An Appreciation of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall Series
The execution of writing craft matters the most in historical fiction, perhaps even more than other forms. The plot is determined before the writer even beings; she will prune it to the form she wants but that is all the flexibility she gets. This is particularly true in known stories whose characters are famous figures, as in the case of Wolf Hall. Historical Fiction writers must make the past come more alive than a textbook typically renders its subject; they make us wonder about the complexity of lives we'll never know. Wolf Hall succeeds at this beautifully.
Full disclosure, I put the book down the first time I picked it up after a few chapters. I found myself confused and now, having read the book, I think I know why. Wolf Hall and its sequel Bringing Up the Bodies both have one of the strongest close third-person points of view I have ever read. There are many unattributed quotes and thoughts and Mantel expects the reader to be able to keep up. These quotes and thoughts are always from Cromwell. The story is told from his point of view, always. Because of the well-executed use of this point of view, the book makes a great study in the use of close third-person for a student of writing.
This, I would argue is part of Mantel’s point: Cromwell is the hero of his own life. Flawed, sure, and antihero most definitely, but hero nonetheless. This strong point of view is an asset in humanizing Cromwell, who is often seen as the cunning right hand to a fickle, sex-crazed violent king--a role that would typically be characterized as a villain.
Even in making Cromwell her hero, Mantel avoids easy villains. Throughout the series, Cromwell’s foes are portrayed as human. The forces against Cromwell are legion; he is, after all, in the center of a royal court rife with intrigue. The fortunes of every player in this tale are in constant flux. Cromwell’s position is always tenuous until he makes his king happy. This story could easily descend into chaos were it not for an interesting method deployed by Mantel.
Wolf Hall is a work of argument with fictional evidence that is attained via story. I have come to this quote out of context, though in the seemingly just hands of Maria Popova (who also strikes me as quite intelligent), so I don’t know whether Bruner considered such a possibility later in his book. At least one historian, David Starkey, found this galling. This combination is an interesting and powerful strategy. The purpose of fiction is to invite readers to consider what might be; the realm of questions rather than answers. Wolf Hall is testing a thesis, not writing history.
On the face of this metaphor one could easily imagine that the story would be about scratching and biting, fighting for position by any means necessary. That isn’t wrong but it discounts the complexity of wolfish behavior. Wolves are intensely loyal to the family/pack as well and that is the heart of this book. Whatever misdeeds are done they are often done out of love or familial protection or loyalty. This is exactly the type of strategy that opens the door to our empathy.
The television series doesn't rely heavily on the overt metaphor, but as Mantel has rendered her proofs in action and dialogue, they translate well to the screen. Mark Rylance is an amazing actor whose puppy dog eyes give Cromwell a disconcerting softness. My advice is to read both Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies before watching the PBS version, if only to read Mantel’s description of the execution of Anne Boleyn before watching. This moment is a perfect example of Mantel’s capacity for magic. I experienced one of my most intense reading moments reading that passage. In Mantel’s hands, the end of Anne Boleyn is a remarkable feat of fiction.
Both Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies won the Man Booker Award for fiction and deservedly so. I have a feeling the next book will perform equally well, particularly if it is the final chapter of the story, (spoiler!) the execution of Thomas Cromwell. Knowing how Mantel handled the death of Anne Boleyn, I’m willing to bet the death of her hero will be a marvel worth beholding.