Let’s get this established straight off: there is not that much wrong with Wolf Hall. Indeed, its success can only be a good thing: in a bestsellers chart containing Dan Brown’s latest thrilling ride through the Microsoft Word thesaurus, another dose of mawkishness from Audrey Niffenegger and a pararomance by some American woman called Stephanie Meyer, Mantel is about the only literary author holding her own. This book deserves its commercial pulling power.
We follow the rise and rise of Henry VIII’s adviser Thomas Cromwell, later the Earl of Essex, from a position literally face-down in the Putney dirt to the very top of the greasy pole of the Tudor court. Mantel strolls through sixteenth-century England like a master-gardener through an arboretum, breathing life everywhere she steps: Wolf Hall teems with richness and curiosity like a lovingly-tended period garden. Cromwell’s own character is robust and irresistibly likeable, and by his side we meet some skillfully drawn background figures, most notably a stormy Henry Tudor and a Thomas More who has received a total overhaul since A Man for All Seasons and reappears as a cruel, manipulative and yet oddly sympathetic player in the great game. There are fun cameos, too, from the the likes of the poet Thomas Wyatt and the painter Hans Holbein. The subtle clockwork mechanisms of court politics click and whirr around brilliant components, and the conversation alternately crackles with static energy or purrs with smoothness. Mantel has fine-tuned her machine beautifully.
This same niceness and vivacity run throughout the storytelling. There is no grandstanding here: when Cromwell’s young family is obliterated by the sweating-sickness, the pathos is of a variety so delicate as to be almost mundane. The tale progresses like music, with an adroit mastery of tone – sadness bleeding into bittersweet humour fluttering into menace – and of focus, as the intensely personal suddenly jerks into the greater scheme of the nation before slipping back to a small child again. This is all told in a prose style that will admit no commonplaces: Mantel can be blunt, she can be poetic, she can be complex, but she is always elegant and entertaining.
And yet – and yet. If you are just looking for a good read, you should probably stop reading this review now and go and buy the book. Still reading? Then hear me out, because, for all its many virtues – and you’ve heard me sing ’em tunefully enough – Wolf Hall just doesn’t quite satisfy. This is for two reasons. The first is that if Mantel does not write commonplaces, she thinks commonplaces: you’ll learn nothing new here. Wolf Hall makes no intellectual demands on the reader, and so offers no intellectual profit. Mantel has written a modern book about the sixteenth century that casts little light on the the Tudors or on us. The book is not “meticulously researched,” as one reviewer raves, but merely adequately researched. Mantel catches the social moment well enough – as we would expect from the author who spent nigh on twenty years preparing her French Revolution novel A Place of Greater Safety – but passes the Renaissance by. The correspondence between More and Erasmus, the Italy of Pacioli and da Vinci, even the theological fulminations of Luther: all are so much ambient background, and no more. Wolf Hall doesn’t feel like its period. To judge by the way the characters think, speak and act, they are twenty-first century men under sixteenth-century constraints – Cromwell himself is anachronistically liberal in his personal outlook.
Is Mantel, then, holding up what another reviewer calls “a dark mirror…to our own world”? Not really, unless you mean that she is being brutally honest about realpolitik and, yes, that realpolitik happens nowadays too. Even then, the unflappably humane Cromwell bears more resemblance to Merlin than to Malcolm Tucker; Wolf Hall is hardly a satire on contemporary politics or society. It professes to depict a world in which homo homini lupus, man is a wolf to man – hence the title – a world of “inveterate scrappers. Wolves snapping over a carcase. Lions fighting over Christians”, and yet these wolves are tame even in comparison to a Frank Herbert novel. Mantel isn’t trying to say anything significant; rather, she is simply fascinated by her characters and her story.
The second reason why Wolf Hall grates is its construction. Frankly, it has no plot to speak of, just an endless succession of problems and solutions. Can Cromwell fix it? Yes, once again, he can. Cardinal Wolsey’s slide from grace at the start of the novel seems to augur tragedy on the most massive scale – as does the opening quote from Vitruvius, drawing the distinction between tragedy, comedy and the satyr play – but we finish in 1534, six years short of Cromwell’s execution, with his star firmly in the ascendant. Cromwell, moreover, has no real defects, and only develops in the most superficial fashion. The first two hundred pages are gripping, but I was really quite pleased with myself for making it through the next four hundred. Word has it that Mantel is planning a sequel to cover the latter half of Cromwell’s career, but if this book is read alone – and it was as a standalone book that it was awarded the super-duper-prestigious Booker Prize – it’s a bit uneventful, to be quite candid.
So take it as you will. If you want something undemanding to read on the train or between classes or whatever that will whisk you away to another world, Wolf Hall is a sterling piece of narrative written with impeccable good taste. Yet this good taste is all that stops it from being just another thriller: the difference between Mantel and, say, John Grisham is quality of writing, not quality of thought. The book deserves to be a commercial success, but perhaps not a succes d’estime. You might want to think of it as a really good biography instead. Measured against the best modern historical novels, however – works with a real sense of the dynamic between now and then, like Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose or Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain – Wolf Hall lacks muscle and bite, for all its sleek grace.