Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel

I am adding my voice to the chorus of praise for Wolf Hall.  And here are my reasons why:

1.    The casting of Thomas Cromwell and the ‘he’ pronoun

Mantel’s characterization of Thomas Cromwell is extraordinary and it is what makes Wolf Hall such a success. After an abusive childhood, an apprenticeship in Europe and possibly other sinister activities, the adult Cromwell returns to England:

“Thomas Cromwell is now a little over forty years old. He is a man of strong build, not tall. Various expressions are available to his face, and one is readable: an expression of stifled amusement…  It is said he knows by heart the entire New Testament in Latin, and so as a servant of the cardinal is apt – ready with a text if abbots flounder. His speech is low and rapid, his manner assured; he is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian… He makes money and he spends it. He will take a bet on anything.”

This Cromwell is totally engaging.  He is a pragmatist. He is compassionate and fiercely protective of his family and their prospects. He is calculating but flexible. He is sophisticated, extremely capable and well-versed in politics and the financial markets of his time.  He is witty, his sense of humor is wicked. He has a keen sense of place and time.  This Cromwell is formidable, well-suited to his role in shaping Henry VIII’s England. Mantel has created a 16th character that resonates with readers in the 21st century.  He is the ultimate fixer.  All his charms, all his mannerisms are designed to cloud my judgment.  Because Cromwell is also vengeful.  He means to annihilate the enemies of his mentor,  Cardinal Wolsey. He is bent on achieving the King’s desires, whatever they may be and by any means necessary. His true intentions are sometimes hard to discern.  This is due to Mantel’s use of a third person narrative voice;  the ‘he’ pronoun.  Everything is ‘he’ this and ‘he’ that.  This device gets the reader as close to Cromwell as possible without actually being in his head.  And it allows Cromwell to keep certain cards close to chest, in his mind, away from our prying eyes. I can only detect a wicked, cruel side when he conveys what others say about him, the stuff they say of his mean nature which he finds faltering! And so while I’m spellbound by him, he steadily goes about neutralizing his enemies and reforming English society. Absolutely delicious!

2.   Other characters

Of course, the cast of supporting characters in Wolf Hall is large.  But what a cast! They all feel real.  The absolutely fabulous Cardinal Wolsey, completely steals the show when he makes an appearance.

“If your chance comes to serve, you will have to take him as he is, a pleasure-loving prince. And he will have to take you as you are, which is rather like one of those square-shaped fighting dogs that low men tow about on ropes. Not that you are without a fitful charm, Tom”

I adored the rattling and swearing Duke of Norfolk:

The duke is now approaching sixty years old but concedes nothing to the calendar. Flint-faced and keen-eyed, he is lean as a gnawed bone and cold as an axe-head; his joints seem knitted together of supple chain links, and indeed he rattles a little as he moves, for his clothes conceal relics…

I found Cromwell’s view of Thomas More very fascinating indeed.  Mantel has ripped apart the historical cut-out of More as a martyr of conscience and replaced it with a stubborn, vain, heretic hunter whose household is not quite as happy as Cromwell’s. Yet, he is also “a star in another firmament”.  But Mantel’s imaginative prowess is most evident in her characterization of lesser political figures and of family members in all the households of Wolf Hall.  And she goes further and uses these minor characters to shore up her portraits of the main characters.

3.  Language and dialogue

The language in Wolf Hall is not dated; there is nothing in it that connects it to Tudor England.  It is a mix of archaic and modern English. It is very fresh, fast and mirrors the pace of the tumultuous events of Henry VIII’s court and country.  I’m sure the language is what hooked me at first.  But what delighted me even more were the conversations between Cromwell and the other characters, especially conversations with the King, with Wolsey, with More, with Anne and Mary Boleyn. Cromwell, ever the tactician, accords everyone, even lesser players much respect, aware as he is of their role in either furthering or hindering the King’s plans.  This respect, at most times adversarial, is reflected in these conversations. Gripping stuff.

4.  Atmosphere

The detail in Wolf Hall is simple astonishing. And what makes it sumptuous is that it is imbued with the mental, social and emotional intelligence of Cromwell.  And so we get Tudor England in all its vividness and with all the political and religious issues of the time.  It is a credit to Mantel’s talent that this detail never overwhelms.

5.  Mantel’s view

I love Hilary Mantel’s view on stuff.  While she sticks to the historical record, she is also an amazing revisionist.  It seems no story and no one is safe. What irreverence and nerve! Ever the feminist, I am so glad Mantel is a woman.

Wolf Hall is serious fiction. It is compelling, well-written and thoroughly engaging.  A complete delight all through its 530 pages.  I absolutely love this novel.  Cromwell got under my skin – in a good way.  Like the  exasperated Duke of Norfolk who asked:

“Damn it all Cromwell, why are you such a … person? It isn’t as if you could afford to be.”

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23 comments

  1. You drew me in. I have always resisted this book. I suspended Byatt’s Possession for its academic language and I was scared a book set in such a period in British history would be same. Yet you have shown me the light… I would take the path and test its feel.

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    • Oh but you must try and unsuspend Possession, it’s quite the trip. Although I do understand the language issue. I’d say that Wolf Hall is more accessible. It’s the use of the “he” pronoun that tends to stall some people.

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  2. The historical background of the novel intrigues me: Henry VIII’s challenge to the church’s power with his desire to divorce his queen and marry Anne Boleyn set off a tidal wave of religious, political and societal turmoil that reverberated throughout 16th-century Europe. But I wasn’t warming up to it when I first picked it up. I know I need to give it time and your stellar review has convinced me to try again. 🙂

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    • A lot of people have complained about her use of the “he” pronoun. I don’t know if that cooled it for you. It might get better on your second try.

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  3. Having read every single word of this incredible book, Kinna, my thoughts exactly. Except that you express them so brilliantly!

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  4. Oh, I really need to read this! The book was on my birthday wishlist but alas nobody bought it. I guess I will have to go out and buy it myself ;-). The only thing holding me back from reading this straight away is the length of the book.

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    • It is easily one of the best books that I’ve read this year. Keep it in mind if ever you are looking for something new to read.

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  5. haha I love that last quote. Im now a huge fan of historial fiction but this one has had such rave reviews that I might one day be tempted.

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    • The book is filled with wonderful quotes. I was amazed. I don’t read much historical fiction so I can’t judge Wolf Hall against other historical fiction. My sense is that it goes beyond historical fiction. It’s what she’s done to Cromwell, how he is that gives the book a certain newness.

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  6. I’m warming up to this book. I usually avoid historical fiction, but I enjoyed the first Hilary Mantel novel I read and have another, shorter than Wolf Hall, in my TBR stack. With a few more good reviews like this one, I expect I’ll be sold.

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    • I don’t read historical fiction myself. I think Wolf Hall is also literary fiction. So warm up fast to the book and read it. I would love to hear your view on it.

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