Hilary Mantel's award-winning Wolf Hall skillfully dances the line between fiction and biography
Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, even if it hadn't won the Man-Booker Prize this year, will surely install her as one of the great inventive stylists of English literature. Compared with A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book (a natural inclination, since they were both on the Prize short list) Wolf Hall wears its immense learning about early mid-sixteenth century England very lightly on every one of its 650 pages.
The reader—any reader, certainly this reader—is carried instantly back into a time so different, so alien, so incomprehensible to contemporary sensibilities, that one is led to reflect on the sheer power of well-used language because the explanation for this immense feat of literary dexterity lies in the writing itself. The arrangement of words on the page.
Some critics have drawn a limited degree of attention to this, focusing in particular on Mantel's use of the present tense: a device that sets us down in the same place as her protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, alert to possibilities, but ever having to adjust to the uncertainties of the future. If we know our history we know what happens next, but Cromwell didn't, and Mantel's skill—amounting to a work of genius—is to put us at Cromwell's shoulder, as uncertain as he is about what lies behind the curtain of the future.
But the tense of verbs is not all. Try reading page 211, which, I promise, I just turned over at random, and which is more than representative enough. The density of reference in these 33 lines of prose, about money in the Tudor economy; relations between peers and commoners; how to behave in the presence of the King; rivalries for the King's attention and patronage; the personality of Henry VIII; the role of the Church; the King's desire to help an adviser he can no longer protect; and much else besides, is all quite astonishing.
Where there is spoken dialogue here, Mantel makes no great effort to retrieve Tudor syntax or (very much) Tudor vocabulary. What she does is graphic—indeed there is quite a lot of painting in the book—and she paints the scene so brilliantly that, in a sense, we create a Tudor dialogue for ourselves from the description. When she writes of the King, in what otherwise might have seemed authorial omniscience: "At such moments, Henry expects you to fall to your knees—duke, earl, commoner, light and heavy, old and young. He does it; scar tissue pulls; few of us, by our forties, are not carrying injuries." We make the leap, though it's compressed by an economy of expression, that the "he" here is Cromwell, and these thoughts are his, as he goes to his knees, feeling the scars of his past. It is all in the writing.
Brilliant as it is, should it have won the Man-Booker Prize for fiction? Is it a novel? How much of it might we reasonably call fiction? Wolf Hall certainly isn't an historical novel in the sense that Scott or Dumas, Tolstoy or Musil wrote. Theirs are works in which fictional protagonists lead their invented lives against a background of historical events in which some few real historical figures may make limited appearances. Mantel's characters are, by contrast, and almost without exception (one or two servants, and so on) historical figures. Nor are they caught up in fictional events.
Mantel has done her research. The narrative thread is the rise of Thomas Cromwell from humble beginnings—blacksmith's son; violent father—through the political ecclesiastical and social worlds of the 1510s and '20s. The plagues, the King's "progresses", the executions, the food, even the weather. They are all known. All in place. And where things are not known, in particular the ten years or so of Cromwell's adolescence and young manhood, when he fled the violence of his father's household and sought his fortune in continental Europe, she resists the temptation to invent.
As a result of these measures Wolf Hall is far, far closer to biography or history than it is to fiction. Yet no scholarly biographer would permit the dialogue in which Mantel occasionally indulges. What real people actually said, most of the time, goes unrecorded, and so cannot be quoted. And in any event, the interplay of dialogue may distort a truth rather than reveal one.
The rise of what we might call "The Wolf Hall Manner" was presaged recently by Colm Toibin's The Master and David Lodge's Author, Author, two interesting and delightful works about Henry James. Given that they are about the same man, and that he was a writer who spent the great bulk of his life sitting in a room on his own with a pen in his hand, the works are remarkably different. For reasons surely revelatory about both the authors of these books, Lodge concerns himself largely with James as a writer, and in particular his attempt at drama, and his friendship with du Maurier, while Toibin is preoccupied with James's sexuality—or apparent lack of it.
We all know (except, of course, that we don't really) which closet James is locked in, and Toibin is determined to pull him out of it, doing so in a series of cleverly drawn settings, and in the most skillful way. Is either of these treatments of James really fiction? Both depend heavily on Edel's monumental biography, though Lodge has backed his portrait with far more additional scholarship than Toibin. Both are, however, giving birth to a new kind of literary work, a genre born of new concerns, and one to which Mantel has now added in the most stunning way.
But I persist. Wolf Hall is not a novel, and such small amounts of fiction as it contains conform so closely to the imagined world of the alert reader's conscious self and his or her views about the interactions of social life, that its documentary images are never out of focus.
The book ends as I had hoped, with Jane Seymour looming larger (in scope, not flesh) and the possible promise thereby of a sequel. Let us hope so. For this is fine, indeed brilliant writing: a literary world of its own in which any lover of English prose style would be happy to dwell.
Would it be too much to hope that in winning the Man-Booker Prize it has signaled the beginning of the end of that disreputable feast of competitive hubris that the prize system has brought to fiction publishing? I fear it is. But then, if they can award the prize for fiction to something that isn't, what might we expect to win it next?