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