There are many reasons why I haven’t been keeping up with the blogging as much as I’d like lately, to do with work, life and one thing and another, but one big one is that it has taken me a very long time to make my way through Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (4th Estate, 2009). There doesn’t seem much point in writing a proper review of it though. It’s been out for ages, and everyone has said their two pennorth already, so instead here are some rambling reflections.
It’s a book I’d vaguely intended to read ever since it first came out, but it was the TV adaptation – which we very much enjoyed – that finally prompted me to take the plunge. Yes, it’s long, and yes, it’s taken me a long time, but I found it thoroughly worth the effort. It’s probably unfair both to Hilary Mantel and to Philippa Gregory to compare it to The Other Boleyn Girl, as they are very different takes on the historical novel, and aiming for very different effects, but I enjoyed them both, and they are both very readable in their own ways.
One of the things I appreciated about both the book and the TV version of Wolf Hall was that they don’t spell everything out for you immediately, but leave the reader to figure out what is being hinted at, and – in some cases – who is speaking to whom. It requires a little more prior knowledge of the period than some handlings, but not that much – all my understanding of the era is pretty much gleaned from fiction, but I got on fine with it. The effect can be quite similar to Mark Rylance sitting around in the dark mumbling to somebody, while they are both wearing black, but you usually get an explanation in the end.
Another thing that I liked was the way Mantel describes the famous Holbein paintings, and the characters’ responses to them during and after their completion. There was enough detail to conjure them up in the mind’s eye without battering you around the head in a “look, I’m talking about a famous thing” kind of way. Similarly, characters flit around the edge of the scene – Jane Seymour, Mark Smeaton, Henry Norris and so on – with a fair degree of irony in that their later significance is never spelled out but there to pick up on in a “let the reader understand” kind of way.
I did feel that she was perhaps overly generous to Cromwell, who was surely more downright devious and unpleasant than she allows, and harsh on More – although he gets the benefit of canonisation in real life, so perhaps all’s fair, as he was undoubtedly also a nasty piece of work.
People complain about the writing style – if you don’t like the use of the present tense, tricksy games with time, flashbacks, fast-forwards, and other muckings about, then you won’t like this either. I do though. It reminds me in some ways of Kate Atkinson, whose Behind the Scenes at the Museum blew me away from the first page.
I will definitely be reading Bring Up the Bodies, but first there’s the matter of all the other books that have been piling up in the meantime…