I ought to warn you that this essay will contain spoilers for Wolf Hall (and lots of them), but I am not sure that this book can be spoiled. Wolf Hall is historical fiction, based on the actions of Henry VIII and his councilors surrounding the English Reformation. In addition to the king, the three main characters are Thomas Cromwell, Anne Boleyn, and Thomas More. The death of one of these is particularly notorious, but (and here’s where the Spoiler Alert gets tricky) all three met the same, headless end. Wolf Hall concludes with the death of More, prior to the deaths of Boleyn and Cromwell. Evidently Wolf Hall is the first novel of a Thomas Cromwell trilogy. Bringing Up the Bodies (2012) ends with [Spoiler Alert] the execution of Anne Boleyn. Presumably, the final installment will put an end to Thomas Cromwell, as well.
Surely the author intends the reader to anticipate their executions. Indeed, if one does not know that everyone involved is doomed to decapitation, there seems little weight to the novel. It is a spoiler to say “Thomas More dies,” but unless you know Thomas More is going to die, you are missing a crucial piece of the dramatic puzzle. Historical knowledge of the personalities involved in the English Reformation is a prerequisite to grasping Wolf Hall. This is not in and of itself a flaw; a good book can be enriched by a historical founding, and I don’t dispute the possibilities of historical fiction. This book rewards those familiar with the history, while those unfamiliar must hold on tighter. Titles are used interchangeably with names, somewhat aggressively at times, challenging readers’ history and memory.
The driving literary device in Wolf Hall (and much historical fiction) is dramatic irony: the reader knows Katherine will be dethroned, the Church will split, heads will roll, Mary will be bloody, but the characters do not. If the reader knows what is going to happen, why bother reading? Two main reasons: to learn the history more intimately or to enjoy the book as a literary work. I certainly learned a lot from Wolf Hall. I gained a different perspective on the historical sequence of events surrounding the English Reformation, and what feels like familiarity with the names and actions of the individuals involved.
For the other purpose, to enjoy the novel qua novel, the piece of historical fiction must cross from a simple dramatization into a work of literary art. To stand on its own, it needs to do more than go through the historical motions. Wolf Hall does not. It is as if each of the many characters is simply a vehicle for his or her historical actions. We know Anne Boleyn and her family wormed their way onto the throne, so they are constantly worming, deceiving, scheming. We are shown Thomas Cromwell’s childhood with an abusive father and the devastating loss of his family members as an adult, but these events don’t seem to change his personality or motivation. He is a calculating, family-oriented boy, and he is a calculating, family-oriented man. We are told he was a fighter as a youth, but the novel opens on Cromwell not fighting back, and we never see him throw a punch.
We do not receive the literary joys of character growth, philosophical insight, or linguistic novelty. The prose drags. Instead of the cleverness or subtlety of real irony, Wolf Hall is dripping with dramatic irony, which is an excellent supplement but a poor substitute. The weight of the novel is borrowed from the subject matter, so that the whole book is written with a faux gravitas that is more muddled than affecting.
The one literary device with which the author takes great liberty is her disregard of the rules of pronouns and antecedents. Most of the time, the pronoun “he” refers to Thomas Cromwell. Unless and until the reader internalizes this convention, the text is almost unintelligible. Take, for instance, the following paragraph:
On October 2 the cardinal reaches his palace at Cawood, ten miles from York. His enthronement is planned for November 7. News comes that he has called for a convocation of the northern church; it is to meet at York the day after his enthronement. It is a signal of his independence; some may think it is a signal of revolt. He has not informed the king, he has not informed old Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury; he can hear the cardinal’s voice, soft and amused, saying, now, Thomas, why do they need to know?
The subject is established as the cardinal, to whom the following “his”s and “he”s refer until the second half of the final sentence. The last sentence uses “he” twice to refer to the cardinal, and a third time to refer to Cromwell.
Jarring shifts like this are on every page of the book, and require some mental rewiring
to read comfortably. The implications of typical sentence structure are upended, as in this sentence: “When he meets the king, Henry rages about Gardiner.” In a normal sentence, “he” would refer to “Henry,” but in Wolf Hall, Henry is the king (except when Henry is not the king). Of course, King Henry is easy to remember, but when less distinctive titles and names are used, like “duke” and “Thomas” or “secretary” and “Stephen,” deciphering becomes even more complicated. Thomas Cromwell is given precedence over all other characters, with the effect that Wolf Hall is narrated by something less than first person, but more than omniscient third person. Occasionally a sentence or two from outside Cromwell’s ken is thrown in, and these are often jarring in themselves, as unjustified by the scope of the preceding narrative scheme.
The two things that make Wolf Hall intelligible are getting used to thinking “Cromwell” when you see “he” and simply knowing who everybody is. This brings back the issue of spoilers. If a book contains historical fact, and the reader is presumed to know the fact, and foreknowledge of the fact is necessary to appreciate the book, is there anything the reader can “know” to spoil the book? What is the meaning of Thomas More torturing and executing others unless you know he will meet the same fate? Where is the power in Thomas Cromwell having More executed unless you know he will also be subject to trumped up charges that will be his end? I am a card-carrying anti-spoiler activist, but I can’t imagine a book more in need of a spoiling. I value walking away with the new perspective on history, but I am disappointed that this novel turned out to be a slog.