Wolf Hall, bad grammar and literary style

A bit of a break from India for a minute, while I deal with some idiots on Amazon.

I’ve just finished reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. It was the 2009 Man Booker Prize winner and it’s been raved about ever since. Normally I avoid anything with this much hype, but I decided to take a risk on it. Also, I needed a new book, and it was one of the few literary novels stocked by the Indian bookshop, among its stacks of get-rich-quick self-help tomes and Osho tracts.

It was a good decision. The book is, quite simply, terrific. It’s one of the best things I’ve read for years, and I’d zealously recommend it to anyone.

I’ve just read some of the reviews of it on its Amazon UK page, and a lot of people are criticising it for its bad grammar.

If, for some reason, you haven’t gone away and started reading it by now, here are some of the features of its style which diverge from standard prose narrative:

  • Mostly present tense, with past tense reserved for flashbacks or stream of consciousness sections – often the change of tense is the only indicator that it’s switched to one of these.
  • Third person, though from the very close perspective of Thomas Cromwell, as if you’re not quite inside his head, but hovering just over his shoulder. The pronoun “he” is used extensively throughout, referring by default to Cromwell, and only to other people when it’s clear from the context. A typical example might be (I’m making this up, not quoting), “Gregory brings in his papers. He shuffles them on his desk, and sighs.” Once you’ve got used to the style, you interpret the “his” and “he” to mean Cromwell – not Gregory, as you might assume normally. The effect, powerful and presumably intended, is to give you an insight into Cromwell, a sympathy for him, but leave you with the feeling you’ve never quite got inside his head and fully understood him.
  • Sometimes speech from more than one character is included in the same paragraph. Mostly speech is quoted, but sometimes it’s not. Sometimes quoted and unquoted speech are combined in quick succession.
  • Sentence fragments. And sentences beginning with prepositions.

True, this isn’t strictly correct grammar, especially the last two points. But get a grip, people. It’s literature, for god’s sake. I admit the style annoyed me too at first – for about a page. Then I got used to it, and was engrossed in the narrative. I went with the flow, rather than sit there steaming about the “incorrect” speech marks, and soon I was enjoying the style for the way it sweeps you along with Cromwell, his thoughts and his deeds.

There’s a difference between “bad grammar” and “experimental literary style”. If you can’t grasp that, you might as well attack Finnegans Wake for its spelling mistakes.

It seems that a lot of the negative reviewers on Amazon are English teachers. That makes a sad sort of sense: you can imagine their frustration, struggling every day to teach children how to write quoted speech (“a new paragraph each time a different person speaks”) and to form full sentences (“every sentence has a subject and a verb”), and then trying to get them to appreciate works of literature, when top literary prizes are being given to books which break all those rules.

But surely in the “appreciating literature” part of their job, the aim is to show students how, for example, a spray of sentence fragments, or a sudden burst of unquoted speech, can have an emotional effect on the reader, even though – or rather because – it’s not the way formal writing should be done.

Two very different subjects – English language and English literature – are clumped together in schools and taught by the same teachers. Sometimes their aims coincide (you learn new words by reading them in classic novels) but often they don’t. English language is about teaching a craft, the correct use of words and punctuation, their rules and limits. English literature is about aesthetic appreciation, about ideas and emotions. Why do we expect those who teach the former to be good at the latter? (Expecting those who teach the latter to be good at the former is a basic.) It’s like taking a draughtsman, who tutors his apprentices in skill and precision with compasses and rulers, and asking him to explain to them the value of a Jackson Pollock painting.

It’s a real pity though. One of the themes of the novel is the controversy over vernacular scripture, the great bloody, violent struggle to have the Bible translated into English so it could be read and understood by ordinary people. Cromwell and many others died brutal, horrendous deaths to give us the freedom we have today to use our language how we like, and spread ideas without fear. That’s a message it’s important to teach.

4 thoughts on “Wolf Hall, bad grammar and literary style

  1. This article by Tom Bell uses punctuation as it should be used, to make the narrative flow, remain clear, and immediately understandable. I recently started to read Wolf Hall and found it very difficult to understand anything without reading it twice or more. This is a slow and tiring process but I persevered until this evening when I realised that my problem with it is the punctuation, especially how she uses commas. She follows commas with clauses starting with the word “that” – fine if it is an adjective but horrible if it is a pronoun. Then there are the clauses following commas starting with “and”!
    This is simply wrong and makes it unreadable for me so I am not reading any more of it. I have read up to page 117 of the 650 in the book. Quite enough.

    • Your problem is not that the style is “simply wrong”, but that your brain isn’t adaptable enough to cope with anything outside the rigid strictures you’ve learned as “correct” and the mediocre rule-following writings you’ve experienced.

      If you don’t like anything which doesn’t follow standardised 20th century British English punctuation and grammar, that’s fine. But while you’re going to be OK with most formal bureaucratic and academic writing, you’re throwing out Chaucer, Shakespeare, the King James Bible, the Romantic poets and most Nobel Prize winners.

  2. I’m a writer, but disagree with all the hype over this book. I love the story. The different perspective on Cromwell. But Mantel’s “style” makes reading a struggle, something you never want to do to your readers. I will persevere to the end. (It is this month’s book club selection, after all.) I won’t bother with the rest of the trilogy, however. I’ll brush up on my British history in a more pleasant way.

    • Personally I didn’t find the style a struggle at all, not after I’d got through a few pages and become used to it. There are plenty of writers I’ve had to put a lot more effort into reading, from Shakespeare, through Keats, to Burgess.

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