Wolf Hall is about Thomas Cromwell, the man in the machinery of Henry VIII’s tremendous political, ecclesiastical and reproductive decisions. Hilary Mantel is an apostate Catholic, apparently, and I understand that one one of the things she is attempting is to pillory Sir Thomas More as a symbol of unbending religious scruple and prejudice and to whitewash Cromwell as the reasonable, flexible, sensible symbol of religious adaptability . . . and humane compassion.
The book is written in the present tense. The present tense can be annoying for a whole book unless there’s a real point to using that device. In Mantel’s case, it has to do with a sense of immediacy. You are seeing everything from within the imagined consciousness of Thomas Cromwell. It works, and this is her great strength; it gives you the sense of riding along inside of someone else’s head. Everything is told from Cromwell’s point of view, but not in the first person. It is done in the third person but with the immediacy of the present tense. For example: have you ever been in your own train of thought when somebody else is talking to you? When a woman is chattering to a man sometimes, it happens. It happens in Wolf Hall. It is interesting to observe, brilliantly done. This and many other such things: brilliant sentence fragments, brilliant juxtapositions of thought and speech, brilliant glimpses of things Cromwell notices, brilliant shared ironies resulting from viewing all things from the main character’s consciousness without having him speak to you directly.
The result, however, is that Mantel’s religiously adaptable and compassionate (by contemporary standards, if not, for example, by Thomas More’s) consciousness is projected on the subject of Cromwell and interacts with his events. Of course, you don’t go to Shakespeare to get the history right, nor should you go to Wolf Hall. But there are limits to making a symbol out of a character, and gratuitously trashing it. The most troubling thing for me is not that she wants to whitewash Cromwell, understand him sympathetically and perhaps a bit more, but that she wants to do so by crushing the greatest Renaissance humanist of which England can boast: Thomas More. I think that’s inexcusable.
Her best character, the most interesting after the all-pervasive Cromwell, is the Duke of Norfolk. He is comical, rough, bigoted and yet presented as a sympathetic character and given some astonishing lines. And this is more characteristic of her than not. Even More is not wooden, for all he’s distorted; I can’t help thinking that if she could have brought herself to deal with him more as she did with Norfolk, it would have been a more congenial book. There are moments when the distortion is grotesque such as when contemplating a hair shirt used for personal torment, Cromwell imagines the monks “in fury of righteousness, chuckling . . .” a ludicrous juxtaposition, bizarre and overdone.
But the truth is that there isn’t much of that. What there is is the message that the world changes, things we believed once we can no longer hold to, and that reasonable people realize and act on that. Like the times we live in, wouldn’t you say? The world we inhabit is something that we construct at least in part by power structures, and we should have fair, reasonable one’s that favor everyone equally as much as possible.
I don’t entirely disagree. The world we live in is made out of our perceptions. It is naive to think we don’t participate in what we perceive. And we each perceive differently, and societies change in their collective perceptions too. And it seems to me power has to do with it (though it is sometimes exaggerated in the popular interest now given to it, of which the TV adaptation seems to me more illustrative than the novel is): who is in charge, how you perceive and react to that, who can make all the people agree to this law, who can enforce it, etc. The contemplation of what Henry VIII was doing in England, in his time in place, is a fascinating study. And because there was such reproductive urgency, what the women involved perceived, attempted, accomplished or did not, is also interesting (which you can’t say or determine of women in every period of history). What I disagree with is the criteria Mantel seems to have, projected through Cromwell, for judging and changing and adjusting that reality.
I think wonder is lost whenever you lose transcendence, and with wonder the power of beauty is diminished, and that’s when the power struggles become squalid. Beauty is no tyrant: beauty is a queen. Kindness, one also believes, could be more common a citizen in the monarchy of beauty. But I do not think Hilary Mantel wants to help you understand that. Power is her tyrant, and kindness is no commoner, but an rare and remote aristocrat. What is it, one has to ask, makes those who believe in perceived order perceive the world’s order that way?