decemberthirty: (tree swallow)
[personal profile] decemberthirty
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel tells a long, many-threaded story: Henry VIII's divorce from Katherine of Aragon, his re-marriage to Anne Boleyn, the beginnings of the English Reformation, the rise and fall of Cardinal Wolsey, the rise and rise and rise of Wolsey's servant Thomas Cromwell. All of these plots are important, but it is Cromwell who is at the center of the book--appropriate, perhaps, since it seems he was also at the center of virtually every political development and intrigue in England in the 1530s. Mantel follows Cromwell from his low beginnings--the book opens with a scene of fourteen-year-old Cromwell being beaten nearly to death by his brutal drunkard of a father--to the lofty heights of King Henry's council chamber, showing us every twist in his fortunes along the way.

About that opening scene: it's effective. It would take a cold-hearted reader not to feel sympathetic toward a main character when we first meet that character battered and bruised and struggling to crawl out of the way of his father's boot. It worked on me, anyway--I loved Mantel's version of Cromwell, I wanted to hang out with him, I rooted for him even when he was at his most manipulative and morally ambiguous. And why not? He is an amazing character: eminently capable, intelligent, ambitious as the day is long, full of contradictions, possessed of a fine sly sense of humor which spreads outward from him to fill the narrative. In Mantel's telling, it almost seems as though Cromwell amasses power simply by always being the most imperturbable person in the room. Yet there is something unknowable about him too, a mystery that shrouds his innermost thoughts and motivations. We get hints, but we can never be quite sure--it's always possible that each of his machinations is just part of larger machination happening on a level too deep for us to see...

Ms. E read Wolf Hall before I did and raved about it so much that I decided to pick it up. But I had trouble liking the book at first. I was frustrated by it for the first 100 or 150 pages. I liked Cromwell, sure, but not Mantel's style. For instance, she doesn't like to use Cromwell's name, always referring to him simply as "he." She does this (I imagine) to emphasize his centrality, but it leads to absurd confusing situations in which "he" has two different antecedents in the same sentence. I didn't like the flow of Mantel's prose, which seemed almost aggressive in the way it chopped and changed without ever settling into a sustained rhythm. I found the story difficult to crack as well. Some of this seemed to be "legitimate" difficulty, but some of it seemed to be due to deliberate obfuscation by Mantel and I have no patience for that. Difficulty can serve a purpose, and the difficulty of Wolf Hall felt productive when my struggle to penetrate the story mirrored the difficulty of penetrating the layers of Cromwell's character; sometimes, though, it just seemed like Mantel was making me work without providing me with the payoff for my efforts.

But I got used to all of those things. By the 200th page, my objections vanished. Mantel's style no longer annoyed, the book no longer seemed difficult, and I just wanted to read it forever. There are huge tracts of the story where very little happens--hundreds of pages devoted to the two-steps-forward-one-step-back process of politics--but I didn't care. It was all interesting even in the stretches between big events. Mantel's sharp little depictions of characters, the wealth of detail she provides about the world of Henry's court and about domestic life in the 16th century, the moments when Cromwell triumphs over an old enemy or gets his subtle revenge for a slight so old that no one but him remembers it--these things were enough to keep me happily reading while I waited for, say, Anne's coronation or the birth of Princess Elizabeth.

I was prepared for the book to be smart and full of historical interest, but it was also affecting in a way that I hadn't expected. At one point, Cromwell endures a string of personal tragedies and it is just fucking brutal. Heartbreaking. It's also hard not to be moved by the fate of Mary Boleyn and the treatment she receives from her sister and...well, everyone, really. I was talking about this in a comment to [ profile] marchioness, but I thought the book provided an interesting (and very sympathetic) look at the situation of highly-placed women at that time--how limited their options were, how they were almost always pawns in someone else's game, how even the smallest miscalculation in how they played the game could condemn them to lives that were really miserable. Mantel demonstrates really persuasively the sort of bind you can get in when your primary value comes from your chastity, yet you must also deploy your sexuality in exactly the right way to get and keep the interest of exactly the right man, and give your chastity away at exactly the right moment... This is not news, of course, but Mantel lays it out subtly and compellingly.

I didn't want to give in to the hype surrounding Wolf Hall. But in the end I had to admit that it was great. I've was talking with a writer friend recently about the extent to which a writer's job is to give the reader pleasure, and Wolf Hall gave pleasure in abundance. I couldn't get enough of it. So much so that as soon as I finished it, I picked up the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies. So far Bring Up the Bodies does not quite live up to Wolf Hall, but I have great hopes that it will improve.
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