Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s revisionist retelling of the Tudor saga through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, is new in trade paperback this week from Picador. When the book won the Man Booker Prize last year, chairman James Naughtie credited its success to the “bigness of the book . . . [its] boldness [and] scene setting.” In The Atlantic, Christopher Hitchens noted that the book put Mantel “in the very first rank of historical novelists.” In The New York Review of Books, Stephen Greenblatt pointed out that this “is a novel too in which nothing is wasted, and nothing completely disappears.” Here’s what Biblioklept had to say:
I’m coming to the end of Hilary Mantel’s brilliant treatment of the Tudor saga,Wolf Hall. Sign of a great book: when it’s finished, I will miss her characters, particularly her hero Thomas Cromwell, presented here as a self-made harbinger of the Renaissance, a complicated protagonist who was loyal to his benefactor Cardinal Wolsey even though he despised the abuses of the Church. Mantel’s Cromwell reminds us that the adjective “Machiavellian” need not be a pejorative, applied only to evil Iago or crooked Richard III. The Cromwell of Wolf Hall presages a more egalitarian–modern–extension of power. Cromwell here is not simply pragmatic (although he is pragmatic), he also has a purpose: he sees the coming changes of Europe, the rise of the mercantile class signaling economic power over monarchial authority. Yet he’s loyal to Henry VIII, and even the scheming Boleyns. “Arrange your face” is one of the book’s constant mantras; another is “Choose your prince.” Mantel’s Cromwell is intelligent and admirable; the sorrows of the loss of his wife and daughter tinge his life but do not dominate it; he can be cruel when the situation merits it but would rather not be. I doubt that many people wanted yet another telling of the Tudor drama–but aren’t we always looking for a great book? Wolf Hall demonstrates that it’s not the subject that matters but the quality of the writing. Highly recommended.
Presenting all these reviews is simply a way of pointing out that if you know anything about contemporary lit, you probably already know that there’s a strong critical consensus that the book is excellent. Which it is. And if you like historical fiction, particularly of the English-monarchy variety, it’s likely you’ve already read it (and if not, why not? Jeez). However, I think it’s important–particularly now, with the current brouhaha over what literary fiction is and how female writers are treated by critics–to point out that what makes Mantel’s novel so excellent–and distinctly literary–is the writing: the narrative craft, the intensity of characterization, the vitality of prose. There’s nothing gimmicky about Wolf Hall even though its hero Cromwell has been traditionally reviled. Furthermore, Mantel resists fetishizing her set pieces, unlike so many writers of historical fiction, who feel the need to bombard their readers with extraneous details, as if the author’s painstaking research were a weapon rather than a tool.
My original review of Wolf Hall overlapped with a reading of James Wood’s essay on Thomas More from his collection The Broken Estate (also, incidentally, available in paperback from Picador). More is the major villain of Wolf Hall, and Wood savages him in “Sir Thomas More: A Man for One Season.” It was strange then (not too strange, though) to see Mantel and Wood intersect again a few months later, in Wood’s New Yorker review of David Mitchell’s historical novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Here’s Wood–
Meanwhile, the historical novel, typically the province of genre gardeners and conservative populists, has become an unlikely laboratory for serious writers, some of them distinctly untraditional in emphasis and concern. (I am thinking not just of Mitchell but of Thomas Pynchon, Susan Sontag, Steven Millhauser, A. S. Byatt, Peter Carey.) What such novelists are looking for in those oldfangled laboratories is sometimes mysterious to me; and how these daring writers differ from a very gifted but frankly traditional and more commercial historical novelist like Hilary Mantel is an anxiously unanswered question.
Wood is typically dismissive of the historical novel even as he admits its attraction–one he doesn’t understand (or pretends not to understand)–to “serious writers,” a collective from which he deems to exclude Mantel. Wood’s rubric seems to be that Mantel is too “commercial” and “traditional” to warrant her inclusion in his club (even as he damns her with faint praise), but I think that his Mitchell review reveals a deep antipathy to anything that seems, y’know, approachable for most readers. That Pynchon leads Wood’s list is telling. Pynchon’s historical fictions range from fantastic and funny (V., Gravity’s Rainbow) to belabored and difficult (Mason & Dixon) to dense and inscrutable (Against the Day). But Pynchon is Pynchon and it’s not fair to exclude Mantel from the “serious writers” club for not being Pynchon (I sometimes think that poor James Wood has just been a book critic too long and hates reading). This is a roundabout way of arguing that, yes, Wolf Hall is serious writing, that it is literary writing, that it transcends its subject matter and comments on the human condition, on soul, on psyche, on spirit. That it happens to entertain at the same time is, of course, why we care. Highly recommended.