“What Is There, But Affairs?” Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall”

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel
Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

Just Google for reviews of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. The critical response to this historical novel has been rapturous: everyone seems agreed that it is a staggering achievement, a historical novel of rare scope and humanity. Diana Athill thinks that the book boasts a better imagined world than any book since Middlemarch. This is some praise. So why was my experience of the novel not quite so enjoyable?

In part, no doubt, it’s because I can’t entirely get on board with its historiography. The book builds on the early positions I described last week, until it’s clear that Cromwell is an ambivalent figure: modern, yes, but largely because of his lack of belief. Those around Cromwell are characterised by an allegiance to a system: More’s Catholicism, Norfolk’s feudalism, Wolsey’s royalism. Cromwell, on the other hand, has an almost Nietzschean approach. “I distrust all systematizers, ” wrote the philosopher, “and I avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.” Mantel’s Cromwell likewise believes in personal respect and education, a fully humanist perspective which sets him at odds with the medievalised England to which he is born. Mantel sees his meritocratic rise – from smith’s son to soldier, trader to merchant, lawyer to Lord Chancellor – as a symbol of the birth of our modern age.

He doesn’t give birth alone: Wolsey builds the apparatus of the state, Cranmer creates the intellectual and theological space for Cromwell’s actions. But these men are not the novel’s focus. So tightly is the novel about Cromwell that it is written in the present tense, with a reliance on the third person: Cromwell is always ‘he’, like God. Like a deity, Cromwell is in the process of creation, of forging modern England. This is a valorising of the traditional view of Cromwell as venal and self-serving, his lack of principle turned into a virtuous absence of dogma. But it also places him to one side of his own period – time and again, he is used a sort of counterpoint to the Henrican court which never truly accepts him – and yet undboutedly Cromwell’s opinions and actions were products of that age. His dissolution of the monasteries was less the inauguration of a brave new world than an implicit adjustment to its terms.

So the novel’s central project feels anachronistic to me: it is shrouded in witty dialogue and some nicely alien set pieces which add versimilitude, but ultimately it never quite feels real. I’m fairly sure this is unfair on the book, and I wish I could feel differently. The novel emphasises its unreality, floating past in dreamy vignettes which succeed each other in a sort of trance-like passage of events. This isn’t history. And yet nor is it quite fiction: there are no passages of elaborate description or internal monologue, no attempts at rigorous characterisation. The figures enter and exit the stage very much in the style of reanimated historical personages: the novel expects us to know something of the story of Anne Boleyn, wants us to join in with a knowing wink and a nod of the head. It cannot claim to be doing its own heavy lifting; and yet it treats the material on which it relies with a cavalier detachment, all Cromwellian justification to the point of the creation of a Mary Sue.

It Is He
It Is He

Undoubtedly, there is much to like about this novel: an intelligent exploration of power, a lovely new version of a familiar story, and a depiction of politics which rescues the politician-as-human-being. Many important events pass in a paragraph; others, far more mundane, take pages. That focus on Cromwell is the beating heart of the book, and if you buy it the novel works. If, like me, you don’t, then the narrative starts to falter. The modern age to which Cromwell plays midwife is indeed a hall of wolves: full of rapacious apetites and unfathomable agendas, no longer governed by a system and home to mere ambition. I like this idea, and yet it is hung so entirely upon its questionable depiction of one man, and fanned so thinly across its other characters and their own stories, that it doesn’t work for me.

Perhaps all this represents an exciting experiment in the historical novel. On the other hand, it risks reading a tad portentously: Cromwell is mythologised whilst the novel tries to pretend to realism. In responding so vigorously to A Man for All Seasons, Mantel has perhaps fallen into the trap of beatifying Cromwell too much. Maybe I’m missing something, but however complex and peopled her tale, it never attains the depth of Middlemarch, a novel which gave each of its voices equal weight. Wolf Hall is instead a fabulation with borrowed supporting structures: a doorstop of a book which ultimately has room for only one perspective. If you like that perspective – and most seem to – then you’ll love the book. I, on the other hand, am a mere curmudgeon: for me, Wolf Hall is ultimately an interesting, but unconvincing, read. The Little Stranger remains my favoured candidate for the Booker.

8 thoughts on ““What Is There, But Affairs?” Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall”

  1. I like the way your reproduction of the Holbien Cromwell portrait makes it look like a polaroid photo from 1970s.

    I disagree with about 75% of this post, although my disagreement is one of emphasis rather than fundamentals. Plus: ‘ The Little Stranger remains my favoured candidate for the Booker.’ Have you read em all?

  2. The Little Stranger has the dubious honour of being my favoured candidate between it and, er, Wolf Hall. I bet Waters is jumping for joy as we type.

    Would be really interested to read (here or elsewhere) about our differences of emphasis in more detail…

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