Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

"Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate, 2009)

It's a thick book (650 pages) beginning with a cast of characters, which (given my problem with remembering names) didn't fill me with joy. I've read "Lord of the Rings" and Proust though, so I coped. Events often happen off-stage, recounted retrospectively. There's less distrust of the characters than in (say) a le Carré or Sciascia novel, and the doubts that the main character (Thomas Cromwell) entertains about people usually turn out to be true.

The main character's moral ambivalence enlivens the novel. His attention to detail ("a web of favours done and favours received" p.584) builds a network of associations that integrate the work while his wit and oratory enrich it (peaking when he talks to More). He exploits and nutures a reputation

  • "my husband used to say, lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning, and when you come back that night he'll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks' tongues, and all the gaolers will owe him money" (p.605)
  • "This is new, people say to him, this treason by words, and he says, no, be assured, it is old. It casts into statute law what the judges in their wisdom have already defined as common law. It is a measure for clarification. I am all for clarity" (p.589)

On the back cover Diana Athill writes "It breaks free of what the novel has become nowadays. I can't think of anything since Middlemarch which so convincingly builds a world". It's a slow-burner, but it burns.


Dates are provided. Flashbacks are usually clearly signalled. I counted two flash-forwards

  • "Later, when he thinks back to that morning" (p.104)
  • "It was next year that the Cornishmen came roaring up the country" (p.319)


This can get confusing because direct speech is denoted in various ways. Styles include -

  • He said, Go away
  • Tom: Go away
  • He said, 'Go away'

Sometimes the style changes within a single monologue -

'- and I, your servant Wyatt who relates this tale, was cast by this tyrant into a dungeon, to sleep upon the straw, a dungeon with but one small window, and that window barred ...'
Winter came on, Sir Henry says, and I had no fire; I had no food or water, for the guards forgot me. Richard Cromwell sits listening, chin on hand (p.324)

I'm unsure who's talking to whom in this

Johane: 'You say, "Rafe, go and find me a seat in the new Parliament." And off he goes, like a girl who's been told to bring the washing in."
'It was harder than that,' Rafe says.
Johane says, 'How would you know?'
Very well. I dry my tears, those tears from All Hallows day. (p.162)


It can be dense, symbolic - e.g.

  • he's playing chess when
    Voices murmur. Sunlight outside. Her feels he could almost sleep, but when he sleeps Liz Wykys comes back, cheerful and brisk, and when he wakes he has to learn the lack of her all over again.
    From a distant room a child is crying. Footsteps overhead. The crying stops. He picks up his king and looks at the base of it, as if to see how it is made. He murmurs, 'J'adoube.' he puts it back where it was. (p.106)
  • When he's on a ship he's
    trying to persuade the captain - 'yourself not offended', he said - that there was a way of going faster. The captain thought it over and said, 'When you fit out a merchant ship of your own, you can do it that way. Of course, any christian vessel will think you're pirates, so don't look for help if you get in difficulties. Sailors,' he explained, 'don't like anything new.'
    'Nor does anyone else,' he'd said. 'Not as far as I can see.' (p.118)
  • Meanwhile ...
    it was not invaders but Pope Julius himself who knocked down old St Peter's, which had stood for twelve hundred years, the site where the Emperor Constantine himself had dug the first trench, twelve scoops of soil, one for each of the apostles; where the Christian martyrs, sewn into the skins of wild beasts, had been torn apart by dogs. Twenty-five feet he dug down to lay his new foundations, through a necropolis, through twelve centuries of fishbones and ash, his workmen's shovels powdering the skulls of saints. In the place where martyrs had bled, ghost-white boulders stood: marble waiting for Michelangelo (p.516)

Point of View

It's 3rd-person-priviledged - "he" by default is Thomas Cromwell. Were it a 1st-person narrative at least there'd be one fewer "he" to contend with. Several times she resorts to using "he, Cromwell, ..." to clarify matters. Adding to the identification difficulties, characters frequently share first names or change names.

  • In the following there's "you", "he" and "us". "you" might mean "one".
    At such moments, Henry expects you to fall to your knees - duke, earl, commoner, light and heavy, old and young. He does it; scar tissue pulls; few of us, by our forties, are not carrying injuries. (p.211)
  • "your" means "one's"?
    It is a dark morning and your eyes naturally turn towards Anne (p.241)
  • Another "he"-related ambiguity.
    When the news comes, Henry bellows an obscenity and shreds the dispatch in his hands.
    He collects up the pieces, lays it out on a table and reads it. 'Francis has kept with with you after all,' he says. (p.512)
  • "This plague came to us in the year 1485" (p.89) arrives in the midst of what I thought was an infodump, so the "us" is a surprise. I guess it's reported speech, internal monologue.
  • The "we" comes as a surprize in "The English may favour Queen Katherine - broadly, it seems they do. ... But instinct tells him this: they will knit together against foreign interference ... We cannot, of course, rule out the possibility that such a coalition may occur" (p.358-9)
  • "you" and "us" crops up again in "You wouldn't know her now, for the bonny girl they had at Lambeth ... he will take it to Canterbury, so Dame Elizabeth can confess on her home ground. It is necessary to break the hold of these people who talk of the end times and threaten us with plagues and damnation" (p.514)

There's an out-of-PoV experience on page 320 - "Erasmus is surprised; he has heard only bad things of Thomas Cromwell"


  • Henry cannot take his eyes off her, and nor can he (p.517)
  • Who else, he thinks? (p.596)

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