Wolf Hall


Expectations can be tricky things: sometimes the actual experience of reading a novel, while perfectly fine, doesn't live up to one's preconceptions in some way, while on the other hand, negative buzz around a title can delay a wonderful read for years. So it's a kind of a cool change of pace to find, for once, pretty much exactly the reading experience I had envisioned in cracking open Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. I was bargaining on a lush, character-driven treatment of Thomas Cromwell and the beginning of the English Reformation, and that's exactly what I got: a complex, rousing story whose nuanced characterization provided plenty of narrative tension, despite the fact that I already knew from history class how the basic plot points must play out.

Indeed, the rise and fall of Henry VIII's love for Anne Boleyn, his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and the separation of the Church of England from Church of Rome exercises a powerful hold over the popular imagination; I am aware of fictional retellings from the point of view of Anne herself in the film Anne of a Thousand Days; as an ensemble piece in the contemporary Showtime drama The Tudors; with an eye to Mary Boleyn (I assume?) in The Other Boleyn Girl; and from the Thomas More angle in A Man for All Seasons. I'll admit up front that I've never totally understood the lasting appeal of the Anne/Henry story, which is often presented in broad strokes: "Henry boldly breaks up the Church for love," goes one plotline, or "Thomas More is a man of principle who will not compromise and sticks to the Way of Right."

To her credit, Mantel's portrait of the times is much more nuanced, and, to me at least, infinitely more appealing and satisfying as a result. The English Reformation did not come out of left field as an isolated response to Henry's lust for a woman other than his wife or even his desire for a male heir. Mantel evokes convincingly the feeling of theological unrest—even chaos—during these years: the way that excitement and wonder at the influx of new ideas (a heliocentric universe, an English Bible, a host which is nothing more than bread) battled with fear at the torture and death that awaited heretics. With the theological ground shifting radically over the course of just a few years, avoiding a heretic's death was not a simple matter.

Ashes, dry bread. England was always, the cardinal says, a miserable country, home to an outcast and abandoned people, who are working slowly toward their deliverance, and who are visited by God with special tribulations. If England lies under God's curse, or some evil spell, it has seemed for a time that the spell has been broken, by the golden king and his golden cardinal. But those golden years are over, and this winter the sea will freeze; the people who see it will remember it all their lives.

Accustomed to the Man for All Seasons view of events (e.g., Saint Thomas More as Man of Principle, beloved of commoners and bravely defiant in the face of the King's self-interested heresy), Mantel's focus on the rivalry between More and Thomas Cromwell, her protagonist, was intriguing to me. As I've mentioned before, I'm fascinated by More's Utopia and his biography, but I've always felt uncomfortable with such a wholly congratulatory portrait of him, for exactly the reasons Mantel spotlights: he was a religious extremist who believed he was morally and theologically justified in torturing confessions out of suspected heretics, a learned humanist who was also a cruelly condescending snob, a lover of worldly comforts who also scourged himself with a cat-o-nine-tails. Mantel doesn't slight any of these varied aspects of More's character, and she sets his medievalism against her depiction of the more opportunistic, modern-feeling, but equally complicated, Thomas Cromwell. She paints neither man as wholly admirable—both are bullies, both are self-interested, both can be cruel—but the interplay between their world-views is fascinating, as are the shifting power dynamics between them as Cromwell's star rises and More's sets.

He never sees More--a star in another firmament, who acknowledges him with a grim nod--without wanting to ask him, what's wrong with you? Or what's wrong with me? Why does everything you know, and everything you've learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, 'Purgatory.' Show me where it says relics, monks, nuns. Show me where it says 'Pope.'

Or again:

Thomas More says that the imperial troops, for their enjoyment, are roasting live babies on spits. Oh, he would! says Thomas Cromwell. Listen, soldiers don't do that. They're too busy carrying away everything they can turn into ready money.

Mantel's Cromwell is, despite his obvious self-interest, despite his status as more or less a tough and a usurer, undeniably compelling, and I think a large part of this appeal is how "modern" the character feels. This is dangerous territory for a work of historical fiction: so easily, a character intended to appeal to the reader's modern sympathies can turn into an anachronistic mess. The reason it works with Cromwell, I think, in addition to Mantel's wealth of detail and solid writing style, is that the Renaissance actually WAS, in many ways, the beginning of what we now call "modernity." Many of the qualities exemplified by Mantel's Cromwell really WERE beginning to be rewarded in Renaissance times more than they had been previously: his pragmatism; his flexibility; his wide worldly experience and ability to extrapolate from it; his openness to new ideas and the way he is able to combine some degree of faith with confidence in the efficacy of his own mind. He believes he is able to read the Bible and draw conclusions from it himself; he is hungry for knowledge from whatever source he can find. Possibly most significantly, he understands the workings of portable currency and international trade, which in the 1530s was an area of exponentially expanding importance, in the process of overtaking the old feudal, land-based systems of wealth.

How can he explain to him [Harry Percy]? The world is not run from where he thinks. Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, from where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from castle walls, but from countinghouses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page or the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and the shot.

Cromwell is an outsider, a man of low birth who has served as a soldier and a merchant in foreign lands, and Mantel gives a nuanced view of the interplay between him and the established court order in all its incestuous complexity. Incest is, in fact, a recurring theme in the novel: Henry claims that his marriage to Catherine was void because incestuous (her first husband was his brother), while Cromwell himself has an affair with the sister of his beloved late wife. Even the book's title gestures toward the family seat of the Seymours, where Sir John Seymour is caught in an adulterous affair with his daughter-in-law. It is also, of course, the home of the King's next, future wife, Jane Seymour, who remarks late in the novel, "Incest is so popular these days!" On a less literal note, of course, the sense of claustrophobia at court is almost palpable, with burned bridges or long-ago alliances looming around corners unexpectedly.

There is so much more to say about this novel—I particularly liked Mantel's use of houses (Wolsey's place in Westminster, Cromwell's Austin Friars, Thomas More's Chelsea establishment, Hatfield where the young princesses are kept) as embodiments of the waxing or waning influence of different players, and as gestures to the past or future—Anne's contemptuous statement that "They don't know what continence means, down at Wolf Hall" is counter-balanced by the final line of the book: "To Wolf Hall," as the streams of influence alter their courses. Just one of the many details lovely to watch in the unfolding.


Thanks to LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program for sending me a copy of Wolf Hall!


  • I'm so glad to hear that you enjoyed this. I thought Mantel did a fabulous job showing the complexities of the period. That quote about the chipping away has stuck with me ever since I read it. Such a great depiction of what it must have been like to see the whole world as you've known it slipping away.

  • This sounds great, and I'm going to keep it in mind for when I'm in the mood for something long and on the challenging side. I didn't love the last Mantel novel I read (Beyond Black), but I think I need to give her another chance. This might be the book to do that with.

  • Your enthusiastic essay makes this sound like everything I had hoped it would be, Emily. Too bad I don't know when I'll have time for another 500-600 page chunkster! Love the quotes you pulled, too (they are, of course, a far cry from the "impenetrable writing" critiques bashing Mantel I saw when the novel first came out in hardcover).

  • I think it's Jonathan Rhys Meyers fault if I bought this book one day. It's a very very thick english book, too thick for me I think (but what does "chunkster" mean ???). Therefore, I didn't like the only book I read (in french) of this author : "Vacant Possession". I should watch the second season of "The Tudors", maybe it would motivate me...

  • I've been mildly interested in this book but that's as far as it has gone. I just thought I'd read it in the nebulous "some day." But your enthusiasm and description has got me to add the book to my library list. There are many others before me at this point but that is ok since it looks like it might end up in my hands just about the time I graduate from library school in June. That would be good timing.

  • I really want to read this, specially as I've read absolutely nothing about the Tudors. One of my friends was telling me about it, and it sounds fantastic.

    Glad you enjoyed it, and hopefully, I'll get m'self a copy someday soon.

  • Teresa: I remember you spotlighting that quote in your post as well, and it was one of the things that convinced me I should definitely read this book. I definitely agree about how well Mantel conjures the feeling of a world in chaotic transition - it's fantastic.

    Dorothy: I've heard lukewarm reviews of several of her other novels, none of which I've read, but I bet you would really enjoy Wolf Hall.

  • Richard: I was honestly surprised how challenging Mantel's prose WASN'T - as far as I'm concerned it flows like buttah. This is probably one worth overcoming your Ango-malaise whenever you have a week or two. :-)

    Ys: Ha, I have a hard time imagining the Henry VIII featured in this novel played by Meyers. ;-) Re: "chunkster," it's slang for a very long/thick book - one you might use for a doorstop.

  • Stefanie: I bet you would enjoy it! And it would make a great "project book" for a recent library graduate! (Which, by the way, so exciting!)

    anothercookie: It really is great. I hope you love it when you get hold of a copy!

  • I am not keen on dense historical novels but this sounds very wonderfully constructed and written. Maybe *someday* I'll be brave.

    I appreciate your comments on More. I watched A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS when I was a teen and really loved it and then I started reading about him and feeling a bit uneasy.

  • I LOVED this book, Emily, and am so pleased you did too! The only thing I've read in ages to compare is A S Byatt's 'The Children's Book'.
    My only problems were i) everyone's called Thomas (highly confusing, though not her fault!) and ii) there's a lot of 'he did' 'he said' and sometimes it's hard to know which 'he'. But these are such minor flaws when compared with all the lovely elements you note. I can't wait for the next instalment.

  • Rebecca: It's fairly dense, but not more so than, say, Middlemarch for example. I think you would like it! And yes, More is such an interesting figure but much more complicated/less attractive than I feel A Man For All Seasons acknowledges.

    Lyndsey: Oh I KNOW, all the men were named Thomas or John and all the women Mary or Elizabeth! I was thankful for Rafe Sadler, doing his bit to shake things up a bit. :-) That said, I'm with you on eagerly awaiting the next installment.

  • What Stefanie said - nothing until now had made me want to read this anywhere near as desperately as this post. I'm moving it from my mental "someday" list to the more concrete "get from the library soon" one. And I think I'll thank you for it.

  • I loved this book. It was just a lot of fun to read. So engrossing. It's gratifying to come across the book that covers so much ground, so many issues and yet manages to be also entertaining. I agree with your assessment of Cromwell. Everything in the book hinges on Cromwell's take on this, on himself. And Mantel's Cromwell is wickedly brilliant. Easily, one of the best books that I read this year. Thanks for the review.

  • Nymeth: I bet you'll really enjoy it. It involves a lot of the shifting social perceptions stuff you tend to find interesting. And excellent characterization.

    Kinna: I agree; a lot of fun to read. The voice is fantastic, and Cromwell is so memorable.

  • What a fascinating review! I am very glad to have found your blog. I have been putting off reading this novel for a while now for the most ridiculous of all reasons -- because everybody else has been reading it. I know. There is a reason they are all reading it. And yet I've felt more drawn to some of Mantel's other novels which I've been reading about, and her memoir whose title has temporarily eluded me. I don't know how much you know about her as an author, but I once went to a talk on the role of literature in other disciplines here in London and I was captivated by the fact that this educated, intelligent woman has a history of having been committed to a psychiatric hospital - not because she was mentally ill, mind you, but because her chronic pelvic pain due to endometriosis was deemed by doctors to be all in her head. Horrible, and for me as an almost-doctor, a story which evokes feelings of vicarious shame. So I had always thought I would start by reading her memoirs and turn to her fiction later. But perhaps not! This sounds like a gripping read. I am no expert on the time period though and I wonder whether I miss out on a lot of things. I had a thought that maybe I'd read Antonia Fraser's book on Henry VIII, which I've owned for ages, before digging into this.
    Anyway, thank you so much for an insightful and fascinating review. Your comments about modernity are especially fascinating - I know so little about this subject matter and it's great to learn.

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography