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A Book By Its Cover

Emma Park

rengeniusHilary Mantel
Wolf Hall
Fourth Estate, 2009
256 Pages
ISBN 978-0007230181

One can tell at first glance that this is a serious book. Not by its volume—no one writes short novels nowadays—but rather by the starkly simple design of its cover: a Tudor rose on the background of a Tudor red door, with the author’s name and title superimposed in identical lettering. The inside flaps confirm this message: in the front, three paragraphs on the plot followed by one of publisher’s praise; in the back, a few lines on Mantel’s previous books. Even with the breathless encomia added to the back cover after Wolf Hall‘s nomination (and subsequent win) for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, it is not the author’s personality which is expected to sell, but her words.

The Tudor rose labels Wolf Hall as an historical novel, set in the most glamorous period of English civilisation. The blurb’s focus, too, is on England, the “half-made society, moulding itself with great passion and suffering and courage.” Mantel is one of “our” best writers and her latest is, the blurb proclaims in an earnest mixture of humility and hyperbole, “that very rare thing: a truly great English novel”. The book is to be compared, naturally, with Middlemarch, England’s answer to Tolstoy and Proust. Indeed, Stephen Greenblatt goes so far as to link Mantel with Shakespeare in his full-length review for The New York Review of Books.

Wolf Hall not only reaffirms the national spirit, but also presents an attractively dark hero in Thomas Cromwell, who, to an English audience’s satisfaction, breaks “all the rules of a rigid society”, fights against both “the political establishment and the papacy”, and suffers from his share of “personal disaster”. The Telegraph is among many to recognise that Mantel’s Cromwell represents a significant departure from his traditional villainousness (as seen, for instance, in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons), while the Observer sees Cromwell as “the true author of England’s independence.”

Reminding its readers not to confuse Thomas with Oliver, the Mail Online retells the former’s story in terms of class warfare, confounding history with Mantel’s fiction and lingering upon “totalitarian dictator” Henry’s lust for a “feisty, sexy and much younger” mistress. While USA Today advises those less familiar with English history to “think Tudor gangster”, the New Yorker sees Cromwell as a precursor of the American “self-made” man. Everyone, it seems, wants to make Mantel his own.

Winning the Booker has, as its founders intended, boosted the novel’s sales. The prize has also drawn limited attention to Wolf Hall on the continentDer Spiegel approvingly quotes Mantel on Wolf Hall’s combination of “sex, melodrama, treason, seduction and violent death.” To gain a lasting reputation beyond the Anglo-Saxon world, however, is a mark of greatness which only time, and exceptional literary value, can bestow. Meanwhile, Mantel will carry on, prize or no prize, as a “working writer”, fully aware that “you’re really only as good as the last sentence you wrote.”

Emma Park is reading for a DPhil in Classics at University College, Oxford. She is an editor of ORbits.