Wolf Hall- Don't Believe the Hype!


Today I am somewhat non-plussed by the news that the strangely avianesque looking author Hilary Mantel has won yet another prize for her novel 'Bring Up the Bodies'. (I'm sorry if that appears a little pejorative, unkind or ad hominem, but I am always amazed at just how much she looks like she has been drawn by Quentin Blake to the extent where I cannot but comment on it).

When her other Booker prize winning novel, Wolf Hall won, I bought a copy for my wife. She loves this genre of historical drama, a bit like Ken Follett's 'Pillars of the Earth', which she enjoyed immensely. Anyway, try as she might, she just could not get into Wolf Hall, somewhat to my surprise to be honest. I resolved to read it myself prompted by the rave reviews:

“A stunning book. It breaks free of what the novel has become nowadays. I can’t think of anything since Middlemarch which so convincingly builds a world.” Diana Athill
"A fascinating read, so good I rationed myself. It is remarkable and very learned; the texture is marvellously rich, the feel of Tudor London and the growing household of a man on the rise marvellously authentic. Characters real and imagined spring to life, from the childish and petulant King to Thomas Wolsey's jester, and it captures the extrovert, confident, violent mood of the age wonderfully." C.J. Sansom
"A magnificent achievement: the scale of its vision and the fine stitching of its detail; the teeming canvas of characters; the style with its clipped but powerful immediacy; the wit, the poetry and the nuance." Sarah Dunant
“A superb novel, beautifully constructed, and an absolutely compelling read. Mantel has created a novel of Tudor times which persuades us that we are there, at that moment, hungry to know what happens next. It is the making of our English world, and who can fail to be stirred by it?” Helen Dunmore

I have to admit I very quickly felt like an idiot. I hated this book and fought my way through it. I would have discarded it very quickly if I was not so convinced that the brilliant bit would start in a page or two.

The basic premise seems to be couched in the idea that the Church controlled the availability of Scripture and that the availability of Scripture in the vernacular led to a vocal, taciturn and redoubtable criticism of Church teaching.

The book suffers from a lack of fluid writing style; I was not not sure who is talking or even when, in a chronological sense. A good example is p. 392-3 where Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk is referred to as Charles Brandon, then Suffolk, then Charles, then the Duke of Suffolk, then Brandon, without being introduced to the reader in all these terms. The result is you are unsure if Mantel is referring to one character or several, and this is not an incident in isolation by any means. Character development is poor, the only character you feel you actually recognise is Cromwell himself, the rest are mere ghosts, who waft in and out of the story with great assumption you will know exactly who they are and what their role is.

Thomas More portrayed as nothing shy of a monster "A glance at Alice [his wife] frees me from the stain of concupiscence" he announces to a dinner party where Cromwell, his enemy, is present (p. 230)

The Spanish Ambassador gives voice to some of my own concerns regarding the current status of the Church of England, which seems to have struggled with a chronic confusion of leadership since Henry VIII's marital shenanigans:

"I don't understand it, nothing do I understand in this benighted country. Is Cranmer Pope now? Or is Henry Pope? Perhaps you are Pope?" Chapuys, the Spanish Ambassador,  to Cromwell at Anne's Coronation, p. 465.

p. 454, Katherine prophesies the stripping of the altars: "I know where this will end. You will take the church's lands and give them to the king."

p. 433-5 John Frith at the tower: "the Eucharist is but bread, of penance we have no need, Purgatory is an invention ungrounded in Scripture—" Mantel gives it to Frith to shine light on some issues she clearly lacks understanding of without any notion of the dangerous literalism theologians like Frith intended to replace the Apostolic teaching of the Church with.

Mantel writes in a terribly disordered and confusing way it seems to me. She uses 'he' all the time, no matter how many characters are involved in a page, until you're utterly confused. Maybe the 'brilliance' was the intrigue of the story--yet this is history we all know, surely? There was no shocking revelation, no surprise, and I grew very, very bored waiting for Henry to get it on with Anne!

I would love to hear from you if you agree-- but I would like to hear from you more if you disagree and can explain where I went wrong! I am an avid reader of myriad genres and was deeply disappointed by this book. My advice? Don't bother!



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