“Wolf Hall” or “The English Actors’ Full Employment Act” ?

‘Wolf Hall’ by Hilary Mantel

‘Wolf Hall’ is a slice of life, or I should say a full loaf of Tudor life, seen entirely through the eyes of advisor to King Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell.  It’s all there in the novel, the food, the frocks, the Papal dispensations, the plumbing, the trivial and the even more trivial.  Also there are many, many characters in the novel, perhaps as many as actually lived in Tudor times, all roles to be filled for the movie which should start filming any day now.  The Tudor people are religious, superstitious, and all too prone to gossip.  King Henry is rampant, most of the men are rampant, and most of the women are accommodating.  In other words, Tudor life is just like modern times.

    “Nothing is running, except the cooks’ noses.”

I’m not sure what type of research Hilary Mantel did to determine that the cooks’ noses were running during this particular dinner, but I’m sure it was extensive.  I’ve read another novel by Hilary Mantel, ‘Beyond Black’ which was very good.  It’s too bad that now Mantel will be consigned to writing historical works about fools, royal and otherwise.  But at least it should be lucrative.   In ‘Wolf Hall’, nearly everyone comes off as a fool except, surprise, Thomas Cromwell and his family.  Thomas Cromwell comes off as an enterprising, thoughtful, and above all steady Englishman.  The audiodisk narrator pronounces the word  ‘What’ to rhyme with ‘Ought’ nauseatingly often, but that may be the fault of the audiodisk rather than the novel.   The audiodisk guy also has the worst French accent ever.

The eighteen ‘Wolf Hall’ audiodisks have that one characteristic which is the  bane of audiodisks, no clear indication when each disk ends.  Thus by the time I reached the end of a disk, I would have forgotten whatever tidbit of gossip about Anne Boleyn or her sister Mary Boleyn or whatever fine point of papal doctrine by Cardinal Wolsey or Thomas More that began the disk, and I would listen to the whole disk all over again.  One time, I listened to a disk three times before I realized I had heard it all before.

Everything is in this novel including the kitchen sink.  ‘Wolf Hall’ is the kind of historical fiction where the reader is supposed to get lost in the richness of the details of Tudor life.  However, I would have preferred a little focus, some unifying point to the whole thing.  King Henry may have had some fine rugs on the floor, but I really don’t need details about the weave.  I didn’t want to get lost, I wanted to find something, a point or something, that wasn’t there.

Late Elizabethan portrait of Anne Boleyn, possibly derived from a lost original of 1533–36

I don’t know who the film makers will pick to play Thomas Cromwell or Anne Boleyn, but only one actor today could do justice to King Henry VIII – Russell Crowe.  It took Henry seven years of complex negotiations to divorce his wife of twenty years, Katherine, and marry Anne Boleyn.  After that, Henry found a much more expedient method to change wives – beheading.  Soon after the timeframe of ‘Wolf Hall’ ends, both Thomas Cromwell and Anne Boleyn were beheaded.  Of course Anne Boleyn’s baby daughter grew up to become Queen Elizabeth of England where she has been reigning ever since.

11 responses to this post.

  1. Oh do tell, Tony what is the difference between Whot (which is how I say it) and What (which is how I spell it)?
    Who’s the narrator, and what nationality?


    • Hi Lisa,
      The person who reads ‘Wolf Hall’ on the audiodisc is Simon Slater who is described in Wikipedia as ‘an English actor and composer’. Lisa, please see my next comment also, since it is for both you and Whisperinggums.


  2. Oh, LOL, Tony. I think you should have read rather than heard this book. Like you, it seems, I tend to find the “acting” in audiobooks a bit offputting. I haven’t listened to many right through but I regularly hear snippets of them on the radio here.

    Anyhow, I thought it a wonderful reading experience. I loved her language – great turns of phrase, and rather humorous at times. I thought there was some focus. One is the “wolf” motif: how “man is wolf to man”, how people manipulate and prey on each other and, taking the “wolf” motif further, they do this in an opportunistic way. The other is, generally, “politics” or “how the world works”, how machination behind the scenes is where the real power lies. Not new ideas at all, but a focus for the novel nonetheless I thought. BTW Like Lisa, I wonder what you mean but WHOT versus WHAT?? Enquiring minds want to know!


  3. Lisa and Whisperinggums,
    Of all the offensive things in the above review, the one I least expected to be called out on was the pronunciation of the common little four letter word ‘What’. Now I realize I severely misstated my case in the article. What I was objecting to was Simon Slater’s repeated pronouncing of ‘What’ so that it rhymed with ‘Ought’. To pronounce ‘What’ as ‘Whot’ is indeed correct, but to me, rhyming it with ‘Ought’ was a little much. Of course, no one pronounces ‘What’ the way it is spelled, because then it would rhyme with ‘Hat’. I never even considered that the United States pronunciation of ‘What’ so that it rhymes with ‘Butt’ could possibly be wrong. I stand corrected.


  4. I was pleased to read a new perspective, but your mention of attention to the weaving of the rugs makes me shudder that I need (want) to get through this beast relatively quickly. English (American or British) pronunciation rarely makes sense, but rhyming “what” with “ought” would seem strange to me too. Of course, the butt point is valid one.

    Thanks for an interesting review which sparked interesting comments from the other side of the Atlantic.


  5. Hi Kerry,
    Thanks for your insights into the “ought” vs “butt” question when pronouncing “What” I suppose it is typical for a person from the United States to think that pronouncing “What” to rhyme with “Ought” is a little precious, but what would English people know about speaking English?


    • Reminds me of a story a Ukranian friend of mine (who is here in America) told me. He was out with a colleague from England. They struck up a conversation with a woman who quickly noticed their accents. My friend spoke, obviously, Ukrainian. She turned to the Brit. “So, where are you from?” “England,” he says. “What language to you speak?” Apparently, England-English was a bit of a leap for her.

      No word on her hair color.


  6. *chuckle* Who would have thought (thort) that a humble little word like what could cause so much grief!
    I was trying to work out whether you said What as in art (Whahrt) or Wod like they do in parts of the US, or Wot or Woh’ as they do in parts of the UK!
    *blush* I think my mother says Wought, but I’ve been in Australia so long now, I just say Whot and only cop occasional razzing about including the ‘h’.


  7. […] ‘Wolf Hall’ or “The English Actors’ Full Employment Act” « Tony&#… […]


  8. […] TBW: “I would have preferred a little focus, some unifying point to the whole thing. King Henry may have had some fine rugs on the floor, but I really don’t need details about the weave.” […]


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