Kudos to Hilary Mantel for winning the Man Booker for both this novel and (more recently) for its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies. And kudos to her for tackling such a shopworn and over-exploited topic in Wolf Hall: the role Thomas Cromwell played in securing the marriage of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn in defiance of the Catholic Church. It’s no overstatement to say that this was one of the most pivotal moments in not just English history but in all of Western civilization. The marital machinations that transformed England from a papal fiefdom to a modern state have spawned a whole host of trashy historical novels, and what Mantel has done here is a cut above.
Still and all, I don’t get it. To my eye, Wolf Hall possesses the bloated heft of a dramatic exposition rather than the sinewy nimbleness of a novel alive to its time and place. Too often, this book gets overrun by talking heads devoid of a physical environment and used exclusively for the dissemination of historical data. As the novel’s key characters—Cromwell, Cardinal Wolsey, Stephen Gardiner, Thomas More—engage with one another over 650 pages, I kept asking myself: where are they, physically, as these interactions are happening? Why do we not have a sense of the space they occupy as they rattle on and on in these long expository exchanges? Things do improve as the novel builds to its climax, but it takes a long time before you really get a sense of the corporeal reality of living in 16th century England.
Make no mistake: Mantel is a superb stylist and there are passages in Wolf Hall that left me breathless by their sheer poetry. What’s more, the fall of Wolsey is handled with such passion and heartache that I had to put the novel down for a day or two to collect myself. Still, these strengths could not overcome the long and disembodied tedium that I found through most of the book. I wanted Wolf Hall to grip me with the implicit significance of its characters and plot. Instead, I found myself at a lost to understand what makes this novel a novel.