Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel: Book Review

Her Ladyship commits the not-uncommon indiscretion of reading Wolf Hall after Bring Up The Bodies, and begins to think, as she does sometimes.

Though Hilary Mantel’s publishers do her the great disservice of plastering the back cover and spine of her masterpiece with recommendations from two ludicrous sources who know less about literature than Sherlock Holmes on a good day (Kate Mosse and The Daily Mail); there is absolutely nothing else wrong with Wolf Hall. While Bring Up The Bodies resembles a hard, tightened fist, and a stunning, plummeting fall (or rise); Wolf Hall is like the hilly country of an open hand. It leads us on a merry chase across the years; racing ahead and occasionally doubling back on itself in its mercurial, yet impeccably-controlled portrayal of the rise to power of Henry VIII’s formidable First Minister, Thomas Cromwell.

Like its illustrious successor, Wolf Hall is sparse, but sprawling; sparse in its descriptions of externals, and sprawling in its characterisation; relying on reader imagination to drape the appropriate characters in silks, velvets, gold and jewels and only taking to the descriptions of such things when they reflect something about the character’s internal state. It is in the vivid representation of this internal state that Mantel’s true genius lies, as she takes us right into the heart of a man largely considered to be one of the cut-glass villains of Henry VIII’s reign and gives him his own voice. It is an extraordinary voice.

A powerful, distinctive and almost compulsively interesting protagonist, Mantel’s Cromwell is one of those characters that you constantly wish you could plonk down somewhere and talk to for hours. He is a man with a string of faces and identities that stem from the multiple countries, languages and cultures he has known from adolescence, yet he is also, firmly, himself; the beautiful, resounding ‘he, Cromwell’: a man in a perpetual state of learning and observing, but with a natural gift for applying that learning to intrigue, organised thought and getting his hands dirty that cannot be taught. He is fiercely well-educated and ruthless, but is just as fiercely human; his humanity not only extending to his family life, but to the way he constantly talks to people as he has had to do all his life; how he takes in, trains and raises up young men from nowhere in every part of his household that can be imagined; taking the time to identify each one’s particular gifts and to prepare them for the day that they may be called out of the kitchen and into the counting house; as he was as a young man. One of the best things about him, especially upon entering Henry VIII’s service, is his refusal to make pretensions at nobility or to claim to be from any other part of society than the one he stems from. He’s used to his descent being constantly ridiculed, but one nevertheless gets the feeling that he’s got a little black book somewhere up his sleeve, along with the knowledge that being a blacksmith’s son doesn’t stop you from ruling the world; even if everyone else is intent on thinking so.

As an author, Mantel has the rare ability to convey great passion, sadness and complexity through minimal, yet beautiful prose; stripping Tudor England down to the raw, violent blackness of its inherent self without accoutrements and without excessive romanticism; dispensing with appearances and leaving us with the truth; the insides; the organs; the blood of its characters and its era. The high quality of the prose works together with the glorious experience of seeing Tudor England through the eyes of such a fascinating and utterly unusual man to create a mesmerising read that draws you in from the very first page and makes it difficult to put Wolf Hall down until you’ve finished it.

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Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (Review)

‘Statements, indictments, bills are circulated, shuffled between judges, prosecutors, the Attorney General, the Lord Chancellor’s office; each step in the process clear, logical, and designed to create corpses by due process of law. George Rochford will be tried apart, as a peer; the commoners will be tried first. The order goes to the Tower, ‘Bring Up the bodies.’ Deliver, that is, the accused men, by name Weston, Brereton, Smeaton and Norris, to Westminster Hall for trial.’

Hilary Mantel is one of those rare writers with such an exquisite ability to tell a story in the present tense that you spend most of her narrative blissfully unaware that she’s doing it at all. It is through this remarkable gift that Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel to Wolf Hall and the second book in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy, achieves everything that present tense writing is supposed to achieve, without all that tedious mucking-about in the suspense-driven, overly-staccato and pointlessly exhausting drivel that usually results when an author tries to do this without having the slightest idea how to do it properly. Mantel makes us live Thomas Cromwell, our extraordinary protagonist, and see things not just from his perspective but from within his consciousness – constantly on our toes, constantly watching, constantly questioning, and constantly doing whatever we must, hour to hour, minute to minute, to cement our position as Henry VIII’s new chief minister during the fall of Anne Boleyn, and to always serve our country well. Our lives often come to resemble an out-of-body experience as we twist and turn and adapt to the characteristics of each person we plot with or against. We are helped along by steering clear of strong emotion; doing this helps us to think clearly; but regrettably, like everyone else, we’re human, and sometimes; not often, but sometimes; cracks start to appear; and disappear just as quickly. And in the midst of all this there is England; a country reeling under the uncertainty of a new faith that is also the uncertainty of an old identity; England that is threatened and England that must be governed. And there is always Henry. He needs to be governed too.

Mantel’s Cromwell has the strongest and most distinctive narrative voice since Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day; a charisma so powerful that it seems to rise off the page, but that is also unassuming and incredibly subtle; the charisma of a listener, not a talker; the charisma of a man observing his world from the inside, but also from the outside; an intelligent, cosmopolitan and multilingual blacksmith’s son in the midst of the aristocracy, who understands his surroundings, but will never succeed in getting his surroundings to understand him.

Through Cromwell’s steady and penetrating gaze, the gorgeous furnishings, costumes and pomp and circumstance of the traditional costume drama are stripped right down to the bone, and we understand, while watching the Boleyns’ fall through Cromwell’s eyes, that this period in history was never really about magnificent houses or beautiful costumes at all; but about the people who lived inside them, and what the landscapes beneath their skin actually looked like. The prose is perfect, the characterisation a work of genius, and the enormous cast of characters prodigiously juggled in a way that makes each pawn in its game distinctive and recognisable. A gorgeous, absorbing novel that fully deserves its Booker Prize, it makes those of us who have not read Wolf Hall want to go out and buy it immediately, and those of us who have to wish fervently that The Mirror and the Light was here already.