Arguments over what to admire in literature often boil down to a conflict between the establishment/monumental approach and the transgressive/radical approach. The former emphasizes texts that, for all their complexity and probing, would be thought appropriate to teach to young people in school. While these works might well embrace a degree of ambiguity, they are ultimately seen as constructing a monument that a (fairly decent) establishment could embrace, point to, and strive towards. The latter is the kind of material that, while possibly admired on an aesthetic level, would not usually be seen on a high school syllabus and might even be prohibited from being on one. These works use radical and often disturbing techniques to transgress against the very foundations of society.
The above description is extremely reductive and frequently inaccurate. Even when these categories seem apparent, the flow of time frequently renders them laughable. Works banned by or frowned upon by the authorities are read by prominent politicians during speeches, often within mere decades. I remember seeing a photograph on the website of my graduate school’s English department. It showed students in class, all reading Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems. I wonder how many professors at that very university would have allowed that book in their classrooms in 1956. And what of writing never considered true literature in its day? At various times, dramatists were seen as popular authors, unworthy of even gaining entry to a literary debate. The same would later be said of novelists. When ideas changed, how do we establish the establishment or transgressive status of say, William Shakespeare or Jane Austen? While many would be happy to go right ahead and declare such authors one thing or the other, such pronouncements strike me as somewhat anachronistic.
However, while an establishment/transgressive divide in literature is overly simplistic, there is no denying its pull and its occasional usefulness. It’s just a fact of life that certain kinds of literature tend to fall more easily into one category or another. One very rarely alarms parents or outrages teachers by reading an historical novel. I point this out as someone who has always loved historical dramas on stage and screen and, more recently, has come to enjoy several historical novels. Despite this, I’ve long been aware, and am even more so now, that the historical genre is frequently a conservative one. The reconstruction of the past is generally about big events, famous names, and dramatic situations. I want to emphasize I don’t consider this to be an inherent aesthetic flaw. Profundity can be achieved in all sorts of ways. We have plenty to learn from many approaches to art. It just seems that the historical genre is not usually what one describes as “cutting edge” or “radical.” My knowledge of the historical novel is still limited so I’m positive there are numerous exceptions. In fact, what I’m describing may be more of an attitude on the part of readers. Such an attitude does seem to be fairly widespread, however. I know more than a few people whose eclectic tastes in literature stop cold if the piece takes place in the past.
When I was first reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, I found a part of myself comparing it unfavorably with other historical novels I’d read, especially The Dream of Scipio by Iain Pears. Wolf Hall was much tougher sledding even though Pears’ book could hardly be called light reading. Mantel’s novel just seemed really tough to absorb. However, I felt myself propelled forward and, before I long, I realized that toughness was a goal of Mantel’s and an aspect that puts this book in a dramatically different category from the average historical novel. While I have no objections to the more standard approach in historical novels (I still love and recommend The Dream of Scipio) I do believe that Wolf Hall is a number of rungs above them.
Mantel’s plot is nothing complicated or unusual. Wolf Hall is yet another retelling of the (in my opinion) always fascinating story of King Henry VIII of England’s attempts to end his first marriage and secure a legitimate son as his heir. All the familiar events are touched upon, including the breach with the Roman Catholic Church and the tempestuous love affair with Anne Boleyn. I’m not going to lie or mince words. I absolutely love this stuff and would lap it up from almost any author or in almost any format. Mantel, however, manages to do something I would have been sure was impossible till I was almost finished with her novel. She makes nearly all previous fictionalized versions of this story appear feeble and washed out. By the time I was done with Wolf Hall, the performances of most actors and the writing of most authors had faded away. Most of the historical figures presented in this book are now, to me, basically the people she presented them as. I’ve only ever had this experience before with the figures in Shakespeare’s two primary Roman tragedies, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra.
What does Mantel do to achieve this feat? That is where the book’s radicalism comes in. While there is little plot material unfamiliar to anyone who has heard this story before, Mantel delivers something very fresh in terms of point of view. Wolf Hall is written entirely from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s much reviled enforcer and henchman, usually presented in other works as the essence of Machiavellian conniving and amorality. Actually, saying the book is written from his point of view is an understatement. Throughout this novel, we basically inhabit Cromwell, seeing what he sees, knowing what he knows, and learning as he learns. As such, since Mantel starts out with his early life, the first parts of the book often have a feeling of restricted vision. Our awareness of the world grows as Cromwell’s does but it never becomes totally clear. Even a man as sharp as Cromwell could never know or understand everything that was going on around him. None of us ever can. Mantel leans heavily and wonderfully on James Joyce for her narrative techniques. Wolf Hall is never difficult to read in the late Joyce way, however. Rather it resembles the Joyce of Dubliners in its narrative clarity but keen evocation of the muddled inner lives of human beings. Instead of falling into traditional novelistic narrative tricks, Mantel creates a portrait of life not as it really turns out to be, but of life as it really feels as it is happening.
Due to this approach, anyone looking for historical pageantry should look elsewhere. While Wolf Hall has no shortage of drama, it is the drama of real life and ideas, not situations. All the historical figures, while intriguing, are properly cut down to size. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in Mantel’s portrait of Henry VIII, one of the most famous people in history. In his first appearance in this book, Henry comes off as a kind of sloppy boss, unable to multitask but unwilling to admit it. As we learn more about him, we get a look at a chilling but surprisingly mundane figure. Henry is a man without even rudimentary self-reflection. His empathy skills, while not non-existent, are basically hung on the shelf when he finds them inconvenient to his pursuit of personal pleasure. Such people are not at all unusual. We meet them everyday. Some of us have to live with them for periods of our lives. What makes Henry notable, and terrifying, is that he is the near absolute ruler of a nation. Mantel’s depiction of Henry is a great example of her ability in this book to remind us that history is lived by people. Those people may be remarkable but they probably become far more so in retrospect than they ever were in life.
Any historical fiction is going to involve a degree of speculation. I’ve often gotten in debates with people about the nature and number of liberties anyone dramatizing the historical record should take. I still firmly hold to my belief that artists should be cautious when they approach history. These events actually occurred and these people actually lived. We will be in their position before long. Also, what happened in the past continues to play a major role in what we do now and what we will do in the future. A respect for history and how people take it is of vital importance. Throughout Wolf Hall, Mantel is scrupulously historical. When she has to speculate, she does so briefly and plausibly. One charming result of this is that several important figures who, for whatever reason, rarely figure in Tudor dramas emerge more fully here. Those familiar with the actual historical events should enjoy seeing people like Thomas Audley and Thomas Wriothesley given their proper due. Another delightful by-product of Mantel’s historical accuracy is that we are spared the tedious revelation that this or that prominent figure was gay, despite there being no evidence whatsoever to suggest this. As a gay man, I don’t find this device offensive but it is unbelievably boring. It strikes me that such plot twists in historical fiction are primarily about titillating ignorant straight audiences who continue to be shocked, shocked by the idea that homosexuality wasn’t invented in 1969.
Some of this might make Wolf Hall sound like a dull history lesson. I understand how the description might give that impression but I can’t begin to explain how wrong that assumption would be. Mantel’s goal is not simply to recite the events as they happened. She manages to achieve something extraordinarily difficult. Her novel takes few liberties with the historical facts but, by refusing to fool around with what we know, she critiques our very way of approaching history. For instance, take the infamous figure of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Henry VIII’s influential favorite and, for the early part of Henry’s reign, the actual ruler of England. By the time Wolsey dies in Wolf Hall, you’ll be asking yourself why the word “infamous” is so frequently associated with him. It’s not that Mantel portrays him sympathetically. In the whole book, it’s difficult to find what would usually be called an authorial voice. Instead, Mantel just presents him as he really was and, slowly, makes us realize we might just have been had. Wolsey ultimately lost in real life. Also, he was perceived to be physically unattractive and was certainly hated by a great many people. As such, the story tended not to be his. Hence, the figure of the evil cardinal. Was it true? Wolsey was hardly a babe in the woods but, when you look at the facts, why would he be considered evil? More importantly, why are we so comfortable accepting that idea when it doesn’t really hold up?
This questioning of how we perceive history, and why we perceive it the way we do, is embodied by Cromwell, Mantel’s protagonist. It is also embodied in Cromwell’s conflict with Thomas More, famous philosopher and saint of the Catholic Church. More has usually been seen as the hero in their struggle, Cromwell as the arch-villain. I’ve long known the version of More in Robert Bolt’s wonderful play A Man For All Seasons (and its magnificent original film adaptation) was missing crucial pieces. More was a fanatical Catholic and his involvement in brutal religious persecution, while not unique at the time, hardly qualifies him as a hero to the modern world. Despite my foreknowledge, Mantel’s depiction of these two men made me more aware than ever of how much we are all influenced by what people say about themselves and what others say about them later on. Once again, it’s not that Cromwell comes off as ANY kind of angel when we look at the true story (and Mantel’s novelization of it). He was indeed brutal and accepted many of the common beliefs of his day. Mantel depicts him as saddened when people are publicly disembowelled or burned at the stake. What she tellingly does NOT show is Cromwell questioning the necessity of these revolting practices. Despite this, when you examine the true (or at least truer) Cromwell presented in Wolf Hall, it’s hard not to see him as a man who would embrace today’s world much more willingly than Thomas More.
Some readers might have noticed I did not say that Mantel shows us the positive side of More, even as she whittles away at his posthumous glorification. That is the one area where, possibly, Wolf Hall fails. “Fails” is probably too strong a term. It’s better to say that Mantel comes close to falling into the trap that she so artfully exposes others as gleefully stepping into. While there are a few moments where we see More’s appealing qualities and brilliance, they are quickly eclipsed by a figure it’s probably safe to say Mantel finds deeply irritating. In and of itself, this would not be a flaw. However, when juxtaposed with the depiction of Cromwell, this starts to feel a little bit like old-fashioned English anti-Catholicism. The Protestant victory hardly ushered in an era of pluralism and tolerance. There were times when I thought Mantel did not adequately emphasize that the tragedy of More was not that a great thinker fell for Roman Catholicism, but that he fell for cruelty and dogmatism. Mantel might well counter that her book depicts a period when Catholics had the upper hand. There is already a sequel to Wolf Hall and a third book will take us right to the end of Cromwell’s life. Perhaps these books will further complicate the portrait of Cromwell. Whatever questions I have about Mantel’s interpretation of certain events, I can say I am dying to read, learn from, and be jolted by the sequels to what is an undeniably great work of art.