This recommendation is of a book I’ve not yet finished, or for that matter, even read—well technically. I’m currently listening to the audiobook version of Hilary Mantel’s multi-award winning novel Wolf Hall. I plucked it from the library shelf yesterday afternoon, and in twenty four hours, it’s been the cause of all the work that’s fallen behind. The novel, which appeared in 2012 and has gone on to be a global best seller, has won numerous awards including the Man Booker Prize and The National Book Critic’s Circle Award. Wolf Hall is first in a trilogy on Thomas Cromwell and his rapid rise to power during the Tudor dynasty. The second, Bring Up The Bodies was recently released, and the third, The Mirror and the Light, is forthcoming.
Wolf Hall has been described as a fictionalized biography, and is set within a specific period of Cromwell’s life, from 1500 to 1535. Cromwell rose from a working class background to become an indispensable confidante and guide to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, adviser to King Henry XVIII, and went on to be one of Henry’s most powerful ministers—almost single-handedly ushering in the Protestant reformation. Mantel’s portrayal has been called an “intimate and well-rounded portrait of Cromwell as a pragmatic and talented man attempting to serve king and country amid the political machinations of Henry’s court.”
Truthfully, I haven’t read much historical fiction. I tend to be disappointed at the breaches that so often seem to occur—wincing at period oversights in references to food or other terminology that break the authenticity of voice. With such small details I should be more forgiving, since history was never my strong suit. But if there is one thing I’ve come to be a stickler about, it’s the precision of written text—in historical fiction or otherwise—and line for line, I don’t think you’ll find a writer more precise, and for that matter, more rich and imaginative than Mantel. Here is Stephen Greenblatt on Wolf Hall in The New York Review of Books.
In the most fully realized historical novels, the historical figures are not merely background material or incidental presences but the dominant characters, thoroughly reimagined and animated. They are at the center of our attention, and their actions in the world seem to carry the burden of a vast, unfolding historical process that is most fully realized in small, contingent, local gestures. Those gestures are ordinarily hidden from official chroniclers, but they are the special purview of the historical novelist. “Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions,” Mantel writes in a kind of credo:
This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman’s sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rose water; her hand pulling close the bed curtain, the discreet sigh of flesh against flesh.
I’ve come late to Mantel’s work. She has been publishing novels, short stories, as well as a memoir, since 1985. Though it was not until she embarked on her historical novels that her work became widely known. Mantel’s writing process, based on years of research (Wolf Hall reportedly required five), and meticulous charting of characters and events, has produced what might be called a dream formula—not one for success, though it has certainly brought that—but for the framework that enables her to construct a stunning and often virtuoso blend of voice and point of view. Here is Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the supercilious and manipulative adviser to Henry XVIII, after he’s been ousted from his exalted position—and his luxury apartment in London—for his interference in the King’s pursuit of Anne Boleyn:
Wolsey sits with his elbows on his desk, his fingers dabbing his closed lids. He takes a great breath, and begins to talk: he begins to talk about England. You can’t know Albion, he says, unless you can go back before Albion was thought of. You must go back before Caesar’s legions, to the days when the bones of giant animals and men lay on the ground where one day London would be built. You must go back to the New Troy, the New Jerusalem, and the sins and crimes of the kings who rode under the tattered banners of Arthur and who married women who came out of the sea or hatched out of eggs, women with scales and fins and feathers; beside which, he says, the match with Anne looks less unusual. These are old stories, he says, but some people, let us remember, do believe them.”
The point of view of each character has a complexity and has breadth that renders their conversations, thoughts, dreams and histories thrilling to read. Mantel turns even the act of rolling up a carpet into a surreal and stirring flight.
But caveat emptor, I suppose, since I’m only on the second disk of eighteen. Though for what it’s worth, at this rate, I’ll likely have finished the audiobook in a day or two. And from there, I’m heading straight to the bookshelf to begin the trilogy’s second installment.