Wolf Hall


Hilary Mantel




Date Reviewed:

February 16, 2010

olf Hall won the Booker Prize, so I picked it up eagerly expecting a knockout work of historical fiction. I am not sure why I was so excited, previous Booker Prize winning novels that I have read have been an uneven lot. Looking over the list of previous winners I see that I have only really loved two: both The Life of Pi and Sacred Hunger are five star novels. But of the other prize winners that I have read, I rate The Blind Assassin, White Tiger, The English Patient and the Ghost Road as three star novels. Last Orders was a sleep inducing two star book.

My biggest disappointment with this novel is that Thomas Cromwell doesn't seem to have any goals. He exists to serve King Henry VIII, but there isn't any passion in his actions. Whatever the King wants, Cromwell will try to achieve it. But all the political intrigue is bleached from this novel. The Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk, the treacherous Boleyn clan, and the righteous Thomas More are all his enemies, but Cromwell hardly seems to battle them, mostly he seems to have a gentle friendship. For example, the central task before Cromwell is to get King Henry's marriage to Katherine annulled so that Henry can marry Anne Boleyn and hopefully produce a male heir. But alot of the manuevering for the annullment is not directly presented. We hear about ambassadors to Rome, the Spanish or French Kings. Sometimes Cromwell will speak to one of the Boleyns. But it isn't a blow by blow of the bribes, backstabbings and threats that must have occurred, I didn't get any sense of triumph nor frustration.

Presumably Wolf Hall is the first part of a series? Because the book doesn't end at a logical point. It seems that Mantel simply decided she had written enough. Cromwell presumably has many more years of service to King Henry ahead of him when the novel ends. Nor did I understand the significance of the title Wolf Hall. Wolf Hall is where the Seymour clan lives, and I am pretty sure that one of their daughters becomes one of the wives of King Henry VIII. But at the end of this novel, Anne Boleyn is still queen, there are still five more wives to go. The Seymours play only a minor role in this book, barely rate more than a mention.

The part I like best is the horror of English life - specifically the beheadings, the burnings at the stake and the fear of the plague. The "sweats" could sweep a way a healthy person in less than twenty four hours. I liked these parts best because Cromwell reacted to them - he is portrayed as a man with modern sensibilities - he loathes the torture, he mourns the family members who die from disease. Cromwell is shown to be generous to orphans - he gradually accummulates a household of sharp young lads who aren't related to him, but are trained to read and write and serve in the King's court. Cromwell is a true Renaissance man - we learn about his time as a soldier in Spain, and about his exploits in banking and trade in Italy, his dealings with publishers and scholars in Germany. The stuff away from King Henry's court might have been the most interesting, the political intrigue failed to deliver tension.

The character of Cromwell is interesting. He loves his wife, and is fiercely loyal to the Cardinal Wolsey, who ends up deposed by the ruthless Boleyn clan. (Previously, I have read The Other Boleyn Girl, and Wolsey gets a much different portrayal in that novel, though Cromwell scarely gets mentioned.)

A minor gripe: I sometimes had great difficulty deciphering who was saying what sentence. Mantel sometimes has more than one character speak a sentence in the same paragraph, and a lot of the time she leaves out the "so-and-so said", so I would get confused in a conversation. There are multiple characters named Thomas or Mary or Henry, so it gets confusing about who is saying what.

If there is a sequel to Wolf Hall, I might read it. Or maybe I should instead read one of the sequels to the Other Boleyn Girl. Or perhaps one of the many other novels available regarding King Henry VIII. Perhaps the tale is too big to fit in one book, because so far I only have a piece of the story.