Thursday, July 31, 2014

Wolf Hall, I Can't Quit You

Wolf Hall, a 2009 historical novel by Hilary Mantel, takes place in the time of Henry VIII. She won the Man Booker prize for her work.


Mantel is driving me crazy with her distracting use of the pronoun "he" without adhering to the rules of pronoun usage.

If we use he, we are usually referring to the last man mentioned. For instance: Norman carried a hatchet. He took it with him everywhere. The "he" means Norman. Not Thomas Cromwell!

"He" is the narrator of Wolf Hall, and Mantel plays games with the pronoun "he" so that I'm constantly re-reading to figure out if her "he" is Cromwell, Henry VIII, or another one of the dozens of males who populate the book.

Now that I have that off my chest, here is an intriguing passage from early in Wolf Hall. The first speaker is Norris, an attendant of the King; the other speaker is "he," Thomas Cromwell, who has served the now diminished Cardinal Wolsey.

"You know my lord cardinal is indicted under the statutes of praemunire, for asserting a foreign jurisdiction in the land."
"Don't teach me the law."
Norris inclines his head.
He thinks, since last spring, when things began to go wrong, I should have persuaded my lord cardinal to let me manage his revenues, and put money away abroad where they can't get it; but then he would never admit anything was wrong. Why did I let him rest so cheerful?
Norris's hand is on his horse's bridle. "I was ever a person who admired your master," he says, "and I hope that in his adversity he will remember that."
"I thought he wasn't in adversity? According to you."
How simple it would be, if he were allowed to reach down and shake some straight answers out of Norris. But it's not simple; this is what the world and the cardinal conspire to teach him. Christ, he thinks, by my age I ought to know. You don't get on by being original. You don't get on by being bright. You don't get on by being strong. You get on by being a subtle crook; somehow he thinks that's what Norris is, and he feels an irrational dislike taking root, and he tries to dismiss it, because he prefers his dislikes rational, but after all, these circumstances are extreme, the cardinal in the mud, the humiliating tussle to get him back in the saddle, the talking, talking on the barge, and worse, the talking, talking on his knees, as if Wolsey's unraveling, in a great unweaving of scarlet thread that might lead you back into a scarlet labyrinth, with a dying monster at its heart.

Are you still with me? Damn, what awesome prose! So despite the annoying confusion over which "he" is "he," I'm still reading on page 400 of 500+ pages. I've tried to quit you, Wolf Hall, and I can't.

Le sigh.


  1. Yeah, that would drive me crazy....I have a hard enough time keeping track of my own thoughts much less something like this...

    1. It seems unnecessary to me, but I remind myself that it took me awhile to get used to novels written in the present tense, too. Present tense didn't leave me this confused, though! Still, she's a great writer who has me reading the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies.

  2. I just loved Wolf Hall, and I have a different reaction. It didn't take me long to get used to the pronoun usage, and I actually liked it. It made me feel that I was closer to Cromwell, almost in his mind, yet still held back a little. It was almost as intimate as first person but still retained a little mystery, a feeling that you weren't getting quite everything about him. But I've heard a lot people express the same opinion as yours. So if you go on to read "Bring Up the Bodies" (which I also heartily recommend), I think you'll find it easier. She's more precise with the pronouns in that book.

  3. I'm reading Bring Up the Bodies now. I'm more used to the pronoun use, and I'm hooked on the story. I still get confused, I just don't let it annoy me as much! I'm already dreading the end of this book-- wonder if she is writing any more sequels?

  4. I thought it was brilliant! Mantel has a very unique writing style. I'd say this is one of the best books I've ever read and the sequel is just as good. I'm greatly looking forward to the next book in the trilogy.