Wolf Hall vs. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Recently, there has been a cascade of great historical novels published in Britain. Reading two of the bestselling titles, it was surprising how similar they are: Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (2009) and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (2010). Both novels deal with very different time periods and settings: Tudor England in Wolf Hall and late eighteenth-century Japan in de Zoet. Even so, they are so similar that we can see real trends emerging in historical fiction.

The first is the titles. These bear little connection to the story that unfolds. ‘Wolf Hall’ is a stately home which is hardly mentioned in Mantel’s life of the politician Thomas Cromwell. ‘The Thousand Autumns’ of David Mitchell’s title is a poetic name for Japan. As a phrase, it’s only mentioned once in the novel and even then, illuminates nothing.

De Zoet himself disappears from the action entirely for much of the story. Like Cromwell, he is a relatively dull character who rarely challenges the supporting cast for the reader’s attention. Perhaps this is because they are both bookkeepers. Boiled down to its basics, Jacob de Zoet is a clerk performing due diligence on a corrupt trading outpost of the Dutch empire. Cromwell too ‘dazzles’ people by his canny handling of finance.

Could this be due to the source material available? Contrary to the excitement of TV history, most historical research involves poring over early balance sheets, because these are the best-kept records of their time. Take for example the oldest writing of all: cuneiform blocks from ancient Uruk. For a long time, these were indecipherable, a tantalising mystery, making us wonder what secrets were cut into this ancient clay. Imagine the disappointment when the jagged marks finally gave up their mystery. The blocks were lists of agricultural produce such as skins, wheat and milk. Depressingly, it seems accountancy is the world’s oldest profession.

Both of these novels are written in the present tense, which makes the distant events feel real. They also eschew the first-person narrator. Using a third-person ‘god-like’ narrator allows Mantel and Mitchell to flaunt their virtuosity: these are fabulous writers of English prose:

Gardiner wears furs, which look like oily and dense black feathers; he stands now, ruffling them, gathering his clothes about his tall straight person like black angel’s wings.               (from Wolf Hall)

There is only one deviation from this rule. In de Zoet, Mitchell writes an entire chapter in the first person, told by an utterly unimportant character, without any framing device such as a letter. This breaks the illusion and makes the reader suddenly aware of the author. Unfortunately, it weakens the overall effect of the book.

Pronouns are also Mantel’s undoing. Throughout the book, she uses ‘he’ to mean ‘Thomas Cromwell’, often without differentiating Cromwell from anyone else. Frequently, several people are called ‘he’ within the same paragraph, and the reader hasn’t a clue about what is happening. Is it possible that Mantel used a first-person narrator in early drafts, and that this is just a hangover from a previous version of the manuscript?

In another  departure from earlier novels, both books are stuffed with minor characters. These are rarely described in detail. It is almost impossible to imagine who they are or what they look like. In one paragraph of de Zoet, Mitchell introduces three characters whose names all begin with W- (Walker, Waldron, and Wesley). To compound the confusion, he barely mentions any of them again. On the other hand, at one point Mantel apologises for the confusion of names in her story. It’s not her fault that almost every Tudor politician is called ‘Thomas’: Cromwell, Audley, Bolyen, Cranmer, Howard, Wolsely, Wriothesley and More.

Thomas More is no stranger to British fiction. However, neither Mantel nor Mitchell is a great respecter of reputations. Readers of Wolf Hall would be surprised to find that the scholarly Thomas More was a fervent burner of heretics. Mitchell meanwhile sets his sights on Carl Linnaeus. The creator of the Linnean system (the means by which we call ourselves Homo Sapiens), “taught also that swallows hibernate under lakes… [and] that twelve-foot giants thump about Patagonia”.  Both books are packed with interesting details like this, skilfully woven into the tale.

‘Skill’ is the imperative word here. We are living through a golden era of historical fiction where Mantel and Mitchell are masters of the craft. Either one of these sumptuous novels will remind you why you loved reading in the first place.

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17 responses to “Wolf Hall vs. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

    • It’s funny but I read them one after the other and so I noticed all these connections. I really loved de Zoet actually. For ages, I’ve ignored David Mitchell because Cloud Atlas is always piled up in the bookshops so I just thought he was a bestseller-type author. Now I’ve seen the error of my ways. I think he’s fantastic. I want to read all his stuff!

      • I think I read those two books back to back too…

        Jacob de Zoet was my first David Mitchell novel. Of course after I read that I felt the same as you, so I read Black Swan Green and wasn’t impressed. Now I’m reading Cloud Atlas and well….let’s just say it’s not gonna make it into my favorites list.

        I don’t know, I’m finding David Mitchell a bit gimmicky. I haven’t read all his books, but so far it seems like Jacob de Zoet is his only “straight-forward” novel.

        Well, give his other novels a go and see if you like it. Have fun!

  1. I was the same in that I avoided reading David Mitchell for a long time because of the hype, and then I found that once in a while the acclaim is actually justified. I read Cloud Atlas and loved it, so much so the next three books I read were his other then published titles. I’d not been so excited about finding a new author since racing through the early Iain (M.) Banks novels one after another 20 years ago. It as a long wait for The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I splashed out on the limited edition hardback and didn’t regret it. It has become my favourite of his five novels. Now I am waiting for the film of Cloud Atlas, half with excitement, half in trepidation. Visually it looks a marvel, but how can any film capture that book?

    • I haven’t read Cloud Atlas yet but it’s next on my list. It’s great that David Mitchell has a film of his works on the way because he’s so talented. I feel exactly the same way about him – at times, de Zoet is actually thrilling.

      • I want to re-read all five novels in a row now, not just for the sheer pleasure of them, but to see how many connections I can spot. Mitchell seems embarked on linking all his work together in the same sort of way little threads (sometimes just a name) weave all of Stephen King’s novels into one vast tapestry.

        If we had a real film industry someone would currently be directing a
        $250 million adaptation of de Zoet. Instead the money will be squandered on more superhero nonsense.

      • Too true – or worse, more vampires and zombies. I was in the cinema the other day and all the trailers were for vampire movies. It was like “haven’t we just seen the same trailer three times?”

  2. It’s not even as if something interesting and new couldn’t be done with vampires or zombies, but the film industry will keep churning out the same old stuff. The only worthwhile vampire film I have seen in a long time is Daybreakers, an Australian film which plays like a vintage John Carpenter picture. As for zombies, the C4 mini-series Dead Set was terrific, and we are going to start watching The Walking Dead on DVD soon. As for the rest… let’s have something new.

    • Very interesting, Gary. It’s incredible that even hyper-successful film-makers have to fight tooth and nail to get their pictures made. Terry Gilliam seems to have the same problems, and I remember reading an interview with Tim Burton once where he said that every single movie was a struggle to get off the ground.

      • I finally got around to reading what proved to be a very interesting article. Apart from repeating the legend that ‘bullet time’ was invented for The Matrix it was a much more worthwhile piece than what currently passes for much mainstream film journalism. As it points out, financiers loath to back original ideas because they can’t model them, and the people that tend to put up the money aren’t generally the sort of people that love or ‘get’ art. A sweeping generalisation I know, but not without some truth.

        Hence no matter a creative person’s track record, every project is a
        struggle. The money people are well aware of the history of big ambitious films that didn’t set the box office alight. And the public do generally prefer to lap up more of the same old predictable, formula fare than anything remotely challenging. Last year the top 12 films at the box office were all sequels, remakes, reboots or otherwise franchise movies. Liking original, creative films is a frustrating business. It is ridiculous that Cloud Atlas had to be made for less than half the money spend on summer junk like The Avengers. One would think that the massive success of Inception would indicate to Hollywood that there is an audience for at least one massive film a year which requires the audience to think, and that there is an audience for films the like of which are different to the regular output.

      • Not all sequels/franchise movies are bad – I liked the Avengers, as well as Nolan’s Batman trilogy.

        I think the problem is that superhero films with big name characters are a ‘known quantity’, but intelligent blockbusters like Inception aren’t. (At least in the modern era, I’d class a lot of Spielberg’s best films in the same mould.)
        I’ve not read Cloud Atlas (I intend to soon) but if it is in the same mould as Inception, and succeeds as well, hopefully it’ll help persuade the studios that Inception wasn’t just a freak once-in-a-lifetime occurence, and more of them will take similar risks.

  3. Totally fascinating insights and love your review – have both these books unread and looking forward some time in the near future to diving into them. Interesting comment on minor characters, the abundance of then in Wolf Hall is what had caused me to pass it over up until now. Pressure building with its sequel shortlisted today though.

    I really enjoyed Black Swan Green, felt it was realistically contemporary, not found the right time for Cloud Atlas yet.

    • As a reader, I wonder why authors stuff their books with these minor characters. Family members are constantly cropping up in Wolf Hall and then disappearing. I was shocked at the end of de Zoet to discover that Dejima (where much of the story is set) is only as big as Trafalgar Square. At times it seems populated by a cast of thousands. Each of these books also contains a list of characters, but as far as I’m concerned, I never referred to that while reading. I just breathed deeply, and kept on turning the pages…
      Thanks for commenting! I hope you like both books.

      • Maybe the idea was to give a sense of the hectic nature of the place?
        Not read it, so I can’t be certain, but if it’s a centre of power it’d make sense for lots of people to be coming and going, staying only briefly.

  4. Pingback: Book Review: Wolf Hall « Wandering Mirages

  5. Pingback: In his Shadow: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel « Just Wander In

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