Book Review- “Wolf Hall”, Hilary Mantel
A word about my reviews (if you’ve read this before, skip to the review!):
My reviews are intended for those specifically who have read the novel and are looking for a place to read another’s take on the book and to also share their own thoughts. I don’t particularly like to read a recap of the story’s premise and who is who, etc, in reviews so you won’t find anything like that here. Unless I must explain a bit of premise detail in my review to give context to a thought or idea, I keep recaps to a bare minimum, if at all.
My thoughts on the books I read are by no means meant to be objective. I try to give an accurate portrait of what I experienced from reading this novel, what themes came to surface, in addition to what I liked and disliked about the book.
If you are curious about the book without having read it and would like to read my review- by all means! But please be forewarned that my reviews may contain spoilers.
“Wolf Hall”, Hilary Mantel
I have long been obsessed with the Tudor dynasty, and I take any opportunity I can to read about this completely dysfunctional (by today’s standards, anyway) family. New facts about Henry VIII and company are few, so when an author like Mantel comes along and writes from the point of view of one of the side characters, in this case Thomas Cromwell, the much-told and well-trod Tudor saga takes a delightful turn.
Fans of Phillippa Gregory’s novels featuring Katherine of Aragon and Mary Boleyn as main characters may also enjoy Hilary Mantel’s soon-to-be trilogy on Cromwell and his rise and fall. It is interesting to note that “Wolf Hall” was published sometime around season 2 of the Showtime series “The Tudors” (in 2009). Her research and development certainly must have preceded the the start of the series (2006), and perhaps the fates aligned to have the TV show and her novel come into fruition around the same period.
One may think that with the TV show “The Tudors” around, it would be easy to dismiss the novel or risk suffering “Tudor Fatigue”. But Mantel’s works should be viewed as companion pieces to the Tudor story. I’ll be honest: I watched every episode of “The Tudors” and I barely remember the character Thomas Cromwell. Mantel’s Cromwell, however, is different from the series portrayal of the wise counsel to the King who eventually meets his own untimely end on the block. Instead of portrayed as a corrupt schemer, as he is in the book, solely consumed with greed and power, the Cromwell in “Wolf Hall” is both a brilliant, if at times ruthless, logician and lawyer, as well as a complicated, sensitive, and gentle family man.
The Cromwell in “Wolf Hall” main advantage and the key reason he succeeds to the level of power that he does, is that he is NEVER the man anyone expects. Coming from a rough and tumble childhood of low-birth, no one, the King included, expects such an intelligent, well-read, multi-lingual observer and counsel of sorts whose sole charm lies in his loyalty- to the Cardinal, to his King, to his Queen, to the former Queen and daughter, to Thomas More, to his family. In fact, Cromwell is loyal to whomever he needs to be at the time, which causes his enemies to both fear and admire him, and ultimately they desperately need him, as Cromwell deftly and strategically controls most of the debts of the courtiers and noblemen in the novel.
Two quotes I love that best describe Cromwell:
“Memory, he says. I have a very large ledger. A huge filling system, in which are recorded (under their name, and also under their offense) the details of people who have cut across me” (Thomas Cromwell, page 446)
“He is the unconsolable Master Cromwell: the unknowable, the inconstruable, the probably indefeasible Master Cromwell” (Thomas Audley, page 528)
This is his strength, this ambiguity, which in turn also lays the foundation for his fall, as we will find out in the sequel “Bring up the Bodies”.
Mantel’s language in the book is quite delicious. Cromwell observes most of the other characters from afar and makes his own side comments, which are witty little gems Mantel has tucked here and there. With these delightfully wicked interjections, Cromwell stops becoming merely an historical figure, and more of a complex man. Within the serious and complicated tones and themes of the period, the humor and nuance interspersed throughout the novel gives depth to all of the characters whose historical inner-lives we only know so little about. My only complaint with the dialogue, albeit a small one, is that it is sometimes difficult to tell who is speaking. She will often not use the speaker’s name, just “He said and then he said”, which after a while makes it frustrating to keep track of who said what. (UPDATE: Mantel portrays Cromwell as an observer and narrator. He is the speaker, as well as the fly on the wall. This sublime way of writing becomes more clear in her second book)
Despite the dialogue problem, though, it’s actually not a hard novel to read, which is a testament to the author’s skill. In less capable hands the book might read as a dry and methodical history timeline of events, but Mantel manages to keep the story moving chronologically at a galloping clip. There is so much history to cover, and she knows when to give attention to certain events and characters and when to take a step back, or ignore certain facts altogether as they don’t serve Cromwell’s story. The one issue I had with the TV series “The Tudors” was that each episode often focused too much on the backstories all of the fringe characters and it’s easy to forget who was who and how he/she related to the overall story of Henry VIII. In “Wolf Hall”, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn take more of a backseat and anyone else featured in the novel is clearly mapped out and given their own life, but without devoting chapters and chapters to who they are, what they’ve done, and where they came from.
I guess if I HAD to really complain about the novel, given that I am highly recommending it to history buffs, I would say that knowing some of the Tudor story is important in order to grasp some of the more complex aspects of the plot regarding religion and Cromwell’s involvement in Lutherism. I occasionally looked up a few facts on Wikipedia and other sites to grasp what was going on. But this point is minor. I didn’t feel like this was a “history 101” novel by any means, and I was never once bored by the topic. Again, it is a tribute to the author’s unique voice that this story does not drift into historical la la land where you aren’t sure these people actually existed.
In some ways, I found this novel an almost comforting read. Times change. Sanitation improves, diseases disappear. Our knowledge of technology, anatomy, and science is radically different and more developed than it was 500 years ago. And yet human needs, wants, desires, and failings remain the same no matter what century you live in. What Mantel managed to wonderfully create in this novel is a believable world based on history but rooted in the common human experience. Relying on what facts we know about the Tudor family none of the foibles and fears from any of these characters appear anachronistic, even if the language does have a modern feel to it at times.
And as much as Cromwell’s life in the novel may have been embellished or re-told for purposes of the story, he emerges as a rich figure- almost leaping from the page- with a truthfulness and bald honesty that is often missing from real-life historical figures in fiction, who tend to be written as cardboard cut-outs of actual people and whose inner lives are limited a few scant facts and general assumptions made at the time. “Wolf Hall” is a scrumptious treat for anyone looking for a historical novel outside of the traditional formula. It is a welcome addition to those especially interested in Tudor history.