He Liked Her Wolf Hall but He cannot Himself Repress His Annoyance at Her Writing Style

(Image of a collage by the artist Jess, taken from Jess O! Tricky Cad & Other Jessoterica, Siglio, Los Angeles, 2012)

Overall, I enjoyed Wolf Hall for the same reasons mentioned by several members of our book club during our recent discussion. I agree with the consensus opinion that Hilary Mantel succeeds in creating a feeling of immediacy, as though the reader were a fly-on-the-wall, listening-in to private conversations between Thomas Cromwell and various other historical figures during the reign of Henry VIII. The book makes history come alive rather than being a dry set of dates and facts.

I also have some appreciation for the amount of work and deep thinking that must have been involved in constructing this book. Having spent many years as a working scientist, it strikes me that the process of creating a high fidelity work of historical fiction must be somewhat similar to what is involved in creating a scientific theory. I was led to think about this analogy by a comment Mantel made in one of her interviews. She stated that, before she created dialog that took place at a specific time and place, she did painstaking research to try to ensure there was no historical evidence that the characters involved were, in actuality, someplace else when that supposed conversation took place. This is very similar to what a scientist must do to create a scientific theory. The scientist must first do extensive library research to be sure the new theory being constructed is not inconsistent with any of the currently known scientific facts.

However there is one aspect of the book that I found quite annoying. Mantel seems to be in love with the pronoun “he”, and uses it extravagantly, even when confusion and ambiguity are the consequence of this indiscriminate usage. Here is an example:

“As if he were a child, fair-minded with a treat, he gives him two slices of carrot and half the apple, to feed to his own horse; as he does so, he says, ‘You owe much to Anne Bolin. …’.” [page 226 in the Picador paperback edition]

Even after reading this passage several times, I am still not sure I could properly assign all of the pronouns’ antecedents; I am still not even sure who owned the horse! [Fortunately, our resident linguist, Richard Smaby, was able to shed some light on this burning question :-)].

The general rule for interpreting the use of ‘he’ becomes obvious to the reader early, within the first several pages of the book: If ‘he’ does not explicitly refer to someone else, then it usually refers to ‘Cromwell’. We know this because we are experiencing the story from the point of view of Cromwell. So if there is a reference to ‘he’ that is not within quotes, we can usually assume that this is “the voice of the little man inside Cromwell’s head referring to himself”. I applaud Mantel’s use of this writing style as an effective method for establishing a point of view that is personal and immediate. The problem I have with her writing is that she does not apply the rule consistently, and her repeated exceptions to the rule (I would guess that perhaps 10% of her uses of ‘he’ violate this rule and in a book that runs over 600 pages that produces a large number of exceptions). Her repeated violations/exceptions to this rule caused me considerable consternation while reading the book. I would start reading a paragraph and encounter a ‘he’; assume that the ‘he’ refers to Cromwell, only to discover later in the paragraph that this was one of the exceptions; forcing me to have to go back and re-read the section to get the meaning of the passage clear.

And a similar confusion frequently happened when trying to assign dialog within quotes to characters. Consider the following passage where the only characters present are Cromwell and Jane Seymore:

“I thought the king had forbidden her.”
“Anne says they should be torn up and used for, well you know what for, in a jakes. He was angry. Possibly because he doesn’t like the work jakes.”
“No more does he.”
The king deprecates coarse language, and not a few couriers have been frozen out for telling some dirty story. [this sentence, not being in quotes I assume is from inside Cromwell’s head]
“Is it true what Mary says? That the queen is afraid.”
“For now he is sighing over Mistress Shelton. Well, you know that. You have observed.”
“But surely that is harmless? A king is obliged to be gallant, till he reaches the age when he puts on his long gown and sits by the fire with his chaplains.”
“Explain it to Anne, she doesn’t see it. She wanted to send Shelton away. But her father and her brother would not have it. Because the Sheltons are their cousins, so if Henry is going to look elsewhere, they want it to be close to home. Incest is so popular these days! Uncle Norfolk said—I mean, His Grace–”
[page 494 in the Picador paperback edition]

On my first reading, it was only when I reached the final quote at the end that I was able to be confident about assigning a speaker to a quote – this must be Jane Seymore speaking. Then by counting backwards through the previous quotes I was able to assign each to a speaker, and re-read the passage with the ambiguities about who was speaking removed. I suppose someone smarter than me might have been able to pick up who the speakers were the first time through this section based on something in the preceding paragraphs, or from some subtle difference in ‘voice’ within the quotations, but I was not, and I found the process of having to repeatedly re-read sections of the book to resolve these kinds of ambiguities to become exceedingly annoying.

For the first couple hundred pages of the book, I assumed that my cognitive processes would eventually become attuned to Mantel’s writing style such that I could read the remainder of the book effortlessly. It never happened, and I am still trying to figure out why. I currently have 3 hypotheses under consideration.

The first is that the problem is simply due to my lack of cognitive capacity to pick up on Mantel’s writing style. As Richard has carefully demonstrated in a separate post, some of Mantel’s wording is complex, but not ambiguous if one reads the passage carefully, keeping several items in short-term memory while reading until the ambiguities are resolved. Having just returned from a visit with my elderly father who is suffering from mild dementia, I am reluctantly forced to accept the possibility that as I am aging I am losing some of my cognitive abilities to process writing styles that put demands of short-term memory. Perhaps if I had read this book when 10 or 20 years younger I would have been able to read it effortlessly. Given that others do not seem to have been bothered by the same frustrations I experienced while reading he book, and given that the book was awarded a Mann Booker Prize, I cannot rule out this hypothesis.

My second hypothesis is that Mantel is ‘one step ahead of me’, and used this particular writing style for a purpose. A major thematic element of the book has to do with the way Cromwell had to survive in an environment where there is much ambiguity about relationships, motivations, and intentions, and the book is filled with puns and other forms of humor based on these ambiguities. One of my favorite examples is a conversation between Cromwell and Anne Bolin:

Cromwell: “Dame Alice has a little monkey that sits on her knee at table.”
Anne: “I hate them.”
Cromwell: “I know you do.”

And Cromwell is portrayed in the book as having been a genius in maneuvering his rise to power in an environment where deception, even treachery, surrounded every aspect of his life. One compelling example of this that I remember (but did not write down the page number to go back and reexamine it so I am going to discuss it from memory) happens when Cromwell is involved in a conversation with King Henry VIII during which Cromwell is not sure which ‘Richard’ (I may have the name wrong, but I think it was Richard) the king is referring to. Cromwell very cautiously engages, noncommittal, in the conversation struggling to avoid putting himself in jeopardy by saying the wrong thing until, finally, the king says something that reveals which ‘Richard’ is being referred to. Only then does Cromwell, thinking quickly on his feet, make a suggestion to the king about what should be done in this situation. So perhaps Mantel is cleverly using this deliberately ambiguous writing style to give us, the readers, a sense of what it would be like to be in Cromwell’s situation. My hypothesis number 2 would imply that the emotional feelings of annoyance and frustration I experienced while reading the book were produced deliberately by Mantel as a way of creating some amount of empathy for what it must have been like for Cromwell to have to deal with ambiguities that had, in his case, potentially much more serious consequences.

My third hypothesis; this is simply an example of poor editing and deteriorating standards in modern day publishing of best-sellers where quickness-to-mass-market trumps laborious careful editing of the final product. I have a sneaking suspicion that a heavy dose of careful editing could have substantially improved the readability of this book, and the book itself is good enough to have deserved such an editing! I will give just one pithy example here to make my point. Consider the following sentence:

“He, Cromwell, goes to the hatch, holds up one finger to the spectators, and slams it in their face.”
[page 348, Picador paperback edition]

In a book of over 600 pages in which ‘He’ is used, perhaps, thousands of times and its antecedent never specified when it refers to Cromwell, all of a sudden we encounter this sentence in which the antecedent is made explicit. Certanly, Mantel has to be signifying something pretty damn important in this sentence! So I examine the surrounding sections very carefully, expecting to find something special, perhaps an important allusion or symbol or turning point in the plot or in character development. But, and perhaps I was just a little too dense to pick up some significant meaning here, in the end I finally decided this was most likely just poor editing. And forgive me for even raising this issue, but if my third hypothesis is the correct one, I have some doubts about whether or not this style of writing is deserving of a Mann Booker Prize.

I welcome comments from others who have read this book.

Ron Boothe

About Ron Boothe

I am a Professor Emeritus at Emory University, currently living in Tacoma Washington USA.
This entry was posted in 2012 Selections, Wolf Hall and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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