Monday, 28 November 2011

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

I put off reading Wolf Hall for a long time. Partly because of its size and partly because there have been so many dramas and documentaries on Henry VIII lately that I felt a little bored with everything Tudor.
But because I do love that period of history it was only going to be a matter of time before I finally picked it up.
Wolf Hall follows the life of Thomas Cromwell who, despite a humble background, was able to rise through the ranks in the court of Henry VIII eventually becoming the king’s right hand man. The novel doesn’t cover Cromwell’s whole life but instead covers his early life before jumping to the latter days of Henry's first marriage. As events unfold we see the split from Rome, the fall of Wolsey and Thomas More to the marriage of Anne Boleyn.
These events are told in what I can only describe as ‘layers’ which convey very well the feel and atmosphere of Tudor times. Henry VIII is in it surprisingly little but when he is, he comes across as a more thoughtful, magnetic and religious man than in other fictional portrayals while Anne Boleyn is still very much portrayed as a bitch. A lot of the events take place not in the court but in Cromwell’s house where a whole host of different characters are portrayed. Some scenes in the book are genuinely touching (such as Cromwell’s wife and daughters dying from the sweating sickness) and it’s nice to see Cromwell also worrying about his ward’s choice of wife as well as more pressing matters of state.
However I do have to mention about the style of writing and in particular the use of the word ‘he’. Mantel uses ‘he’ when referring to Cromwell which is fine if you're going to stick to that, but when the word ‘he’ is also used for other people during the same conversation it makes for some very confusing and sometimes annoying reading. This along with the novels overall size and style means that some people will not get along with Wolf Hall. Sometimes in situations like these it’s worth persevering but I feel in this case that the novels style of writing is either going to sweep you in completely (as it did me) or is going to leave you out.
A lot of the events in the novel like the break from Rome and Henry’s spilt from Catherine of Aragon took place over a period of several years and was played out in court in a long series of smaller political manoeuvres. One of the novel’s main strengths is how this is portrayed; the smaller characters all together interacting in a genuine world and having an impact on the whole country. This does mean however that it is not an action packed novel. If you prefer your historical novels to be a bit more exciting then this might not be for you.
I won’t go on about the historical accuracies but I was glad to see that Mantel did not invent a life for Cromwell during the years where historians draw a blank. A lot of significant events are mentioned in conversations or thoughts in passing so a general overview of the time might be helpful in order to get the most out of this novel.
If you’re interested in this period of history and you want something to really get your teeth into then I would give it a go. Personally I loved it and I will be buying the next instalment in hardback.
Verdict 4/5

Posted by Jess


  1. Thanks for your nice review. I enjoyed this book very much as well. here s my review:
    And you know the good news? It's actually going to be part of a trilogy!
    Here is one link about it:

  2. I couldn't get through this one, but I wanted to tell you that the sequel comes out next year!

  3. Definitely a book that requires commitment and concentration but I loved it too and looking forward to the next one.

  4. I really enjoyed this book too (and am excited for the second book). I thought Anne, while conniving, was still shown in somewhat of an admirable light as a woman playing the politics of court, pretty successfully at the time.

    I was also a little confused by the "hes" and by the fact that so many people shared the same first name-historically accurate but sometimes confusing!

  5. Like you, I have been meanign to read this for a long time, but its size has put me off. I read mostly on the train to and from work and it is such a big book to be carrying around in my bag for a couple of weeks.

    My other reservation is what you raise about historical fiction - I am not a big hostrical reader and I am concerned that if it didn't move fast enough I might become bored.

    Nonetheless, I read many good reviews of this book and its been recommended to me a lot, so I am sure I will read it one day soon

  6. I, too, found the use of "he" to be difficult. I felt like she intentionally kept those sections vague forcing the reader to follow the flow of the conversation instead of letting the author tell the reader what is happening. Despite its difficult, I ultimately appreciated her use of pronouns.

    I see you are reading All the Pretty Horses. McCarthy uses ambiguous pronouns as well in the Border Trilogy. Are you finding those difficult?

  7. wordsandpeace - thanks for the link! I did hear that the next instalment is going to be much shorter and more concentrated in terms of the time it covers.

    Ti - its one of those books where I can understand why some people cant.

    Cat - I think the next one will be a bestseller!

    Bookworm1858 - there were alot of Thomas's then weren't there! I did like how Mary was portrayed actually, alot more accurate than The Other Bolyen girl.

    Becky - the size was one of the reasons I read it on the kindle, you cant carry that size book around easily.

    Donovan - when you put the he thing like that it does makes sense.

    I'm not finding all the pretty horses difficult but then I have read Blood Meridin and The Road so I knew what to expect in terms of his writing. I found The Road sometimes confusing because there was alot of dialogue but I havent found it a problem in his other books.

  8. Linus's Blanket and I are co-hosting a readalong for the next three weeks to read Wolf Hall and I'm nervous! I've read a lot of reviews that were somewhat mixed, but I just picked it up last night and have enjoyed it so far. I don't know much about the Cromwells (other than cursory notes of history), so I'm hoping I don't get too lost!

  9. I also was unable to get through this one. I found the writing style very confusing and just couldn't fathom having to reread every paragraph. Glad you enjoyed it though!

  10. This is the perfect beach read for people who do not like beaches, since it will remove you efficiently and absolutely from any beach upon which you are unfortunate enough to find yourself washed up. Mantel's reconstruction of Tudor England: how things looked, how they felt, how they tasted, how both the secular and the vicious religious politics functioned (the latter of which, together with it's embodiment, Thomas More, she despises and loaths), is completely absorbing.

    It must be said, however, that Wolf Hall is not _quite_ a convincing reconstruction of all of Tudor England. Mantel is clearly in love with her version of Thomas Cromwell, who is just a bit too good to be true: a thinking woman's daydream. I doubt that any man - gay or straight - could have invented him.

  11. I just love this book. I just read it again and at the same time, I am re-watching The Tudors. They make a great pair. I can't wait for Hilary Mantel's third book in the trilogy!

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