Wolf Hall (by Hilary Mantel) surprised nobody by taking out the Booker Prize last week. I’ve been reading it over the last month and finally knocked it on the head yesterday. So, I was reading it while the Booker committee deliberated. I like to think that this might have affected them in some small way…
Actually, I was a little surprised to hear that it won the Booker. On my completely unobjective and inattentive survey, it’s the longest novel to get the gong in quite some time. It seems they generally they don’t award literary honours to long books. I guess when you’re a literary critic and you’ve got a whole pile of aspiring fiction in your library-bag the delight of something well-written and not tedious is virtually irresistible. I wonder also, whether long novels inevitably fall under the suspicion that the writer might have enjoyed churning the wheels of authorial invention, may have actually found it relatively easy… That would seriously mess with our visions of tortured genius.

Thomas Cromwell by Hans HolbeinHaving said that, I can’t imagine that Wolf Hall was an easy novel to write. On the contrary, it is an incredibly and painstakingly well-researched recreation of an historical character. The novel follows the rise and rise of Thomas Cromwell, the organisational and legal genius behind Henry VIII’s civil and ecclesiastical reforms. (As a side note, there are more Thomases in Wolf Hall than you could reasonably swing a sword at – but that is the fault of Tudor England, not Hilary Mantel. Who would have thought that so many men named ‘Thomas’ would be involved in shaping modern Anglophone society)
Tudor Britain was a society gripped by a series of transformations within which the lineaments of our contemporary world began to take shape. It is the lives and loves of some of the men and women in these pages that effected a legacy of change to which our current global culture continues to be heir. Wolf Hall is a chance to meet these characters and dwell with them in the daily weave of life. It’s a rich experience. You shouldn’t for a moment expect a hagiography though. Mantel leaves us in no doubt that Cromwell was both a ‘Bible Man’ and also a ruthless political operator. Something of a cross between Tony Soprano and the Anglican Church League (I leave you to decide which is which).

Wolf Hall is not just an historical novel, it is a novel about history. It is about the ways in which our paths are directed by choices other people made, the way our lives are intertwined with characters who walked ahead, sometimes out of sight, but whose presence still vibrates in the air as we pass. Mantel achieves this through a series of very daring effects: she situates the reader on the shoulder of Cromwell, not giving us a first person narrative, but free access to his thoughts and feelings. For a while we know Thomas, we live closer to him, than even his beloved wife. It is the most intimate form of ‘indwelling’. This is an opportunity to experience a knowledge of the world given through transmissible experiences rather than directly collated our own nervous encounters. Wolf Hall takes fiction seriously.

But perhaps too seriously? Wolf Hall will never be accused of insulting the reader’s intelligence. I’ve been studying and reading books about this period of history for a few years now, and I honestly think Mantel assumes more Tudor history than she communicates. But this is also the effect which makes Wolf Hall brilliant. Mantel has consciously written a novel in which the tension that drives the narrative doesn’t come from the narrative itself, but what the reader will bring to the narrative.
The secret of Wolf Hall lies in what the book isn’t about: Wolf Hall.