Most of the time, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall behaves like a conventional historical novel in the realist mode. (Certainly, Mantel's own description of her project fits the bill.)The narrative, focalized through its subject, Thomas Cromwell, dwells at greatest length on Henry VIII's quest for an heir and the earth-shattering social, political, and religious consequences it entailed. In other words, Mantel poses her novel at the (violent) turning point between "old" and "new" England, as Catholicism slowly and painfully loses ground to Protestantism. Walter Scott would have approved (although he would not have chosen Cromwell as the protagonist). Moreover, thanks to Cromwell's particular tastes, the narrative accretes the usual colorful period details--from gold plate to sixteenth-century culinary dainties--that grant historical novels their verisimilitude. (We're even invited to compare the novel's Cromwell to Hans Holbein's portrait.) And the novel runneth over with the All-Star team of Tudor England, from Catherine of Aragon to Eustache Chapuys (a prime source of sometimes dubious information, here fictionalized himself) to, of course, Henry VIII. Too, the novel's interest in the "domestic" Cromwell, with his wretched childhood, his marriage, his children, and so forth, rounds out the public man with the private life--and, of course, makes him far more sympathetic.
As Dan Hartland points out, the novel expects you to know its characters already. Or, to put it differently, the novel expects you to know one of the most popular stories about the English Reformation, which was that it was essentially "erotic": Henry VIII rebels against the Pope and turns England Protestant because he wanted to sleep with Anne Boleyn. And, as Hartland (and everyone else who has written about Wolf Hall) further observes, the novel expects you to have Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons lurking at the back of your mind, complete with Paul Scofield looking righteous. (Although Wolf Hall is not reverse hagiography--Cromwell is nicer than Thomas More, not to mention good to animals and children, but nobody "nice" could survive in Henry VIII's England--it doesn't leave much of Bolt's More standing.) In effect, this is a novel written less against academic history--although Cromwell's reputation with scholars has not been that wonderful, either--and more against other historical fictions.
Still, the reader aware of the popular narratives will also notice some noteworthy absences. Because Mantel does not exit Cromwell's POV, many famous moments are simply not there: Wolsey's last words, for example, or any particularly noteworthy executions. We are not, in other words, asked to revisit the best-known historical set-pieces. Sometimes, we see these set-pieces in a kind of reverse--not More on the scaffold, but a terrified More in jail, "crying out, shuddering, beating the table" (521) as he imagines the worst his execution might have to offer. Moreover, because Mantel does not intend this to be a stand-alone novel (there's a sequel in the works), its plot arc doesn't follow the expected trajectory for a story about a famous protagonist. Instead of beginning at the very beginning and culminating with the bloody end, Mantel starts with an adolescent Cromwell, beaten by his wastrel father, and ends with More's death. (Even Anne Boleyn still has her head on her shoulders.) Effectively, the novel concludes with the climax.
Any novel set during this time period must deal with the Bible, not just Protestantism, but Mantel pursues an interesting thematic tack: she is less concerned with what the Bible says (although that crops up) than with its dissemination in the vernacular. In Wolf Hall, language goes hand-in-hand with power. As a child, the impoverished Cromwell encounters an adolescent Thomas More at his studies; when Cromwell asks More what's in his book, he replies, "'Words, words, just words'" (93). This dismissive attitude to language turns out to be More's blindspot. (Which is a rather odd thing to say about one of the sixteenth century's more famous authors.) The vernacular Bible empowers the common reader by revealing holes in the Roman Catholic Church's foundation--"You read it, you'll be surprised what's not in it" (32)--while mastering Greek and Latin are the key to participating in elite culture. Cromwell learns his classics, but his real strength lies in multiple vernaculars, allowing him to eavesdrop and negotiate at ease. Pitting Cromwell against More means pitting English against the classical languages, so to speak. More's Latin turns out to be filthy ("No one has rendered the Latin tongue more obscene" ), and his English seems to work at cross-purposes. "If another man were saying this, he'd be trying to start a fight," Cromwell (or the narrator) muses, but "[w]hen Thomas More says it, it leads to an invitation to dinner" (101). Except when his daughter Meg is involved, More says nothing friendly that is not insulting, nothing affectionate that is not cruel. Near the end, someone I hope is Cromwell (more in a moment) comments that More's refusal to take the oath was "fear of plain words, or the assertion that plain words pervert themselves; More's dictionary, against our dictionary" (527). More's doubled or tripled meanings, his displays of wit, fall prey to the new world summed up in Tyndale's Bible and speakers like Cromwell, whose power derives from French, Spanish, German, English...
Part of More's problem, of course, is that history relativizes his position. More defends his torture of heretics by arguing that "'[w]hen I compel an answer from a heretic, I have the whole body of law behind me, the whole might of Christendom. What I am threatened with here is one particular law, one singular dispensation of recent make, recognized here but in no other country--'" (514). Not just speech, but the power to elicit speech, are at issue. More's self-justification inadvertently demonstrates his inability to grasp the import of the new historical moment: Protestantism is not just a fashionable, evanescent novelty, but also the end of the very ability to speak of "the whole might of Christendom"; whether or not Protestantism dominates, it definitely becomes a permanent alternative. Where there once was global Christendom, now there are multiple instances of Protestantism. It makes sense that the multilingual Cromwell, able to flourish in several countries, proves (temporarily) victorious in the brave new world of localized Protestant culture.
If this novel has a stumbling-block, though, it's in its use of the third person. I'm going to agree with other readers who have complained about the omnipresent "he": when I said that "someone I hope is Cromwell" is talking on p. 527, I genuinely meant I hope that's Cromwell. As Mantel words the sentence, "he" may well be the man to whom Cromwell is talking. There's nothing else particularly complex about the novel's language, which is graceful enough, but D. G. Myers is dead on about the "needless difficulty" involved. The reader doesn't learn anything from trying to figure out the pronoun's antecedent; the momentary obstacle doesn't seem to have much to do with questions about Cromwell's identity, say, or his security as a speaker. As Alfred Bester demonstrated years ago in "Fondly Fahrenheit," you can effectively play games with pronouns in order to make a larger point about the protagonist's mental state, but that's not happening here.