Interiority — The Ineffable Art of Hillary Mantel and the Wolf Hall Trilogy

I read Wolf Hall the first of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy based on the life of Thomas Cromwell in 2010, an Englishman born a commoner in the 16th century. Cromwell rose to great power in the court of Henry VIII before meeting a tragic end — a chopped off head as many an ambitious person did in Henry’s rein including famously one his many queens — Anne Boleyn.

I found Wolf Hall fascinating in one unique way. It was the tone of the book. Without being in the first-person singular Wolf Hall captures the complex interiority of Thomas Cromwell as he negotiates the treacherous path to power in Henry’s byzantine court. A feat of technique that I have not come across in any other book.

It helps that Cromwell, in Ms Mantel’s telling, a modern man. A man whose secular belief in unsentimental rationality would have been at home in the corridors of power in the 21st century.

Cromwell’s view of the world, in Ms Mantel’s riveting prose, rises above mundane details, while being fully alive to the core human dynamics of any given situation. Whether this was a real-life trait of Thomas Cromwell or an emergence from Ms Mantel’s art, there is no way of knowing and perhaps not even pertinent to the creative excellence that won the book the Man Booker award.

I awaited the second book eagerly — Bring Up The Bodies — and strove to read it fresh of the presses, so to speak, in 2012. Eager once gain to inhabit the mind of one of English history’s most enigmatic figure — Thomas Cromwell — through the magic of Ms Mantel’s ineffable art.

I was not disappointed and once again waited eagerly for the third and last book of the series.

This time the wait was a bit longer. The third book — The Mirror and The Light — came out this year.

Meanwhile, BBC had produced one of its masterly mini-series called Wolf Hall directed by Peter Kosminsky with the incomparable Mark Rylance. At around the same time, the Royal Shakespeare Company put out stage versions of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies with Ben Miles playing Thomas Cromwell,

While I have been able to watch the mini-series, the plays have been out of my reach. The news is that they will open in Broadway soon. If and when that street lights up again.

However, in circles where people discuss such things the comparative merits of Mr Rylance’s and Mr Miles’ interpretation is as hot a topic as say the performances of Hamlet by Jonathan Pryce, Anton Lesser and Mark Rylance.

By 2020 I had become a fan of audiobooks. When I heard that Mr Miles is going to read “The Mirror and The Light” under the supervision of Ms Mantel, I decided to go first with the audiobook and leave the delights of the printed page to later.

The big-name reviewers have damned “The Mirror and The Light’ with faint praise. Perhaps their expectations, in the light of, “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up The Bodies” were set too high.

I am happy to report that I am as delighted by “The Mirror and the Light” as I was by the earlier two books.

And the reading by Mr Miles a piece of art in itself. It lit up many a solitary walk within the confines of my quarantined life.

This third book has the same “interiority” as the first two books of the Wolf Hall trilogy.

Interiority is different from writing in the first person, A first-person account is limited by the specifics of the context and the power of expression that the novelist imbues the character with. On the other hand, in the interiority mode, Ms Mantel has the freedom to plumb Cromwell’s consciousness without being limited by the context of the particulars of the time and the plot.

As a result, the trilogy mines a deep insight into human nature. The universal truth that goodness, generosity, wisdom, love and other positive traits of human nature transcend the particulars of the context of the age or the specifics of an individual’s circumstances. While, on the other hand, the flip side of human nature — greed, hate, lust, meanness etc.- are deeply rooted in the context of the age and the details of a person’s life. This is, in essence, is the same truth that many schools of philosophy and spirituality expound. Ms Mantel does it while gliding us along the arc of a story that grips and thrills across three best-sellers.

Ms Mantel evocation of Cromwell’s interiority as he walks to his execution will, in my thinking, rank high among passages in literature that break new ground.

Mr Miles has also now read Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. So the entire trilogy is now available as audiobooks of the highest quality. If you have not yet tasted the power of audiobooks, there could be no better introduction to them as Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy performed by Ben Miles.

I, for one, intend to read Ms Mantel’s other books — there are nine before she started in the trilogy. The first one is “Every Day is Mother’s Day”. The blurb informs me that it is a black comedy set in the 70s. I am eager to discover whether “Interiority” is a technique that Ms Mantel invented for the Wolf Hall trilogy or whether it pervades all her books.

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