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  • Adam Tye

“He, Cromwell”: In Defence of WOLF HALL'S Literary Pronouns

Updated: Apr 5, 2021

Curtains, Camera Angles, Artistic Responsibility, and Hilary Mantel.

There's a viral post regarding literature that has circulated online for the best part of a decade, and I often think back on my relationship to it. The post tends to revolve around the use of 'blue curtains' in literature, with the argument being that instead of reading into the colour of the curtains as indicating something deeper (such as sadness), really you should simply take the curtains as blue and leave it at that. I remember agreeing with this so deeply when I was younger; it felt almost empowering to be told that I didn't have to worry about obviously trivial things - to have that lack of fussiness and attention validated.

But as I grow older, I realise just how widely that post misses the point. Art isn’t a record of fact – it isn’t the cliffnotes from some sort of expedition to an alternate reality. It is humanmade. Everything you read, or hear, or see, was placed there by people, and it will have been placed there for a reason. Perhaps that reason was born of practicality: maybe a deadline was approaching and any colour curtains would do. But in a space where everything is by design, everything becomes an opportunity for meaning. If you introduce blue curtains to the story, then the question arises: are they going to work in your favour, or not? There’s a brief section in George Saunders’ book ‘A Swim in a Pond in the Rain’ where he demonstrates this opportunity for meaning by breaking down Vittorio De Sica’s film, Bicycle Thieves - pointing out how every inch of the frame reinforces the character's emotions:

“It’s a lesser sequence without those trees, that truck full of happy fans, that wallet check, that loving couple…
…Bicycle Thieves is a great work of art and De Sica is an artist, and that’s what an artist does: takes responsibility.”

So, if artists are supposed to take responsibility for their choices, then what responsibility is Hilary Mantel assuming with her infamous use of literary pronouns in Wolf Hall?

For the unaware, Mantel’s trilogy details the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell: son of a blacksmith and eventual right-hand man of Henry VIII – a person who arguably accumulated enough power and influence to surpass the monarchy itself. It is as rich a piece of writing as I’ve ever come across in my life, with the kind of gorgeous, commanding prose that threatens to makes every other book feel limp by comparison. There are endless details to prize apart, from the themes of power and corruption, to the way Cromwell’s viewpoint skews historical events (most notably with Anne Boleyn, who dances close to the role of villain throughout the first two entries). Yet, I almost guarantee that the first thing everyone talks about once they start Wolf Hall is not the themes or the characters, but the word “He.”

From an early age we are taught that, when it comes to the English Language, pronouns are contextual. If “There is a cat. He sits on the mat,” then we know that a cat is sat on a mat. Not so with Wolf Hall, as Mantel humbly asks you to cast aside years of inbuilt linguistic muscle-memory in order to put you inside Cromwell’s head. Whenever the word “He” appears in these books, 99% of the time it is referring back to Cromwell – regardless of context. Now, if “There is a cat. He sits on the mat,” then we can picture a cat, but it is Thomas Cromwell that is doing the sitting.

If you haven’t read these books but plan to, I can promise that, at first, it will drive you absolutely bananas. Mantel writes without abandon and without stopping to let you catch your breath. The Guardian’s Frances Wilson probably put it best: “Her prose makes no concessions to the disorientated: a moment's distraction and you have to start the page again.” For as much of that disarray is down to the dizzying speed with which Mantel blazes through her scenes - as past and present are veered between with startling casualness - it’s that “He” which can really trip you up. In a previous post where I touched on Wolf Hall, I mentioned how this pronoun usage takes my own OCD for an absolute ride, as I frantically re-read each paragraph to understand what is going on. At times, the experience has more of an air of masochism about it than entertainment. It should tell you how good the books are that I push on anyway.

Mantel has not been silent on the matter, nor has she been wilfully unpragmatic to the situation. Bring Up The Bodies – the second in the trilogy – seems to make a conscious effort to grease the wheels of comprehension, with many instances of “He” expanded to “He, Thomas Cromwell,” to better orientate the reader in a given conversation. It’s a welcome change, but even to a believer like myself, it begs the question: Why do it at all?

Look to interviews with Mantel, and you’ll see the matter brought up repeatedly (each time assumedly wearing away another piece of her patient resolve), with most of her responses being a variation on the same answer: that with Wolf Hall, Mantel wants us to feel as though we are tied inextricably to Cromwell. It is his perspective that lets us in to this bustling, bloody Tudor period, and we are not going to leave his side for anyone or anything. Most fascinating to me in this explanation is Mantel’s repeated comparison of her pronoun usage to that of a camera angle positioned constantly over Cromwell’s shoulder. We are always huddled close by – we see things as he does.

It’s an answer that is satisfying to people in different degrees. When I first heard it, I felt like I understood the logic of the argument, if not the heart; the kind of defence that is straightforward to comprehend, but harder to feel. People would continue to ask why the book was written in this manner, and I could never convince myself that Mantel’s answer would be satisfactory to them. But that “camera angle” portion of the argument has continued to niggle at me all the same, and having recently finished Bring Up The Bodies, the pieces of Mantel's reasoning click into place.

In evoking the language of cinema, Mantel draws attention to that fundamental fact of art: everything, especially the little things, can matter. Even as a film student, I’m often surprised how just the slightest nudge of a camera can affect a viewer’s response to a scene. It’s not just a case of being able to see what is happening – how a character is visually presented is going to affect the audience's emotional response. It’s one of the key reasons why these shots from When Harry Met Sally

…feel so different from this ‘profile’ confrontation in Kill Bill:

The profile framing in Kill Bill is positioning these characters as being in visual opposition to each other, whilst the characters in When Harry Met Sally are having a more low-stakes conversation, so the profile shot would become harsh and unnecessary. If you can, try and imagine in your head what the two scenes would look like with the camera angles swapped - how much more combative and isolated Harry and Sally would feel, trapped in their own profile shots. The placement of a camera, whether you consciously notice or not, affects an audience’s relationship to the characters on screen. And you would certainly notice it if the entire film took place from over one character’s shoulder.

Wolf Hall's pronouns are the literary equivalent of that shoulder shot. It is a detail so tiny, so seemingly meaningless, but one that accumulates in power as the story goes on. In much the same way that a profile shot could turn a casual conversation into a confrontation, Wolf Hall would be a different book without its unique prose - less contentious, perhaps, but missing a dimensionality that lodges Cromwell in the minds of its readers. Much like a film might create a unique relationship to its characters by constantly filming them close-by, Wolf Hall creates its own bond between reader and Cromwell by tethering its literary camera angle to him. I hesitate to even call the resultant connection subconscious, given how many people have brought the technique up in their analysis, but I think the cumulative effect is deep and often difficult to describe. However you may feel about it, the meaning is clear: now the story is Cromwell's, and Cromwell's alone.

I wonder now whether Mantel ever thought about abandoning the third-person entirely, but something tells me that would be untrue to the spirit of her subject matter. Cromwell remains a remarkably undocumented character in English History - a blank space that we fill in ourselves. History has long cast Cromwell as the villain – something that Mantel intends to subvert by eliciting sympathy towards him: by staying close by his side. But the truth of reality is that we can never really know him, and the first person perspective would be dishonest to that notion. Even now, with renewed interest in his life, he remains unknowable: always at a remove. To borrow a quote from Wolf Hall, he is “...the absence of facts that frightens people. The gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires.” A gap from which now springs this trilogy.

Wolf Hall is not a book for everyone (show me a book that is), but it is a book that does what all great art should do. It sees the potential for power in every detail. It takes responsibility.

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