
“Suppose within every book there is another book, and within every letter on every page another volume constantly unfolding; but these volumes take no space on the desk. Suppose knowledge could be reduced to a quintessence, held within a picture, a sign, held within a place which is no place.”
These thoughts aren’t attributed to him, and there are many such asides that Mantel uses because they appear to unfold for us perspectives about Cromwell or perhaps by him.
There are far too many examples of how strong Mantel’s prose is to list here, barring a last one below. The prose of course is in service to the story and the intimate events between the main characters that shape the wider events. It’s something Mantel specifically points out at one point later in the book; how, among other things, the sigh of skin on skin in the bedchamber may rule the fortunes of kingdoms and whether or not they go to war. Cromwell’s ascent, the moment of his upward spiral, comes when the King calls him and Gardiner to his quarters after an appalling nightmare. Cromwell’s quick thinking interprets the dream inversely to the King’s frightened vision of his downfall, remaking it a vision of his authority to rule, a call to be bold. It is a pivotal moment, a single conversation out of the blue in a bedchamber, that changes everything for him.
I am sure that every other serious writer of historical fiction has to work incredibly hard on their research. This post may betray my lack of such reading before Wolf Hall, but Mantel’s command of the research, the nuanced ways in which it is referenced in these conversations and thoughts of Cromwell embeds the reader solidly in the houses and streets and crowds of this novel. The command she has of the place, the milieu of the story, is expressed easily, again, as though she is a contemporary, an effect that reinforces my view of the narration. These are hard yards for any writer. The outcome can rarely be so exquisite.
I’ll leave this post with the most perfect description of England, then or now, I’ve ever read. It can fuck off and all…
“Who will swear the hobs and boggarts who live in the hedges and the hollow trees, and the wild men who hide in the woods? Who will swear the saints in their niches, and the spirits that cluster at holy wells rustling like fallen leaves, and the miscarried infants dug into unconsecrated ground: all those unseen dead who hover around forges and village hearths, trying to warm their bare bones? For they too are his countrymen: the generations of the uncounted dead, breathing through the living, stealing their light from them, the bloodless ghosts of lord and knave, nun and whore, the ghosts of priest and friar that feed on living England and suck the substance from the future.”