Review: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

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.

Useful Links
Reviews of Wolf Hall on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Wolf Hall on Amazon (US)

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Review: Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Bring up the Bodies (2012) picks up where Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel's previous novel about the rise of Thomas Cromwell, left off. Here we see Cromwell, now Master Secretary, at the height of his powers, dictating and manipulating the court around him.... [Read More]


Donovan Richards said...

Good review! I too enjoyed Mantel's rendering of Cromwell. It was quite an exhaustive book.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Thanks Donovan - you're right, it is a detailed and pretty full book. It'll be interesting to read the sequel.

kanga said...

I found'Wolf Hall' hard going. I liked the way that Cromwell's character was rendered more human by the author but apart from a few other characters, and the big events, the book's reimagining of history seemed sketchy.

try 'David's Story' by Stig Dalager for an account of history told from piecing together letters and diaries.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Thanks for the comment Kanga. I think Cromwell was definitely portrayed in a more human way than he has been in the past, and More provided an interest contrast. You could definitely relate more to the resourceful Cromwell.

I haven't heard of that, I'll have to look it out and see what's it like - thanks for the recommendation!

Anonymous said...

great in depth review. thanks! This is such a great book, though I recommend it in audio; if some of the commentators are intrigued about that, see here: Emma

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

I would whole-heartedly agree Emma. The unusual style is likely to come across as far more accessible in the form of an audiobook, provided it it done well.

Glad you enjoyed the book, and thanks for the tip about the audiobook version.

Mark Steger said...

I second everything said in this review.

I "read" Wolf Hall as an audiobook. I had little of the confusion others note with the ambiguous use of "he" because the audiobook used different voices for the different characters.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Thanks for the comment Mark. From browsing around a few blogs it seems like quite a few people 'read' this via audiobook. Sounds like it's the way to go, I don't blame anyone either - the size of the book!

Rose City Reader said...

Great review! I loved this book.

I hope you do not mind, but I took the liberty of adding a link to your review on my review post. If you don't want it there, please let me know and I'll drop it.

Since you read and review a lot of prize winners, you may want to sign up for either the American and/or British version of The Battle of the Prizes challenge. You have probably completed one or the other of them already. I'd be happy to post relevant reviews if you leave links on the challenge pages.

Rose City Reader

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Thanks for adding a link to my review - I'm very grateful.

The Battle of the Prizes sounds like a fun idea - I must sit down and try to do that sometime. As you say, I may well have done it unconsciously, but it would be good to pick some out and do it properly. Is there any three titles you particularly recommend?

Andrew Jacobson said...

I really enjoyed your post! I had trouble dredging through it towards the end, but I loved the book. I hear Mantel is coming out with a sequel.

Have you read her book, "Fludd"? It's incredibly different from Wolf Hall.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Thanks for the comment Andrew, I definitely agree - not the easiest read ever.

I think the sequel is scheduled for early 2012 - really looking forward to it already!

I haven't read any of Mantel's other works, although I picked up A Place of Greater Safety the other day so hopefully I will find time to give that a go. I've heard some pretty indifferent things about some of Mantel's other books though.

Rose City Reader said...

Three books I particularly enjoyed for the Battle of the Prizes, British Version, were Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd (James Tait Black winner); The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch (Booker winner); and Last Orders by Graham Swift (won both).

I am hosting again in 2012. The post for the British Version will be up this Saturday (Dec. 3) and the American Version post is up now, here.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Thanks for the recommendations. Coincidentally I've just been reading about Boyd's The Sea, The Sea and Graham Swift, so they make perfect choices.

I will definitely stop by on the 3rd to check out the British post.

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