Book review: “Wolf Hall”

Wolf HallThe JWM Summer of Fiction hit a bit of a snag over the last couple of weeks, due to some unexpected personal difficulties. But those are now (more or less) resolved, so I can finally get around to posting the last review: Hilary Mantel’s 2009 Man Booker Prize winner, Wolf Hall.

Set in the years that led up to the English Reformation, Wolf Hall‘s protagonist is Thomas Cromwell, a man on the make if ever there was one. When we first meet him, Cromwell is part of the inner circle of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, whose position at the intersection of the Catholic Church and the court of King Henry VIII made him one of the most powerful men in England. Wolsey’s influence is on the wane, however, due to what his contemporaries delicately referred to as “the king’s great matter“: the inability of his queen, Catherine of Aragon, to produce a male heir to continue his dynasty.  Henry wants to jettison Catherine for a juicy young thing named Anne Boleyn, who he believes will give him the son Catherine cannot; the Church, whose official opposition to divorce gives it a convenient tool to squeeze the desperate Henry for political concessions, stands in the way of that desire; and if Wolsey can’t find a way to thread that needle at a price Henry can accept, the king is determined to find someone who can. The novel follows Cromwell as he becomes that someone, supplanting Wolsey and prompting one of the great crises of European history.

From what I can see, Wolf Hall appears to be one of those novels that polarizes its readers — either they love it, or they really, really do not. I loved it, for a few different reasons.

First, it gave me one of the things I appreciate most in a work of historical fiction: a new way to look at familiar people. The conventional take on the personalities of the English Reformation paints Henry as an amoral horn-dog and Cromwell as a Machiavellian schemer who helped the king put his libido and dynastic ambitions before the law, with another of the king’s advisors, Sir Thomas More, positioned as a principled man who died a martyr for standing up to him. Wolf Hall flips these characterizations neatly on their head. Its Cromwell, while still fairly Machiavellian, is human and relatable; he’s a smart man trying to make his way in a difficult world. Its More, meanwhile, is a Catholic zealot, less concerned with the niceties of the law than with keeping England under the thumb of a distant, corrupt church. I’m not enough of an expert on English history to tell you if these portrayals are more or less accurate than the old standards; but when reading a work of historical fiction, emphasis on fiction, that’s not my primary concern. It’s OK to reinterpret people in that context, as long as doing so results in a compelling narrative that says something interesting about the people and the period it’s depicting, which Wolf Hall does.

One of the other pleasures of good historical fiction is the way it can give you insight into why the people of the time did the things they did, and Wolf Hall delivers here as well. The main narrative thread running through it is the process by which Henry came to the decision to separate England from the Catholic world, which was one of the monumental decisions of the age. But Mantel shows how this monumental decision was actually no one decision at all, but rather the slow accretion of many decisions, all of which seem small in context. Henry doesn’t so much decide to break from orthodoxy as he does run out of alternatives, exhausting his options as each fails in turn. This is consistent both with his character as the novel portrays it, and with the way big, historic changes generally come about; we like to think history is a story of people making bold choices, but when you put those bold choices under a microscope you typically find they are actually just a bunch of unremarkable choices that circumstances have rolled together into a lump.

I also liked how Wolf Hall gives you a sense for how different the world of the 16th century is to the world we live in today. It’s striking, for instance, to watch Cromwell move through a world where death is so commonplace as to be almost casual. England in his time was in the grip of a pandemic, and as we follow him we watch it sweep great swathes of his family away with what to a modern mind is shocking frequency. To Cromwell, though, it’s just the way things are; he grieves, but it doesn’t shock him. He doesn’t ask why, because asking why would be useless. They died because dying was what people did then. Soon enough the places they left empty are filled by others, and so (for the living, at least) the dance of life goes on.

It’s not perfect, of course. Much of the negative reaction to this novel seems to be rooted in one particular stylistic decision Mantel made, using the pronoun “he” almost exclusively to refer to Cromwell. This can lead to some awkwardness as you read a sentence and try to work out whether the “he” it refers to is the not-Cromwell person named elsewhere in the sentence or Cromwell himself. I’m not really sure what prompted this choice, to be honest. If it’s an experiment, it fails, because it obscures more than it illuminates. But I’m not averse to a novel that makes me work a little if it offers sufficient reward for that work, and Wolf Hall does. So if you like historical fiction, you shouldn’t avoid it just because of this issue.

And I suppose that’s my final verdict on Wolf Hall: it’s good! Not perfect, but really good, and definitely worth your time.

Want more? Links to all Summer of Fiction book reviews can be found here.