There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
~ Emily Dickinson

Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourses of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness. ~ Helen Keller

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Review: Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Is there any greater pleasure than when a book one has harbored high expectations for, actually exceeds those expectations? I expected to like Wolf Hall: Having first learned Tudor history as a child through accounts of the English reformers, I first met Cromwell as a friend to the reformation; I was quite shocked by the caricaturization of him as evil in A Man for All Seasons. Secondly, after reading Mantel's controversial speech on Royal Bodies, I conceived a tremendous respect for her insight, intelligence, and compassion. To be honest, I put off reading Wolf Hall until now because I was reserving it as a special treat.

It didn't disappoint, but it did surprise me. My first surprise was that Cardinal Wolsey (or Cardinal Wolfsey, the Wiley Wolf, as the Tyndale in the first “Tudor-era” book I obsessively read as a child called him) actually had his good points. Yes, Mantel's speech had led me to expect in her this ability to see the depth of even the most hypocritical or shallow characters. I expected a sympathetic Cromwell, yet her portrayal was more than sympathetic, it was broad-ranging, personal, and touching.

At first I found the unclear antecedents before pronouns disconcerting, but after realizing that most instances of the word he referred to Cromwell, I found it added to the claustrophobic sense of his thoughts as the nucleus. One sees Cromwell in varied situations, always changing, yet still somehow the same. After 650 pages of intimacy, one feels that they should know him, but do not. His own acknowledgement that “my workings are hidden from myself” illustrates how he can be simultaneously vulnerable and intimidating, possess the milk of human kindness and still be the consummate politician.

A blurb on the back cover compares the novel to Middlemarch. Last year reading Mantel's wonderful blend of compassion and intelligence about the royals, I'd wondered if she was familiar with Middlemarch. ( ) While I still would rank the latter novel more highly, I recall that it took me a second reading to realize just how fearful and wonderful it is. I'm already hungry for a second reading of Wolf Hall. First, though, must come Bring Up the Bodies (delicious titular reference!). Again, I'm so excited I'm almost frightened to start.

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  1. You've convinced me to read Mantel. (Unfortunately I am a total snob about style, and her modern phrasing had put me off). I shall now read up all I can about Tudor history so I can actually understand her books.

    1. The issue of speaking styles and phraseology in historical novels is interesting. On the on hand, readers often come to such books looking to "experience" the era. On the other hand, just as in a foreign language film, the language in any pre-Renaissance (and some Renaissance) stories is going to be too unlike our own to provide the reader anything but close language study. Obviously modern lingo like "okay" (I'm sure I've heard of it being used in a historical novel) is too jarring, but obvious attempts to make the language archaic can also bring the reader up short. I like Sharon Kay Penman's "The Sun in Splendour", for instance, but the use of "be" for "are", or "you do know" for "you know" felt a bit unnecessary and forced to me. Personally, I found Mantel's bare-bones style rather suited to her subject and protagonist, although I certainly wouldn't appreciate it in all works.

      A significant part of my enjoyment of the novel came from my familiarity with the period, so I can't promise you'll love it as much as I do. Good luck learning about the deep, dark world of Tudor history!

  2. Hi Lit-Lass. I'm Manny from Ashes from Burnt Rosese, and I wanted to thank you for following my blog, and since your blog seems quite interesting and intelligent I signed up as a follower. Feel free to comment on my blog if a thought should happen to come to you. Reading through your interests it seems we have several in common.

    I too am a fan of Jane Austen, though i can't claim to be an expert in her work. I've read three: P&P, Emma, and Pursuasion. I've been trying to find a time for my next Austen novel, but I'm afraid my reading list is booked solid for the year. Perhaps next year, and I'm considering Mansfield Park. If I do, I'll be sure to blog on it.