Monday, 8 June 2015


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I have just finished reading Wolf Hall; its taken me three months which is why there have been no other book reviews on here since Easter. The book is about 650 pages long; not only did I not skim it, I seem to have read every paragraph twice to fully understand the full meaning of it. There is a fabulous review below, that I can’t improve upon:

She, the reviewer, thinks that she, Mantel, has written a novel which manages to be both stimulating and frustrating. She starts to ask herself `Why did she detract from the quality of her work by adopting such a silly writing style?' but then she remembers that she, Mantel, often doesn't put speech inside speech marks, and so she resolves not to do so for the rest of her review.

She, the reviewer, says, she has written a wonderfully plausible account of his, Cromwell's, thought processes. Which other novel does a better job of getting inside the mind of a major historical character, she asks herself. None that she can think of, she concludes. And she appreciates how wonderfully, through the medium of his thoughts, she has managed to illuminate life in Tudor London. She very much enjoys some of the rich humour in her descriptions of his dealings with people at all levels of society ranging from him, Henry, down to near-paupers. She also marvels at her wide-ranging research, which provides a wealth of historical detail and contains almost no errors. She says, almost, because she does detect a few minor mistakes, for example her description of his, Cromwell's, accusation that one of his, Norfolk's, ancestors helped to "disappear" the princes in the tower; which leads her to say, doesn't she, Mantel, realise that the use of "disappear" as a transitive verb only started in the late 20th century and was surely unknown in Tudor England? But she forgives her for such minor lapses: she says, they aren't important when set against all the good things in the book.

But then she thinks of a few things that perhaps are important blemishes. She wonders how she can write about the Tudor court and make relatively little effort to get inside her, Anne Boleyn's, mind, and her, Catherine of Aragon's, mind; not to mention his, Henry's, mind. She concludes that although she captures him brilliantly, she doesn't really illuminate the overall politics of the Tudor court very well; she thinks that she, Philippa Gregory, does a better job in this respect though she readily accepts that she, Mantel, is a more rounded literary novelist.

Then she asks herself why she makes the book unnecessarily long by inserting so many scenes with minor and largely inconsequential characters. She is almost tempted to skim her reading of some of these passages.

And she also thinks that she is over-rated by the professional critics. She marvels at the book's dust-jacket, which quotes Diana Athill comparing Wolf Hall with Middlemarch. She, the reviewer, thinks, does she, Athill, really think that she, Mantel, is as good as her, George Eliot? She doesn't think so: she says, no character in Wolf Hall, not even he, is as entertainingly infuriating as Middlemarch's Edward Casaubon; and Wolf Hall isn't as broad-themed and timeless as Middlemarch. And she also reflects that if she were to review Middlemarch using the literary style of her, George Eliot, she would be able to write her review in proper English.

And that brings her back to her starting point: why does she, Mantel, degrade the quality of her novel by choosing to write it in a style that looks like an entry for Private Eye's Pseuds Corner? Does she think it's sophisticated? If so, she thinks she's very wrong.

Good innit?

What I wondered when I finished was why Hilary Mantel took it on. I’ve read two other Mantel novels; A Change of Climate and An Experiment in Love, both of which, though beautifully written particularly An Experiment in Love, are badly flawed by their endings, in my view. At the end of Wolf Hall she gives an interview about herself in which she says, in response to being asked, ‘What made you a writer?’ ‘I knew I could write . . . but what I didn’t know was whether I could write fiction’. Perhaps that is still an open question. I love her writing, love her characters love the talent she has for showing what someone is really thinking, not telling us what they are thinking. Love her similes; her description of the fur coat basking on the bed in An Experiment in Love was worth the price of the book. But her endings? Needs more work Miss Mantel, six out of ten; see me later. So maybe this was why she tried Cromwell: good story already told and doesn’t have to worry herself about how it ends. Thomas More dies.

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