When reading Hilary Mantel's novel Wolf Hall, I noticed that the protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, is referred to as often as possible simply as "he"/"him" rather than by his name. This includes in contexts where "he" would more naturally be read as referring to someone else: many times when reading such sentences, I would 'stumble', misreading who the pronoun was referring to, and have to go back and reread the sentence with the correct interpretation. For example:

  • He sees three elderly Lowlanders struggling with their bundles and moves to help them. The packages are soft and bulky, samples of woolen cloth. A port officer gives them trouble about their documents, shouting into their faces. He lounges behind the clerk, pretending to be a Lowland oaf, and tells the merchants by holding up his fingers what he thinks a fair bribe. “Please,” says one of them, in effortful English to the clerk, “will you take care of these English coins for me? I find them surplus.” Suddenly the clerk is all smiles. The Lowlanders are all smiles; they would have paid much more. When they board they say, “The boy is with us.”

    -- Chapter 1

    At first glance, I read this as the port officer lounging behind the clerk, or maybe someone else lounging ... I was completely confused about who was doing what. Only when I reached the end of the paragraph, "The boy is with us", did I realise that Tom must have helped the Lowlanders in some way, and then I went back and worked out that it was him lounging behind the clerk/port officer and signalling to the merchants.

  • There were many other (probably better) examples throughout the book, but I've given my copy away to charity and Chapter 1 is the only excerpt I can find on the internet.

(This was part of what made me condemn Wolf Hall, despite its Man Booker Prize, as simply a poorly written book: if the reader keeps stumbling and having to go back and reread sentences because their intended meaning is different from their most natural meaning, that's usually a hallmark of bad writing.)

It struck me that this excessive use of pronouns would have made much more sense if the book was written with first-person narration. If Cromwell had been a first-person protagonist, there would never have been any confusion about whether the pronoun referred to him or someone else - it would have been "I"/"me" and not "he"/"him". Thus, I came to the conclusion that the book was originally written in the first person and then hastily and somewhat shoddily edited into third-person narration, changing too many of the "I"s into "he"s instead of "Cromwell"s.

Is there any more evidence to support this conclusion? Acceptable evidence might be either more textual clues suggesting that early drafts of the book were written in the first person, or possibly a statement from the author (if the author says it wasn't originally first-person narration, I'd take that with a pinch of salt, but if she says it was, I'd be inclined to believe her).

  • 1
    An excellent observation and very reasonable conclusion. I'm eager to see if there's more to this. Commented Mar 26, 2017 at 4:57
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    Can you add some examples of sentences which caused you to falter? It is some time since I read the book, and I don't recall having any difficulty following who was being referred to at any time, so examples would aid the discussion.
    – Spagirl
    Commented Mar 26, 2017 at 6:30
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    I have to agree with your overall assessment: I don't think I got more than 30 or 40 pages in before giving up. The writing was so poor and so confusing that I couldn't figure out why people had been exulting over it. Commented Mar 26, 2017 at 12:59
  • @Spagirl I wanted to, but I'd already decided the book wasn't worth keeping and given my copy to charity, so it's going to be hard to find quotes from it now ... I'll see if I can dig up any passages online.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Mar 26, 2017 at 14:24
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    @Spagirl I couldn't handle Ulysses either, and I'm with Rand here. Given the answer below, it was clearly Mantel's stylistic choice, and he and I are two of the "didn't catch on" readers. I found the narrative style deeply frustrating, and frankly off-putting. Commented Mar 27, 2017 at 10:06

1 Answer 1


The author says using "he" was a deliberate stylistic choice.

In an interview with the New Yorker, she explained that she consistently called him "he" because that fit better with the way the book is written than using his name would. She said this made the text more "intimate". See the following quote (emphasis mine):

And can you explain why Cromwell is often the only character who is referred to with the pronoun “he”? As Joan Acocella points out, you often violate grammar for Cromwell’s sake.

I’m behind his eyes, so Cromwell is always “he.” Occasionally, there is an ambiguity, and the “he” could refer to somebody else, and I think that’s just the price you pay. To keep calling him Cromwell wouldn’t fit with the way the book is written. Although it’s written in the third person and not the first person, it’s actually more intimate than many third-person narratives. It’s as if the camera is on his shoulder.

In another interview with the Guardian, Mantel described how she started writing the book. Regarding the present tense and the person's views (again, emphasis mine):

I woke one morning with some words in my head: "So now get up." It took a while to work out that this was not an order to get the day under way. It was the first sentence of my novel.

Wolf Hall attempts to duplicate not the historian's chronology but the way memory works: in leaps, loops, flashes. The basic decision about the book was taken seconds before I began writing. "So now get up": the person on the ground was Cromwell and the camera was behind his eyes.

The events were happening now, in the present tense, unfolding as I watched, and what followed would be filtered through the main character's sensibility.

And regarding why she said "he", she expanded slightly on what she meant by "intimacy" in the text:

He [Cromwell] seemed to be occupying the same physical space as me, with a slight ghostly overlap. It didn't make sense to call him "Cromwell", as if he were somewhere across the room. I called him "he". This device, though hardly of Joycean complexity, was not universally popular. Most readers caught on quickly. Those who didn't, complained.

After a quick search, I found the book contains the word 'he' over 5541 times, 'his' over 2906 times, 'him' over 1581 times and 'himself' over 329 times. But the book only says 'Cromwell' 374 times, and that includes chapter titles and so on. There is no doubt this is purposeful, after all the book contains 187,240 words. 'he/him/his/himself' makes up 5.5% of the words in the book ('he' alone just under 3%), while 'Cromwell' makes up less than 0.2%. Quick comparison: 'Harry' makes up 2% of all words in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

These facts can be found by opening up a pdf of the book online (note that the pdf itself is illegal, but reading it is not) and using 'Ctrl+F' to find words in the book. I used this pdf here. Note for words like 'he' you need to add spaces either side to define it as a word, otherwise words like 'the' will be included as it contains the letters 'he' in that order. This does means instances such as "he," won't be included however, though I have now updated the above stats to try and include as many of such instances as possible.


She wrote it in the third person, and always referred to Cromwell as "he" because that was what fit best with the way the story was being told - she felt that he was with her when writing the story.

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    I was going to say "meh, I wouldn't necessarily take the author's word for this", but that last quote is very interesting. If I were you, I'd move that to the top and emphasise different parts of it. That's precisely what I'm asking about, and it's good to see exactly how the author has addressed it, pinches of salt notwithstanding.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Mar 26, 2017 at 16:41
  • @Randal'Thor ok will do... Commented Mar 26, 2017 at 16:42
  • I've made some edits to improve this answer, and given it an upvote. If you feel my edits go too far, feel free to rollback. But you should always try to summarise a source in your own words as well as just quoting it - as well as making the answer more your own work, paraphrasing can also improve your own understanding of what's being said.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Mar 26, 2017 at 17:23

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