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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

Wolf Hall and Narration
About two years after everyone else, I've finally read Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. I liked it very much indeed, but at first I found the style of narration quite confusing. To anyone who hasn't read it, Wolf Hall - which is about Thomas Cromwell - is written in third person present tense, but whenever it is possible without ambiguity (and frequently when it isn't) Mantel refers to Cromwell as 'he' rather than by name. So we get passages like this (and I've returned my copy to my mother, so this is to give the idea, rather than a real quotation):

Norfolk paces about the room, barely able to contain his anger.
"Naturally, the King will not consent," he says.

Now, in most books the 'he' of the second line would refer to Norfolk. But in Wolf Hall it almost always (but not always) refers to Cromwell. This meant a lot of going back and re-reading, trying to sort out who was speaking in any particular scene. These hiccoughs became less frequent as the book wore on and I got the hang of Mantel's technique, and by the time I hit p.600 they were fairly infrequent, but they never went away entirely, and of course re-reading in that way isn't an aid to absorption.

On the other hand, Mantel did get something worth having in exchange. In cinematic terms, Wolf Hall gives us a 650-page tight close up of Cromwell. We hover round about his skull, often peering inside to see his thoughts and feelings (the former more than the latter), often looking out at his immediate surroundings, but seldom drawing back for a picture of the whole landscape in which he moves. Instead, Mantel builds his world jigsaw-wise, privileging nothing and censoring nothing - or rather, artfully giving that impression, which is all one can ask of a novel. The 'he' technique contributes powerfully here. She could have achieved something of the same effect through first person narration, of course, but the slight distance imposed by third person is important. I can't off hand think of any other novels that use it this way. Can you?

I've more to say about Wolf Hall, or at least tangential to it, but that will wait for another post. I'm about to take my daughter and double second cousin once removed (who's visiting) to @Bristol.

Bare Ruined Choirs that Cromwell Knocked About a Bit
Before returning Wolf Hall to my mother, I copied out this passage. It comes at a point when Cromwell is trying to get people to swear to the Act of Supremacy (or is it the Act of Succession? Darn - now I've forgotten and can't check):

They are dug into shallow graves, the Cornishmen who came up the country when he was a boy; but there are always more Cornishmen. And beneath Cornwall, beyond and beneath this whole realm of England, beneath the sudden marches of Wales and the rough territory of the Scots border, there is another landscape; there is a buried empire, where he fears his commissioners cannot reach. Who will swear the hobs and boggarts who live in the hedges and in hollow trees, and the wild men who hide in the woods? Who will swear the saints in their niches, and the spirits that cluster at holy wells rustling like fallen leaves, and the miscarried infants dug into unconsecrated ground: all those unseen dead who hover in winter around forges and village hearths, trying to warm their bare bones? For they too are his countrymen: the generations of the uncounted dead, breathing through the living, stealing their light from them, the bloodless ghosts of lord and knave, nun and whore, the ghosts of priest and friar who feed on living England, and suck the substance from the future. (575)

This touches so many of my own strings that it leaves my head vibrating like a strummed lute. Here are just a few. First, there's the shadow country, or "Britain vs Logres" trope, which I discussed (though there's always room for more discussion) in Four British Fantasists pp. 29-31, and which I name in allusion to a passage from That Hideous Strength. "Behind every Milton, a Cromwell", as one character puts it there - although in the case of this Cromwell we are in default of a Milton and are forced to substitute - oh, I don't know - Thomas Wyatt? He doesn't really fit the bill, in truth. If only Spenser had had Cromwell to deal with, rather than Burleigh!

Second, it fits neatly the Dymchurch Flit/Fairy Farewell trope, inasmuch as it associates the hobs and boggarts with the saints of England's Catholic past, a world that Cromwell is in the act of casting into another mould. (At one point the monks who live next door to him are described as "good neighbours" - whether with any elfin insinuation on Mantel's part, I don't know.)

And then again, I find myself identifying with the sense that many things with which I have no real sympathy - say, monarchy (in my case) and Catholicism (in Cromwell's - okay, and in mine again) - have been prominent ingredients in a past of which I understand and feel myself, to an almost morbid degree, to be the product. And is there not a danger of cutting oneself off from the taproot? This is Cromwell's meditation, and often mine too.

However, England didn't cease to be England when it broke ties with Rome, nor will it when it finally comes to its senses again and re-decommissions the monarchy. And there's always a Cromwell to light the way.