I was reading Wolf Hall and another historical fiction at roughly the same time, and while doing so, I was trying to put my finger on what makes Mantel's go at historical fiction so different. And then, which I like better. And whether or not I was unconsciously affording Wolf Hall more respect because it's about a guy, which would upset me, if it was something I was doing. On the other hand, I think it is demonstrably a better book than, say, Philippa Gregory's incursions into Tudor territory, but I do think people sometimes unconsciously dismiss books with female protagonists as automatically less serious. And it's troubling
That's a lot of thoughts. Let's see if I can put them in any kind of reasonable order.
So yes, there's the male protagonist problem. Or rather, the unconscious dismissal of female protagonist problem. Which I don't think I do generally, but if I'm not sure whether or not it's different when it's historical fiction. Something to pay attention to, anyway.
But Wolf Hall is also just a more challenging book, in a good way. Most historical fiction I read, of any stripe, is very descriptive. No, that's the wrong word, because Wolf Hall is wonderfully descriptive. More...this is driving me crazy. More...overt?
A lot of historical fiction comes from inside the head the main character, who narrates constantly what they are thinking and why they are doing what they're doing. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, depending on how it's done, and how much infodumping is happening, but Wolf Hall is a refreshing change. With third person narration, Cromwell is sometimes interestingly opaque. And added to this is Mantel's practice of layering in some issues only subtly, so you catch on slowly, over time, but without being overtly told, say, that Cromwell is participating in the spread of Protestant thought in England. The spread of Protestantism in England is a main theme, but Cromwell's participation is alluded to, rather than described outright. So you have to be on the ball, or you could miss it. I find that fascinating. And there are many ways in which it could fail miserably, be put in too obliquely or too overtly. But Mantel has just the right touch to make it difficult, but not impossible.
Also difficult, but not impossible is one grammatical trick Mantel uses, but I'm less enthused about this. I don't hate it, but it does make reading at times, weirdly difficult. She uses "he" to refer to Cromwell all the time. I get not wanting to have "Cromwell" every second line, but in paragraphs about two men, who the "he" is can switch suddenly and become Cromwell without any indication. You have to realize the sentences have started to become nonsensical, go back, figure out when the "he" switched to Cromwell, and read forward from there. It's an odd affection, and while I got used to it, I never stopped having to pause, figure out when she had switched the subject of her sentence and press on.
But the plot is really interesting, intricate, and relies more on showing and letting the reader fill in the spaces than it is in holding the readers hand and making sure they only get out of it what the author wants them to get out of it. It is the first volume in the life of Thomas Cromwell, fixer first for the Archbishop of Canterbury, and later, Henry VIII, through the marriage crisis, the ascent of Anne Boleyn, and ends just as her star is on the wane. The eponymous Wolf Hall, interestingly, is the seat of the Seymours, as in Jane Seymour, which, as soon as I realized that, adds an interesting tone to the whole book - you know who is waiting in the wings, and if you know your Tudor history, what happens. That little nudge of the title keeps historical awareness floating over everything that is done, and knowing some of the outcomes gives a strange poignancy.
Thomas himself is a fascinating creature - practical, devious, yet capable of surprising warmth to those he brings into his extended household. He claims to eschew religion while playing a surprising role in the spread of a new version of Christianity. He will bend the law to the king's will, while always remaining his own man. It's a curious tightrope walk, and Mantel makes it convincing.
I am very much looking forward to the further adventures of Thomas Cromwell, and of reading more Hilary Mantel. This was well worth the read.