He

I have, finally and rather reluctantly, finished Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. It is a book that has absorbed me for months, a book that is, to me, utterly worthy of all the prizes that came its way.

I have nothing to add to the thousands of words that have already been written about this book, except for one small, incidental observation that no other commentators, that I’ve noticed, have picked up on.

Wolf Hall is, in many ways, a very conventional novel. It has a strong central character, Thomas Cromwell; it vividly recreates the colourful milieu in which he lived; it tells a familiar story from an unusual perspective (in the story of Thomas More, More is more commonly cast as the virtuous man and Cromwell as the villain); it is straightforwardly chronological in its structure; it eschews literary experimentation or stylistic tricks. Except in one small particular, what I suppose we might call the address.

Let us start with the very first words of the novel:

‘So, now get up.’

Felled, dazed, silent, he has fallen; knocked full length on the cobbles of the yard. His head turns sideways; his eyes are turned towards the gate, as if someone might arrive to help him out. One blow, properly placed, could kill him now.

This passage introduces our protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, as a boy being beaten by his violent blacksmith father, a beating that will lead to him leaving home and making his resourceful way around Europe to become the figure we meet again in chapter two. Cromwell will be our viewpoint throughout the novel, in some 650 pages he is never off stage, we see as he sees, share his thoughts. And yet we do not know his name.

The narrative voice, what for the sake of argument I will here call ‘the author’, does not give him a name. Other characters throughout the book will address him: Tom, Thomas, Master Cromwell, Cromuel; but to the author he is always simply ‘he’. This can lead to confusion in some scenes, where there are many men speaking, but Mantel does not relent.

Actually, that is not quite true. There are two key scenes where Mantel permits herself: ‘he, Master Cromwell’. They are both scenes in which Cromwell is engaged in debate with More. Since Cromwell and More are presented as echoes, shadows of each other, since we are privy to Cromwell’s admiration of More (though we also see how much Cromwell dislikes More’s prissy asceticism, his casual and remorseless cruelty, his treatment of his wife; faults that Cromwell also worries may be ascribed to himself), and since more and more Cromwell finds himself refering to utopia (not More’s book but the idea it engendered), there is a sense of identification between the two antagonists. In those circumstances, the fact that Cromwell has to remind himself (through the narrative voice) who he is is very significant.

The ‘he’ in Wolf Hall is fascinating in other ways too. It is not the distanced ‘he’ of most third person narratives, but somehow closer, as if we are within Cromwell’s thoughts without quite sharing the identification of ‘I’. Also, particularly in those scenes where there are many characters at once (the vast majority of them, Cromwell is a very public figure) the profusion of ‘he’, ‘he’, ‘he’ gives an odd sense of things being jammed together. I don’t quite know how Mantel managed the trick, but without once abandoning conventional twenty-first century orthography and punctuation she managed to put me in mind of the cluttered, unpunctuated prose of the early 16th century. I think ‘he’ is part of what gives that impression.

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10 thoughts on “He

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  5. Fascinating piece. Most reviews don’t peer at Mantel’s narrative style in such a detailed manner. I know many people were exasperated at the usage of ‘He’ and I also took a while to come to terms with it. But for me that’s one of the novel’s greatest strengths, you don’t feel like you ARE Cromwell, more like you’re standing right next to him all the time. Enjoyed ‘Bring Up The Bodies’ too, it seemed an easier read too. Can’t wait for the closing installment.

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