Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall was my favorite book of 2010. It is a miraculously sympathetic story about Thomas Cromwell, the man most famous for engineering Henry VIII’s divorce, dissolving the English monasteries, making Henry head of the English church, passing legislation requiring everyone to swear that those acts were just, and executing people who failed to swear. The standard punishment was to be hanged, drawn, and quartered–just about the worst way to go. Yet in Wolf Hall, Cromwell emerges as a practical, reasonable man of the world, trying to hold his family, business, and country together in a humane fashion.

Mantel vividly conjures early 16th-century England. The narration is present-tense, and the environment is economically and unpretentiously but sensuously described. The language is consistently modern. Sometimes, we can presume that we are reading translations of dialogues actually conducted in Latin or French; but even the chatter of English commoners is rendered in modern idioms–heightening the feeling of proximity and naturalness. The narration is third person, and Mantel goes to great lengths to avoid using the proper nouns “Thomas” or “Cromwell.” “He” is the subject of most sentences, or else the narration slips into “free indirect speech” (with Cromwell’s thoughts and style coloring the third-person voice.) At first, the device of avoiding Cromwell’s name confused me. There may be four men in the room, but “he” always refers to the hero. I got used to the technique, which allows Mantel to stay very close to her protagonist’s consciousness without using the first person singular. (For how could Thomas Cromwell write a 21st-century narrative?)

I think there might be a handful of anachronisms in Wolf Hall. At one point, Cromwell observes that Homer’s existence is doubtful, yet my quick scan of recent scholarship suggests that the “Homeric Question” was not raised in Cromwell’s time. (E.g., Philip Ford, “Homer in the French Renaissance“; and Filippomaria Pontani, “From Budé to Zenodotus: Homeric Readings in the European Renaissance.”) The fact that I could find a couple of slips just reinforces the verisimilitude of this long and wide-ranging story.

Above all, it is fun: full of humor, vivid characters, and dramatic events. Representation affords pleasure, as Aristotle noted two thousand years ago. Difficult feats of representative art can be especially pleasurable, and what could be more difficult than to represent the inner state of a long-dead lawyer best known for judicially murdering St. Thomas More? I enjoy representation most of all when the author treats her subjects with affection, and Mantel is humane toward virtually all her creations, even the ones who hate one another.