It gives me no pleasure, then, to say that Mantel’s novel was a heavy disappointment. My rating: 2.5 on the Netflix scale, somewhere between I tolerated it (2) and I liked it (3). The most fundamental issue for any novel is, Did you finish the book? There’s little doubt that if I had not been reading Wolf Hall in a book club, my answer would be no.
As to the book club opinions of Wolf Hall, no novel has so radically divided this group in the four years it has been running. One person vociferously despised the book and another, just as fiercely, “loved” it, with the rest of us strung across the board.
A Research Dump
“None ever wished it longer than it is.” That’s what Samuel Johnson said about Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” but the quip also applies to this novel. It’s 532 pages long, with much more reportedly to come in the form of a sequel. The effect is of a dogged grad student who has done reams of research and simply cannot refrain from copying her note cards into the text. The Mantel camp might argue that this exhaustive level of detail is necessary to creating a comprehensive picture of a very complex society in a complex period. Well, yes, that is clearly the intent, but as the novel’s Duke of Norfolk might say, “By the thrice-beshitten shroud of Lazarus, don’t bore me and don’t confuse me.”
For me, then, Mantel fails in a fundamental task: weeding out the insignificant characters, plot lines, and flood of minor details. If Shakespeare can get by with 35 to 40 dramatis personae in Hamlet, why can’t Mantel limit herself to the top 50 characters in the HenryVIII-Cromwell nexus? For lovers of the novel, I have but one question: who is Mary Shelton? If you can tell me why this typical yet very minor character, one of seemingly hundreds of women hanging about the court, is in the novel, I’m willing to believe that all that detail works for you.
Thomas Cromwell, Superman
OK, it’s clear that Mantel has written the novel as the flip side of A Man for All Seasons and the way Robert Bolt’s play portrays Thomas More as the great ethical martyr of Henry VIII’s time. The Cromwell of the novel is More’s anti-type, a combination Metternich-Soros-Disraeli-LBJ-Godfather, the supreme pragmatist, a non-ideologue, the Indispensable Man Who Gets Things Done. Cromwell stands for the rise of the new international businessman against the sclerotic landed gentry, and in such matters of religion as burning heretics at the stake, he’s nearly a modern-day liberal. All well and good, I’m happy as a reader to accept Cromwell as a great man and a new kind of man.
The problem is that Mantel goes so far that the novel becomes a propaganda pamphlet for the Great Commoner. Women of all social degrees want to bed Mantel’s Cromwell, foundlings want to join his household, kings and cardinals want to turn over their dealings with troublesome nobles and churchmen to him. Everybody in the novel enjoys Cromwell’s wry sarcasms, his habitual mode of conversation. It’s OK to have a heroic protagonist, but a superman like Cromwell is far less interesting than a protagonist with internal conflicts. Give me Tony Soprano or Don Draper. In short, 532 pages of a paragon can turn him into a prig.
Mantel has worked hard to come up with a prose style that blends a credible form of pre-Elizabethan English with something contemporary readers can appreciate. If you’ve ever tried to read 1530s prose, you’ll understand this is a necessary compromise. Joan Acocella writes in the New Yorker: “Mantel’s characters do not speak sixteenth-century English. She has created for them an idiom that combines a certain archaism with vigorous modern English. It works perfectly.” Not for me.
Am I only the only person who will find it jarring to hear the Duke of Norfolk swearing the Lazarus oath quoted above not far from a passage in which Crowell thinks of the court as filled with “yes-men and facilitators”? The problem with the elaborately concocted Tudorisms next to the au courant phrasing is that both call attention to themselves and jar the reader out of the reverie of the text. Too often the subtext of Mante
l’s prose says,” Am I, the author, not most clever?”
Modern Story-Telling in a Historical Novel
Mantel is nothing if not ambitious, and her effort to tell the story in a way that shows she knows the narrative innovations of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf wins her a lot of points with critics and prize committees. She uses the free indirect style, in which the third-person point of view shifts and prose bends in the direction of the character whose mind we are in at a given moment. Ninety-five percent of the time, though, Mantel sticks with Cromwell’s point of view.
Using this convention, Mantel makes the annoying decision to call Cromwell “he.” From the second sentence: “Felled, dazed, silent, he has fallen; knocked full-length on the cobbles of the yard.” Who he? The New Yorker’s founding editor, Harold Ross, liked to scrawl that little put-down in the margins of manuscripts when a person in an article was not identified at first mention. Note that Mantel doesn’t write: “Felled, dazed, silent, Cromwell [or little Tom or young Thomas] has fallen.”
She leaves out the usual sign posts that tell the reader who’s thinking what. A little coyness up front when meeting the protagonist might be no crime, but Mantel sticks with this “he” business to the point of mannerism. On occasion Cardinal Wolsey or Henry VIII or one of myriad minor characters becomes “he,” which makes for a certain what da? on the reader’s part. In time, when in doubt, I did learn to bet on Cromwell as the “he” in this book.
I could go on – and on. But unlike Mantel I’ll be merciful to the reader and try to edit myself.
Why, if Wolf Hall is so mediocre, did it hoodwink so many?
Here’s my theory: critics read so many books with the same old genre-specific angles that they can become an easy mark for an unusual approach – what Hollywood calls a fish out of water story. Take revisionist history – Cromwell not More was the real hero of Tudor times – and mix in a narrative style borrowed from writers like John Updike or Ian McEwan and you’ll sucker the critics and prize committees, nearly every time. I take heart that it was the Orange Prize Committee, in choosing the best novel written by a woman, who had the good sense to recognize the limits of Wolf Hall.