Monday, March 16, 2015

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

There are a lot of negatives to our system of democracy, as anyone remotely connected with politics would be happy to admit.  However, it always strikes me that no two peoples’ lists of the flaws would end up being the same, which is maybe a feature or maybe a bug.  I’m not entirely sure.

But there’s always a feature that seems like a big positive which I end up thinking about every time I read historical fiction, and that’s the fact that we can defeat our political opponents without needing to have them killed, secure in the knowledge that if they do come back into power some day they will not have us killed.  This was something of a luxury in certain historical periods, and leads to a fair bit of burnings and beheadings in Wolf Hall.

This novel attempts to rehabilitate the life and times of Thomas Cromwell, advisor to Henry VIII and architect of many of Henry’s less popular and arguably less defensible actions.  I have to admit that I didn’t know all that much about Cromwell; he usually plays the part of a heavy against the more heroic Thomas More.  But here it’s More wearing the black hat, and Cromwell wearing more of a gray one.  Gray-ish.  This may be a little unfair to More, but then again, More was unfair to people from time to time as well, so maybe it’s just payback.  Possibly not, though.  I think arguing that any of these people were correct puts you on a slippery slope argument to somewhere, regardless of what you’re trying to accomplish.

The background of the novel takes place in that very popular public domain era where Henry is beginning to enter his late 30s with no male heir and decides that Katherine, his wife, has to go.  Makes you wonder about alternate histories where Katherine accepts this, or just outright dies, and all this business is avoided.  However, it’s all foreordained, not that the cast of characters themselves realizes they are historical characters.  They act as they must act, and the writing is all in the explanation.

I’d never read anything by Mantel before, and I found her prose style here to be somewhere between intriguing and annoying, occasionally in the same sentence.  Everything is in the present tense, and the pronoun “he” is almost always used to describe Cromwell, except sometimes when it’s not, and sometimes when you have to go back a couple of times to check.  You’ll have a passage that Lord so-and-so said something, and then “he” made a remark, and sometimes that’s Cromwell, and sometimes Lord so-and-so.  In my personal opinion the best text doesn’t draw attention to itself stylistically like this, but at the same time it seems intentional, and it kinda fits.  Although it’s probably best left as an exercise for experts, I think.

This book is also a doorstopper, which makes sense, there is quite a bit of history to get through.  We start out with Cromwell as a devoted associate of Cardinal Wolsey, and then he survives Wolsey’s fall from favor to rise to an equally powerful position.  Throughout it he gains and loses family members, power, prestige, and starts checking off people from his enemies list one by one.

But what drives this guy?  It’s hard to say.  He fits the profile of a rags-to-riches hero of our modern era, but in the Tudor era Cromwell’s lack of noble blood renders him suspect at the very best and at worst unprintable.  This is enough to give a man a big chip on his shoulder, and I guess he’s got one, but he remains almost imperturbable about  it.  He maintains his stoicism when he loses his wife and daughters; it’s just something that must be borne.  A product of the age, I guess, but hard to appreciate.  Nonetheless, he works hard, he increases his power, he serves Henry VIII, who really isn’t worth all Cromwell’s talents.  He also sort of falls in love a couple of times, but also mostly doesn't.  It's complex.

I’d really like to say more about it, but I found myself on the outside of this one looking in.  If you like historical fiction that’s as big as a brick, and which won’t answer any burning questions for you, this may be something to check out.  I’ll probably be getting the second volume myself.