Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel book cover
Wolf Hall (2009) is Hilary Mantel’s award-winning historical novel, which traces Thomas Cromwell’s rapid ascent, from his humble origins to his position as one of the most powerful men in Tudor England. Although elements of Cromwell’s early life are inventions of the author, the novel is firmly grounded in fact, with Henry VII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, marriage to Anne Boleyn, and the English reformation, the backdrop to a brutal and compelling exploration of Tudor life. The first half of the novel is concerned with Cromwell’s early years, domestic life, and most significantly Cardinal Wolsey’s fall from power. The second half traces Cromwell’s ascent to a position of true power as he supports Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, strategically clearing the way for the king to re-marry in the face of stiff opposition, primarily from Thomas More. The complexity of court politics is central to the novel, with a wide range of Tudor courtiers bought vividly to life.

Mantel’s Cromwell is a progressive thinker, master of many trades himself he has little time for the superstitions of others and sees the new power of money and political manoeuvring. Though many of Comwell’s aspirations are fiercely modern, the world of Wolf Hall is so firmly set in Tudor Britain that it’s hard to draw contemporary themes from its pages, and yet the financial and legal wrangling, the social manoeuvring and sexual politics are as familiar to the modern world as they would have been to Cromwell’s. Ultimately, the power of money and desire is shown always to outweigh idealism and humanity.

Though the historical figures and key events are well-documented, Mantel’s skill is to breathe life into them, creating complex characters whose interactions with one another are fraught with tension. Beyond the characters themselves, Mantel deftly depicts Tudor England in all its brutality – a wonderful and atmospheric portrayal of one of history’s most famous periods. The precarious nature of life is emphasised consistently, and never more so than when Cromwell loses his wife and daughters to a wave of epidemics, scenes which are inherently moving, but which are written without sentiment – a mark of the Tudor’s own relationship with death. There will be some who find the present-tense narration disruptive to the novel’s flow, with Cromwell regularly referred to, often ambiguously, as ‘he’. But, with the application such a rich novel demands, one quickly adapts to the unusual style. In a novel that features events of national significance, it is notable that most are dealt with indirectly, referred to in conversation or represented by subtle signs; the repainting of a family crest, or relocation of a household.

In both fiction and historical works, Thomas Cromwell is regularly portrayed as an unpleasant and fairly sinister character who was disliked by many. By drawing him to the centre of her novel, Mantel creates an unlikely hero, and humanises what has sometimes been a fairly two-dimensional character. Though much of Cromwell’s early life is imagined (possibly to the discomfort of historians) by Mantel, it is the new perspective she provides on his later life that proves so appealing: the street-smart bureaucrat and political manoeuvrer a far more engaging subject than the shady pen-pusher of previous works. The weight of history hangs bleakly over the novel, the fate of many of the characters enjoying prosperity as the novel ends, yet to be meted out. Indeed, as the novel closes Cromwell is on his way to Wolf Hall, home of Jane Seymour, as clear an indicator of history’s unstoppable progression as one can imagine. There are very few novels that are stylistically comparable to Wolf Hall, Mantel cutting her own way as a novelist, and in this case delivering a complex, acerbic, and gloriously rich picture of Tudor life and one of its less frequently explored characters.

Because of the slightly unusual way in which this is written, I can see that Wolf Hall won't be for everybody, but I really enjoyed. I found Mantel's description of Tudor life wonderfully atmospheric, and didn't get hung up on the historical accuracy.

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Reviews of Wolf Hall on Amazon (UK)
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