Wolf Hall is 672 pages long. It is 672 pages in which every single line and every single word have been meticulously crafted and honed by someone who is a masterful writer. So many words, so many pages, and yet, each chapter moves the story along by just a few weeks or months. Sometimes one chapter depicts only one incident, a day perhaps, or one conversation. Why and how does one keep reading on, page after page, day after day?

Every night, for the past month, I read a couple of pages of Wolf Hall before going to sleep. Every night, I went to sleep with Thomas Cromwell and the Tudor court of King Henry VIII in my head. I got so used to having “Cremuel” on my mind that I was starting to dream about him. I got rather obsessed with him – his powerful build, his pale “murderer’s” face, his cunning mind like “a basket full of snakes”, his slow-boiling vengeance. The way he spoke, and his memories. The scars on his hands that have healed.

Dame Hilary Mantel (Photo: The Guardian UK)

At the end of the book, the author, Dame Hilary Mantel, thanks Dr. Mary Robinson who lent her expertise on the history of the period, and “…had been kind enough to recognize the portrait” that Mantel had produced. That, I thought, must be the key to the Wolf Hall Trilogy – it is a portrait of one man, Thomas Cromwell. Always from the perspective of “he” and “him” – “Cromwell”. Rarely from anyone else’s point of view. If the author uses “he” when she refers to someone else, the clue is that it does not sound like something that Cromwell would do or say. Would Cromwell do that? Would he affectionately put his hand on someone’s arm? Would he support the Duke of Norfolk? No? Then the “he” is not Cromwell. That’s how well I got to know the character, Thomas Cromwell.

But of course, the portrait of Cromwell that she creates is just one of the facets of this novel which makes it so compelling.

He was never a handsome man, not in any of the few images of him that have survived. This image:
Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex (c. 1485-1540), oil painting, formerly attributed to Hans Holbein the Younger, painted c. 1530, in the collection of Petworth House and Park, West Sussex, UK.

Why do we keep reading, page after page?

How does this work?, I wondered, that one can keep reading, page after page, for days and weeks, a story in which nothing much happens, other than the occasional burning, drawing-and-quartering or racking.

I found the answer quite fortuitously at the same time as I finished up Wolf Hall, in the book about taking apart and understanding Russian short stories, written by the author of Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders.

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, by George Saunders (Random House, New York, 2021)

George Saunders explains

Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain was published in 2021, and it is surprisingly direct and appealing, for such a difficult subject. He speaks plainly to readers and writers, and in the first chapter of analysis, “A Page at a Time”, he writes this:

“Years ago, on the phone with Bill Buford, then fiction editor of The New Yorker, enduring a series of painful edits, feeling a little insecure, I went fishing doe a compliment: ‘But what do you like about the story?’ I whined. there was a long pause at the other end.
And Bill said this: ‘Well, I read a line. And I like it…enough to read the next.’
And that was it: his entire short story aesthetic and presumably that of the magazine. And it’s perfect.
A story is a near-temporal phenomenon. It proceeds, and charms us (or doesn’t), a line at a time.
We have to keep being puled int a story in order for it to do anything to us.
I’ve taken a lot of comfort in this idea over the years. I don’t need a big theory about fiction to write it. I don’t have to worry about anything but: Would a reasonable person, reading line four, get enough of a jolt to go on to line five?
Why do we keep reading a story?
Because we want to.
Why do we want to?

That’s the million-dollar question: What makes a reader keep reading?
A story (any story, every story) makes its meaning at speed, a small structural pulse at a time. We read a bit of text and a set of expectations arises.
‘A man stood on the roof of a seventy-story building.’
Aren’t you already kind of expecting him to jump, fall, or be pushed off?”

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, by George Saunders, pp. 11-12, A Page at a Time

That’s the key: Wolf Hall is wonderfully readable one line at a time, one line after another, from page one to the last line.

Wolf Hall, and all the books in the trilogy, consist, line for line, of elements like those of a man standing on the roof of a seventy-storey building. Our expectations are raised with every line.

Every line is tied to the one before, and to the next. Nothing is random or unintentional. Every line, no matter how subtle, how seemingly undramatic, builds tension in the reader so that they want to know: What happens next? How is this connected? What does this mean? And the authors does not give simple or obvious answers.

For instance: from the cover to the final line

Wolf Hall has a cover design that looks like a piece of wood from a door or a chest, with metal studs or nails – it references a physical place. Thus, from the front cover of the book we assume that the setting, Wolf Hall, will be important. Yet, all through the novel, it is about Austin Friars, one of the homes of Thomas Cromwell – not Wolf Hall. Austin Friars is where Cromwell lives, where his entourage, supporters, employees and family live, where he feeds the beggars who gather at the gates, where his favourite tapestry hangs and where all the memories of his wife and children are kept safe. It is where he sleeps – albeit badly and briefly – most nights.

But we come back to the fact that the book’s title is Wolf Hall. The name of the novel and the place is one of those pivotal “man on a the roof of a seventy-storey building” elements: Wolf Hall, as the reader comes to know, is the home of the Seymour family, not of the Cromwell family. I was wondering what was going on. Then, I got to the last lines on the very last page, which are:

“‘Now here, before we go to Winchester, we have time to spare, and what I think is, Rafe, we shall visit the Seymours.’
He writes it down.
Early September. Five days. Wolf Hall.

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, p. 650

This leaves the reader hanging on for the next lines. What will happen at Wolf Hall in those five days? But from history we know: Henry VIII married Ann Boleyn, one of the three main protagonists in Wolf Hall. And then of course, he beheaded her and married Jane Seymour.

With just six words, Mantel creates tension which will drive the reader to pick up the next book in the trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies, and reveals the meaning behind the title: Wolf Hall, the stately home, is not a reference to the place, or to Cromwell’s home and personal life. The book is not about the place. It’s about the events that lead Cromwell to the place which is home to the woman who will usurp the one he fought so hard to get on the throne as Henry VIII’s queen.

Ergo: Wolf Hall – the time of the Seymours is coming: that’s what the title means.

Now that’s what I call masterful writing – one line at a time.

In the right sequence, the books are: 1. Wolf Hall (2009), 2. Bring Up the Bodies (2012), 3. The Mirror and the Light (2020)

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