Friday, February 11, 2011

Wolf Hall
Wolf Hall 
"The court is riding west this summer, as far as Bristol. The king is ready to leave, despite the rain. They will depart from Windsor, then to Reading, Missenden, Abingdon, moving across Oxfordshire, their spirits lifting, we hope, with the distance from London; he says to Rafe, if the country air goes to work, the queen will return with a big belly. Rafe says, I wonder the king can stand the hope each time. It would wear out a lesser man." (pp 530-1)

An historical novel reconstructs the past such that a personage or series of events is recreated in fictional form. The spirit of the age should both be respected and presented in a way that instructs and entertains the reader. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel focuses on the personage of Thomas Cromwell while attempting to both present the details of his personal life and present the historical controversies of the age of Henry VIII. I was unconvinced by the attempt. While the historical narrative flowed and provided a balance of detail and overview, the family sagas of Thomas and his friends and enemies (notably Sir Thomas More) were byzantine and the details overwhelmed this reader. The age presented was one of tumultuous events with the devious plans of Cardinal Wolsey as representative of the Crown to abet Henry's search for a suitable successor atop epiphenomena whose undercurrent threatened to pull down any of the main players at almost any time. The addition of references to the impact of the plague and the difficulties of life in general for the families included in this saga began to go beyond the bounds of Rabelaisian amusement and wonder. I found myself questioning how it all came together. Lest I forget the best of the novel, for Mantel kept me reading with her sure clear prose style and there were moments, even when the personal family relations were being narrated were fine stuff -- the historical interludes made it bearable. I am a reader who likes to develop a sense of the whole project of a novel and this one defied my attempt. The best parts suggest to me that at least part of my difficulty with the book must my own responsibility.  I would recommend The Leopard by  Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa to anyone as an example of the finest in historical novels.

Wolf Hall: a novel by Hilary Mantel. Henry Holt, New York. 2009

View all my reviews


parrish lantern said...

I saw this in my local library & was going to get it out, purely on the basis of it winning the 2009 Booker prize< In the end didn't, I think the blurb on the back put me off, That & my copy of Nocturnes, had arrived.

James said...

Do not forgo reading Wolf Hall on account of my somewhat mixed review. However, if you revere Sir Thomas More beware, for the portrait of More in this novel is exceedingly unflattering. I'll look forward to any comments you may have regarding Nocturnes.