This is another of those occasions where I read a book in January and predict with great confidence that it will be on my Top Ten list at the end of the year. A lot of unexpected things may happen to me in 2010, but the chances that I’d read 10 books better than Wolf Hall? Never gonna happen, my friend.
You all know I love historical fiction. If I had to name the best historical novels I’ve ever read in my life, I’d list Sharon Kay Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour, Margaret George’s The Autobiography of Henry VIII … and now, Wolf Hall.
Wolf Hall has achieved something that rarely happens to big, blockbuster historical novels: it won the Man Booker prize. It’s a novel that has managed to transcend the conventions of the historical fiction genre and the lack of respect that genre often gets in literary circles, to win arguably the most significant prize in English literature. Now, just because a book won the Booker doesn’t guarantee I’m going to love it. One year I tried to read every book on the Booker longlist and didn’t exactly emerge with a new list of favourites. But Wolf Hall combines all the best of historical and literary fiction — it’s a huge, sprawling, completely engrossing novel where brilliant, finely tuned language is used to build characterization in a way few other novels I’ve ever read can equal.
Wolf Hall is set during the Tudor era: more specifically, during the period when Henry VIII is seeking a divorce from Katherine of Aragon so he can marry Anne Boleyn. It’s a well-travelled area for historical fiction, and I would advise anyone embarking on this book to have a good, basic working knowledge of the period. I don’t mean a scholarly level of knowledge: I mean as much knowledge as you’d get from reading a few other historical novels from the period (like Philippa Gregory), or some good popular non-fiction (like Alison Weir), or even from watching The Tudors. Enough that you have a basic idea who’s who and what the issues are, so you don’t get overwhelmed.
The character at the centre of Wolf Hall is not Henry VIII or Anne Boleyn or Katherine of Aragon, though all of these and dozens more of the period’s larger-than-life characters figure in the novel. What makes Wolf Hall brilliant as opposed to just good, is the author’s decision to focus on the character of Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s chief minister after the fall of Cardinal Wolsey. Cromwell doesn’t generally come off well in portrayals of the period, but here he is absolutely fascinating — and completely sympathetic, despite the fact that he’s no hero and not necessarily even a “good” character. What Cromwell is, is a practical man — a man of humble origins in an age of lords and princes, a lawyer and businessman who understands that what really matters are not the impressive pedigrees of noblemen but how much money they owe, and to whom. He is a man valuable to the king because he is capable of absolute coolness in public affairs, which makes the warmth he shows in his private life even more striking.
The story is told from a limited third-person point of view, with a narrator so close to Cromwell’s head that the reader almost gets inside it — but never right inside, because this is a man who knows the value of keeping secrets. Mantel’s command of language and point of view — and the book’s devastating dry wit, usually Cromwell’s — are what lift this beyond the average historical novel into the realm of international prize-winners. She uses beautifully honed words, not to distance the reader from the subject as often happens with literary fiction, but to bring a man dead almost 500 years ago to life so vividly you expect to look up from the book and see Cromwell sitting across the table from you.
The ending is abrupt. The story ends in 1535, after the death of Thomas More — with More’s final weeks depicted as a showdown between More, the humble yet self-aggrandizing man of principle, and Cromwell, the practical man who believes in compromise. Cromwell’s own views, amidst the religious turmoil of the day, are clearly Protestant, but he has little more sympathy with the Protestant martyrs eager to burn for a cause than he does with the staunchly Catholic More. What Cromwell believes in is expediency: say what you need to say, do what you need to do, and live to fight another day.
Such a man should have survived, and it’s a tribute to his brilliance that he did survive for as long as he did in such a world. But eventually, Thomas Cromwell met the same fate as everyone else who was dearly beloved of Henry VIII: the king who loved and depended on him ordered his execution. That happened in 1540, but the book ends five years before that, with Cromwell at the height of his powers. Some of his greatest triumphs as well as his inevitable downfall are still to come. One review I read of Wolf Hall suggested that the decision to end in 1535 was some kind of brilliant literary choice, and I just couldn’t get on board with that — can you tell the story of a tragedy (all the great historical novels are tragedies, of course) and leave out the final act?
Reaching the end, I concluded that Mantel ended the novel where she did because it’s simply too big a story — told at this level of intimate detail — for a single book. I’m relieved to learn she’s at work on a sequel; I wish I’d never discovered Wolf Hall until the sequel was already published. Because in spite of the fact that it’s 650 pages of exhaustive detail, despite the fact that I know this character I’ve come to love and care about is going to reach a bad end — still, when I got to the last page, I wanted nothing more than to pick up the next volume and follow the story all the way to its brutal finale.
If you love historical fiction, you have to read Wolf Hall. That’s all there is to it.