Hundreds of years after the end of their reign, the Tudors manage to nest in the hearts and minds of modern generations. Maybe it’s the greed or the infighting or the psychopathy or the politics that captivates us so much. Regardless of the precise cause, hundreds of novels, dozens of plays (including several Shakespearean ones), and multiple television programs have all been created to deconstruct, reconstruct, and profit from the Tudors.
When I picked up Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, knowing only that it was a novel about the court of Henry VIII, I fully expected it to be another classic Tudor story about our favorite despotic monarch. I peered at the small golden circle on the cover that contained the words “Winner of the Man Booker Prize” and wondered how so unoriginal a subject area could be inspired enough to win such an award. My inhibitions were put to rest after about twenty pages into the novel—I found that not only was the historical interpretation unique and fresh, but also that Mantel’s writing was unlike any other I had read before.
For those readers who are skeptical, answer me this: do you know who Thomas Cromwell is? No, you’re thinking of Oliver Cromwell. No? I thought not. Neither had I. He was, in fact, a lawyer and the principle advisor to Thomas Wolsey and then to Henry VIII. He may seem like an almost random choice, but the use of Cromwell as the protagonist in the novel is beautifully strategic: he is both humble (having grown up in an impoverished, violent household) and incredibly clever, so he is able to critique the court while playing its game at the same time. I’d be lying if I said that this is the only novel featuring Thomas Cromwell; however, the depth of psychological and emotional development that Mantel creates is unmatched (as Colin Burrow of the London Review of Books describes it, “The Cromwell of Wolf Hall is a gripping mind, always one step ahead of a conversation, always thinking, always feeling.”) Even the other main characters, who often appear in other Tudor dramas, have distinctive personalities. Henry VIII isn’t the (completely) irrational, sex-driven maniac he is often portrayed to be, nor is Anne Boleyn the simple concubine that Henry happened to fancy.
But what is truly impressive about the novel is Mantel’s engaging style of writing. She uses free indirect style that is so smooth that it almost feels like stream of consciousness as she takes us from one of Cromwell’s conflicting thoughts to another, page after page. She immerses her readers in the world of sixteenth-century England with meticulous imagery, explaining the scents of a particular London street or the source of the maroon dye used to color fine fabrics. She is unafraid of taking on the risk that she might get one of these details wrong and be criticized, for the novel is the product of years-long research.
However, Wolf Hall is not without its challenges. Mantel chose to write the novel in an unforgiving manner: she uses the pronouns “he,” “his,” and “him” many times as a universal sign that she is describing Thomas Cromwell, so it takes a good deal of practice before the reader becomes accustomed to sorting between antecedents. Additionally, the qualities of the court create a somewhat tangled web to crawl through. Multiple prominent characters share the same first names, so the mention of “Thomas” could be Thomas Cromwell or Thomas Wolsey or Thomas More, and the mention of “Mary” could be Mary Tudor or Mary Boleyn or Mary Shelton. The titles can be frustrating as well: references to Charles Brandon often come in the form “Duke of Norfolk” or “Norfolk” and references to Mary Boleyn often appear as “Lady Carey.” Mantel doesn’t go far out of her way to alleviate these issues for the reader, but I respect her even more for it, since her writing would have seemed strained had she needed to break her natural style to make the novel more comfortable for the readers. (Although, she truly did us a favor by not having the characters speak the English of the time period.)
But Wolf Hall is worth the extra brain power needed to overcome these difficulties. I believe it will still be read decades from now, since our excitement over the Tudors seems to grow with time and this novel is an amazing representation of the period. If Mantel continues to write so skillfully, she may become the first person to win a third Man Booker Prize. Now, I better stop writing so that I can pick up my copy of Bring Up the Bodies before Barnes & Noble closes.
Burrow, Colin. “How to Twist a Knife: Wolf Hall.” London Review of Books. N.p., Apr. 2009. Web. <http://www.lrb.co.uk/v31/n08/colin-burrow/how-to-twist-a-knife>.