“Wolf Hall”: the imagination of empathy

Wolf Hall | AnnDalyWriter.com

Hilary Mantel took on a most difficult writerly challenge with her historical fiction: she must cleave to the historical record (as far as that goes) and at the same time she is burdened to make that record breathe as vividly as the bravest fiction.

I’ve been reading my 50 pages a morning in order to finish “Wolf Hall” before PBS begins to air the BBC adaptation on April 2. After a slow start, I found my rhythm with Thomas Cromwell. Now, I am enthralled. Not so much to the story (we know it ends badly) but to Mantel’s writing. At a time when personal narrative predominates (and often intrudes), she demonstrates for this non-fiction writer the fact that empathy for the real other can trigger the most transcendent depth of imagination.

Take, for but one example, how Mantel describes Henry VIII when he hears that his wife Anne has given birth to a girl:

It is magnificent. At the moment of impact, the king’s eyes are open, his body braced for the atteint; he takes the blow perfectly, its force absorbed by a body securely armored, moving in the right direction, moving at the right speed. His color does not alter. His voice does not shake.

“Healthy?” he says. “Then I thank God for his favor to us. As I thank you, my lords, for this comfortable intelligence.”

He thinks, Henry has been rehearsing. I suppose we all have.

The king walks away toward his own rooms. Says over his shoulder, “Call her Elizabeth. Cancel the jousts.”


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