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Well I was warned that Wolf Hall was hard going and so it proved. Usually I'm a fast reader but this tome (it weighs in at over 650 pages) took me an age to read. I started it at the beginning of May and have only just finished it. Admittedly I did take several breaks and read several other novels in between as I needed some light relief. That's not to say that I didn't enjoy the book, because I did, but it was hard going. The prose is difficult and until you get used to it (in my case about 100 pages in), it is often unclear which character is speaking.
What's it about?
There seems to be so much about Tudor England at the moment be it in book form, film or tv. (Incidentally I found the Tudor family tree at the beginning of the book really helpful as I watched the BBC dramatisation of the White Queen, Henry VIII's grandmother.) This story recounts the meteoric rise of Thomas Cromwell from the poor son of a blacksmith to the King's principal secretary. In nearly all other portrayals, Cromwell is painted as a cruel and power hungry individual only out for his personal gain. What makes Wolf Hall so interesting is that Hilary Mantel paints an alternative view of Cromwell as a highly intelligent and thoughtful man. Cunning perhaps and clearly good at accruing a large personal income, Cromwell also comes across as caring and loyal.
Although titled Wolf Hall, much of the book features Austin Friars where Cromwell had a large private mansion. Here we see the devoted husband and family man. Not only does Cromwell look after his own family, he cares for his sister and her family as well as several guardians.
Cromwell's rise to Henry VIII's most trusted adviser is even more surprising when you consider his beginnings. At the beginning of the book, the young Cromwell who doesn't even know the date of his birthday is being terrorised by his brutal father. What happens next is skimmed over but according to Mantel it seems that Cromwell ends up with some Flemish merchants and spends some time out of the country. When he returns, he is an educated lawyer and in the service of Cardinal Wolsey.
The bulk of the book is a detailed account as seen through Cromwell's eyes of Henry VIII's court at the time when Henry is trying to rid himself of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon to marry the scheming and often unpleasant Anne Boleyn. It maps the demise of Cardinal Wolsey to whom Cromwell remains loyal to the end as he fails to find a solution to the knotty problem of Henry's divorce. However as Wolsey's influence declines, Cromwell's increases until he is one of the most powerful men in England.
By the end of the book the marriage between Henry and Anne Boleyn is under strain and Cromwell is off to visit Wolf Hall, the home of Jane Seymour ...
Was it worth the effort?
Definitely yes. Whether it deserved its Booker Prize is another question which I leave to those more qualified than me to answer. For me there remains a question mark. It is a compelling book but just because it is so impenetrable I have to give it four out of five. Will I read Bring Up the Bodies, the next volume in the trilogy? Yes, but give me some easy to read chick lit first!
Booker Prize winner Wolf Hall is set in Tudor England, told from the viewpoint of Thomas Cromwell and depicts his rise to power in Henry VIII's court as he becomes one of the King's most influential advisors and a crucial character in the religious and political developments of the age.
From his unhappy and humble beginnings as a blacksmith's son, he moves into powerful circles, first as an advisor to the chief minister Cardinal Wolsey, surviving the fall of Wolsey, to become the King's chief minister himself.
The novel follows Henry's divorce from Catherine of Aragon, courtship and marriage to Anne Boleyn, and after her failure to provide a male heir, the emergence of Jane Seymour's family as she becomes a candidate for Queen (their home being the "Wolf Hall" of the title).
The most striking element of this novel is that instead of being portrayed as a villain (remember Leo McKern in "A Man For All Seasons"), Cromwell is treated as a great intellect, a fair an wise counsellor, and a sympathetic character who suffers much tragedy - both as a child and when he loses his loved ones to the plague. It's almost like the roles are reversed for Thomas More and Cromwell - More is usually seen as the good guy, humble, and horribly punished for his beliefs, but Wolf Hall sees him as arrogant, happily burning those he believes are heretics, and generally being a swine to his wife and daughter. Bad guy Cromwell is now seen as compassionate and clever, and the reader gets a totally different picture than that which history has left.
The prose, whilst engaging, isn't easy - you are made to think long and hard about the action and the dialogue - the more time you spend with this book the more you get from it - don't take it to the pool and drift in and out between naps, drinks and dips.
I got a little "lost" at the Wolsey bits, as the narrative jumped around a bit, but it really made me pay attention, for which I was rewarded as the book progressed. Wolf Hall is so meaty you could slice it, but do give it the time it deserves, and relish its complexities and weight.
You'll know the bones of the story, and be familiar with the characters - and if not, for some light relief try watching "The Tudors" in your time off from the book, if nothing but to put faces to the names!
The sequel - also a Booker Prize winner - is out soon in paperback (hardbacks are too heavy and clumsy to allow an enjoyable read). I've ordered mine in time for my holidays - but going to keep it for the plane alone so I can give it my full attention!
Wolf Hall is the first book in a trilogy looking at the life of Thomas Cromwell, this book is set in the 1520's and focuses on Henry VIII's divorce of Catherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn. The book is written in Thomas' view but not in his words as such and sets out to make Thomas the hero of the stories rather than the villain as he's often portrayed. The book begins with Richards very early days and the abuse from his father before his years in the military overseas. The years overseas are glossed over and the book begins in earnest with Thomas being an understudy to Cardinal Wolsey looking into the uprising in the north the previous year.
This book is written in a cryptic manner, the author has a tendency to confuse the reader with the use or lack of use of speech marks and the reader is never quite sure whose speaking in some of the sentences. However, this style does give the book a feeling of mystery and intrigue we never fully feel that we have all the facts at our disposal and that there are events and documents just out of our sights. Thomas Cromwell is the main character in the book and he's a character who is easy to dislike but is set up here as a man who must do his kings bidding above all else.
As with all Tudor novels, the star in the universe is the king, here we have a young thoughtful Henry far removed from the fat psychotic individual in latter decades. He wants a male heir and Catherine his wife is getting too old to have children, so the answer divorce here on a spurious pretext that she married his brother before he died and the bible says that a women who has lain with two brothers is unclean. Along comes Anne Boleyn and now Thomas must facilitate the divorce of one queen and the coronation of another after the death of his friend Cardinal Wolsey. This is told with the use of anecdotes, stories, rumours and facts we engage with the master manipulator in how he shifts one queen away from the spheres of power and supplants another in her place. There is a tinge of sadness though as Thomas likes the queen and he remembers all her lost male children who failed to live beyond a few weeks.
The joy in this book is the time spent in Thomas' company in particular his acid wit and sceptical nature, he has an eye for detail and a mind for miniature so nothing escapes him and he has a view on everything. We have some truly sumptuous descriptions of the minor Tudor figures at the times, all of Anne's relations are picked apart and given a tough time, Thomas More is cast as a villainous jailer and a heretic, Anne's legs as a metaphor for the French wars etc.
All in all, a complex and challenging books not one to be read lightly and certainly a compelling tale was it good enough to be a Man Booker prize winner? Well it has a lot of the hallmarks of being such a book, a bit highhanded more literature than story and a book to be treated with respect. It's successor has also been made the Man Booker winner and I suspect the final book in the trilogy will be a contender when it comes out.
They say that history is written by the winners and there are few things that demonstrate this more clearly than the case of Thomas Cromwell, loyal servant to King Henry VIII. Certainly, Cromwell had his faults: he was ruthless, ambitious, manipulative and merciless to his enemies. Yet, by the standards of his day, he was also incredibly forward thinking, generous, kind and loyal. Most standard accounts of Cromwell overlook these positive traits and instead focus on the ones which his enemies used to bring about his downfall.
At least Wolf Hall doesn't fall prey to the same myths. A novelisation of Cromwell's rise power as one of the most influential men Tudor society, it presents a warts and all fictional account his life and career.
There's no hiding the fact that this is a demanding read. It weighs in at over 650 pages, so you need to make a pretty hefty commitment to it in terms of time. It's also maybe not many people's idea of a fun read: historical fiction is not everyone's cup of tea and such is Wolf Hall's commitment to realism that it can feel a little like a history lecture at times.
Whilst its recreation of Tudor England, Tudor politics and Tudor political figures is superb (surpassing even C J Sansom's Shardlake novels), it's not a book that's going to spoon-feed you. It doesn't just assume a passing familiarity with the basic facts of Henry VIII's reign. Rather, it assumes an intimate knowledge of those events. Again, if you hated history at school, you may not appreciate Wolf Hall's approach.
For me, this was not a problem. England in the 1530s was my specialised subject at university; even more happily the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell was my dissertation topic. So, whilst it's a fair while since I studied the subject, the people, places, events and dates are still etched indelibly in my mind and I had no trouble keeping up with what was happening.
If you don't have that detailed historical background, you might spend large parts of the book floundering, trying to keep up with exactly what is being done or why certain characters are behaving in certain ways. There's no timelines or family trees at the start of the book to help you, no list of key characters or key events. You're just expected to know (or to pick it all up as you go along).
This isn't helped by the sometimes fragmented narrative which homes in on certain aspects of Henry's reign whilst almost totally ignoring others. Some relatively small matters are subjected to microscopic examination; other, more significant events (from a historical perspective) are given only cursory examination.
Yet somehow, it all works. The recreation of Tudor England (or at least the Tudor Court) is superb. The sense of intrigue, of a time of tumultuous change; a time when noblemen and commoners alike were expected to change everything they had ever been told at the whim of a king is so convincing, so that the book rapidly draws you in You forget that it can be demanding and become caught up in the myriad layers of political intrigue. The novels of C J Sansom may provide a more satisfying a story, but when it comes to re-creating Tudor times, Wolf Hall is light years ahead.
Mantel does an incredible job of weaving real life characters into the narrative, making them feel so real that it's almost as though you witnessed these events. The ruling classes of Tudor England are brought to life in a way that rarely happens. It's clear that Mantel has done a massive amount of research into the people and the period. She doesn't just repeat the basic facts and dates that you can find in any old history book of the period, but fleshes out events both large and small to make the Tudor Court a living, breathing place. It's fairly obvious that Mantel has not just relied on second hand accounts of the period, but has consulted the primary sources, enabling her to bring in small facts which are irrelevant to the main narrative, but nevertheless add a sense of depth.
Characters, too, are brilliantly brought to life. Whether they are recurring characters who have a major role to play in the unfolding events (The Duke of Norfolk, Ann Boelyn, Cromwell himself) they are well fleshed out. They are not the lazy stereotypes which historical fiction can too often rely on, but convincing figures reconstructed from the known facts. Each character is very complex and seen in different ways by some of the other characters. Cromwell, for example, is often lazily portrayed as a rather sinister evil figure who manipulated everyone for his own ends and grew rich off it. Yet, others saw him as a staunch and loyal friend; a loving and tender father; someone who was far kinder to the poor and needy than many others in those times; a brilliant lawyer; a skilled parliamentarian; an arch-manipulator; a hard and cruel man. The fact is, Cromwell was all of these things and more, each of these facets of his personality are reflected in the book and affect the way people perceive him.
Wolf Hall is rather unforgiving in terms of the length of its chapters - it's not uncommon for a single chapter to be 80-100 pages long. In fairness, the subject matter and style of the book does lend itself to this, and there are regular breaks in the text, so it's not one long slog. Even so, there were times when I looked to see when the next chapter was looming and was rather daunted to see it was still 80 pages off!
Mantel writes in a style which you will either love or hate. Even if you love it, it may still cause some confusion whilst you are reading it. The narrative appears to proceed as though it is a third person observer reporting on Cromwell's activities, as they happen. Thus, the text states "he does this" or "he says that". This is such a different style that it takes a bit of getting used to, although once you have adjusted to the slightly odd style, it works fine. It does, however, cause some difficulties, particularly when dialogue is being reported. Whole conversations are conveyed in this vein and, since everyone is referred to as "he"making it difficult to keep track of who is saying what. Conversations run along the lines of "he says....", "he replies..." "he responds" . There were numerous times in the book where I had to stop mid-passage and backtrack to establish who exactly was speaking at which point.
This confusion also shows itself through another stylistic oddity. When Mantel is referring to the actions of one male character and then switches to the actions of Cromwell, she has to clarify this because it's not always obvious from the context. So, you'll frequently come across passages such as: "The Duke of Norfolk told him that the King had been unwell the previous evening. He (Cromwell) had not been aware of this." This might not seen as a big issue, but since it happens dozens of times over the course of the 650 page book, it does start to grate.
Overall, though, this is an ambitious and well-executed book. The vivid sense of Tudor life and atmosphere of political and religious upheaval is recreated superbly. Despite its daunting length, the book will keep you gripped from start to finish and more than make up for the odd moment of narrative confusion. Frustratingly, this book stops in 1535 (following the execution of Thomas More), yet Cromwell himself continued to dominate Tudor politics for another 5 years before his own execution. Thankfully for fans of Wolf Hall, the next installment - Bring Up the Bodies - has just been published to continue the story.
Fourth Estate, 2009
(c) Copyright SWSt 2012
I have always been interested in Tudor history and have read many books about the period, both fiction and non fiction. Last Christmas I was pleased to be given a copy of Hilary Mantels Wolf Hall, the acclaimed man booker prize winner for 2009. With 650 pages this is a heavy weight of a novel, so I decided to save reading it until I had time to really do it justice during my summer holiday.
The novel covers a period of just 10 years and deals with the life and times of Thomas Cromwell and the power, politics and religion of the time. Historically there is little known about Cromwell's early life and the novel paints a picture of a miserable childhood at the hands of a violent blacksmith father. The novel skips quickly to 1527 when Cromwell is about 40 years old. Reference is made to the missing years spent in Europe, in the form of flashbacks that occur throughout the book.
Cromwell is often painted as a ruthless bully, but this novel paints a picture of a brilliant political mind ahead of his time. The novel shows us a tender side of Cromwell who having lost his wife and child to the plague understands what it is to suffer unimaginable grief. The novel portrays the close relationship that existed between Cromwell and his mentor Wolsey and deals with the fall of Wolsey in great detail and broadly follows the historical evidence. Cromwell was instrumental in England's break from Rome and the Catholic Church in order that Henry V111 could marry Anne Boleyn. The novel looks at the political intrigue surrounding these events and brings the period alive. The character of Anne Boleyn has been well researched and the book really made her stand out as far as I was concerned.
Thomas Moore is usually portrayed as a kindly intelligent man. However Mantel portrays him as an arrogant religious fanatic who treats his wife and daughter with contempt. Some issues are covered in great detail whilst others are skimmed, but overall I really got a sense what it must have been like to have lived in those turbulent and dangerous times.
Much of the novel is written in the form of dialogue and at times it is quite difficult to know who is speaking. Cromwell is often referred to as he even when it is Cromwell who is talking. I often found myself having to re-read parts to made sense of things.
Overall I really enjoyed reading this novel and was glad that I had decided to wait until I had time to read for several hours at a time. The book is not an easy read but it does bring the characters alive in a way that many novel fail to do. I think that some prior knowledge of the Tudor period really helps in understanding this novel although there are a few helpful family trees so you can refer to who is who! The book has a lot of humour and wit, something that we rarely associate with Tudor England!
Hilary Mantel has written eleven books including Giving up the ghost dealing with her own life. A sequel to Wolf Hall is planned dealing with the second half of Cromwell's life and I for one will be reading it!
This book won the Man Booker Prize in 2009, normally I wouldn't have a clue what book had won and even less inclination to buy and read it but there was an extraordinary amount of press coverage on this book and from that I found out that it was a fictional novel set in Tudor times. As a fan of historical fiction set in this period, and having had my interest piqued by the press I set to tracking this substantial book down.
The majority of the events in Wolf Hall take place between 1527 and 1535, the years which cover the fall of Katherine of Aragon and the rise of Anne Boleyn. This is the story of Henry VII's battle to change his wife. This is a period that has been covered by so many authors that I wondered what this author had done to make this stand out from the others. Well the "twist" is that this book is told from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell and as that is the case it covers from the fall of Cardinal Wolsey to the death of Sir Thomas More, Henry's divorce almost becomes a background issue. It is definitely an interesting take on this tale as usually Thomas Cromwell is purely Henry VIII's can do man who makes things happen, but in this book he is the star.
As its told from Cromwell's view point, and as he rarely lived with the court, we get to see other scenes from this well known tale - his home life, More's home life, the law courts, business in Tudor London and so on. This definitely further developed my (fictional) appreciation of Tudor times. We also get to see where Cromwell possibly came from and what kind of man he may have been. What is unusual in this is that there isn't a huge list of historical references at the end of the book so I don't know how much of this picture of Cromwell is true, although she does thank a scholar with a particular interest in Cromwell for her guidance and support - so I guess most of this is based in some sort of fact.
So the story itself is a fresh, interesting retelling of a well known story but does the fact that its a Booker Prize winner mean that it is written in some high faluting language which puts it outside the comprehension of us mere mortals? Well on the whole no. The story flows well and the style is engaging, its very easy to become absorbed in Cromwell's life as all the characters are fully fleshed out. There are however a couple of minor niggles. Firstly some of the chapters are exceptionally long - 80 pages in some cases (for those that are interested the hardback edition is 650 pages long) - and as I'm a 'I'll just read a chapter before bed' type of girl these long chapters really cause me snags or exceptionally late nights. And the second thing is really minor - throughout the book Cromwell is referred to as him and he not a problem most of the time but there are a few short sections where he is used to refer to another character (or at least it seemed that way on my first read through) which caused me some confusion and I had to re-read to try and figure out the situation.
Hopefully from this review it is obvious that I enjoyed this book, I was quite disappointed when it ended as I wanted to know more of Cromwell's tale as in all other books he has just been a shadowy figure. I'm not sure if I'd read any more of Hilary Mantel's books but if the subject interested me the author wouldn't put me off.
For anyone that enjoys historical fiction this would be a worthy addition to your bookcase.
Here is a little background to the events of Wolf Hall. The key events of the story take place over just less than a ten year period from the 1520s to the 1530s. Hilary Mantel has taken what is, supposedly, Britain's best loved history topic, Henry VIII and his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, marriage to Anne Boleyn and the resulting split with Rome and has made this into a compelling story.
The key dramatic events, characters, plots and intrigue are heavily based around factual events. However what she does so well is bring life and substance to the historical figures in the book to make them loveable and hateable. They are made into complex characters. At the centre of the book as the focal point stands Thomas Cromwell. He is a man from humble beginnings who rose to unprecedented power in England as Henry VIII's chief minister. Cromwell is portrayed wonderfully well and his personal relationships are fascinating. The relationships in particular with Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas More are written fantastically well.
The only minor problem with the book is that in parts some events are skipped over with short passages and others are too long. It slows the pace of the novel in parts but doesn't really ruin the enjoyment of it.
The book ends shortly after the death of Thomas More. If you like history and events around this time it's well worth reading.