Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel gave her the distinction of being the only woman ever to win The Booker Prize twice. She earned it. This is the kind of book that good writers who want to be great writers need to study. My first read, I just enjoyed it. During my second reading, I dissected it with a careful eye to learn the ways of a master. Last week, I had taken to tweeting large chunks of the book, because the passages were so dense and brutally intelligent.
I could tell write about the themes of kingship, friendship, or 17th century sexual proclivities. I could write about power grabbing before there was a US Congress. I could tell you about how Mantel titles her book Wolf Hall, when in fact, that house seems to play the smallest role as to make it nearly meaningless. I’m fascinated, too, with the way Mantel weaves the reader through history with assumptions about our knowledge, and the dexterity with which she challenges these assumptions.
I was taught that Cromwell was a bad guy, the baddest of the bad dudes who parlayed a common beginning into the heights of power and the eventual severing of his head from his corpulence, but Wolf Hall will not let us accept him, or any of history’s villains, as just bad to the bone.
Readers have to pay attention to Mantel, but when they do, they are rewarded.
I’m particularly intrigued with how Mantel uses the real story of Hans Holbein, the painter, to demonstrate exactly how Mantel herself might be engaging in the writing process. Holbein is a minor character in this novel, but he did paint Thomas More’s family. Both King Henry and Cromwell sat for portraits with Holbein.
In Wolf Hall, Mantel writes a scene that places the three men are at More’s home before all the Anne Boleyn business hits the royal fan. They are admiring the finished portrait of the More family.
He prefers their host as Hans painted him; the Thomas More on the wall, you can see that he’s thinking, but not what he’s thinking, and that’s the way it should be. The painter has grouped them so skillfully that there’s no space between the figures for anyone new. The outsider can only soak himself into the scene, as an unintended blot or stain; certainly, he thinks, Gardiner is a blot or stain.*
Form and function agree. As Mantel demonstrates through the logical and cunning voice of Cromwell an assessment of the artist, Mantel is being that artist simultaneously. She gives dimension and texture to creatures we can only encounter in the flatness of the history book.
One of my daughters recently said something about villains. She said that she felt weird cheering for him, sometimes, but the compulsion was still there. “Of course,” I told her. That’s a strong character, written by a sure pen. Cromwell was not just bad. Henry was not just a dirty old perv. More was not just a guy on a mission from God. In Mantel’s hands, their humanity becomes visceral. We can see the strokes of her brush on their skin, in the odors of ye olde Londontowne.
I don’t know how she did it. I want a bullet point list of steps to take, but part of what Mantel does is pure talent.
How do you make your characters reveal your craftsmanship?
*Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel, Henry Holt Books, New York, p. 230.
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