Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel

This review was originally posted to the Libri Populus website – a great site for bookish people.

Title – Wolf Hall

Author – Hilary Mantel

Published – 2009

Genre – Historical fiction

Wolf Hall is a perfect example of choosing a book to read having ‘heard good things’ but without actually knowing anything about it. At a time when bookshops seemed to be floor-to-ceiling vampires & werewolves, I was surprised to find that I was reading historical fiction about Thomas Cromwell, and not about a pack of monsters. Wolf Hall won the Man Booker prize for author Hilary Mantel in 2009.

The book is a fictional account of Thomas Cromwell, majoring on the events between 1529 and 1535. After a brief introduction to the young Cromwell, we next meet him when he is employed as secretary to Cardinal Wolsey. The Cardinal has been trying, unsuccessfully, to broker a deal with the Pope in Rome to annul King Henry VIII’s marriage. Despite Wolsey’s subsequent downfall Cromwell remains loyal when he could have deserted him, a trait that will stand him in good stead with the King.

The story then follows Cromwell’s increasing involvement in royal circles as the Henry demands a solution is found to end his marriage to Queen Katherine (of Aragon) in order that he marry Anne Boleyn. All in the hope of producing a male heir.

The plot is complex – reflecting the machinations of the courtiers to win favour with the King, to gain power, or money or his support for their chosen Queen. This is at a time when the Church in Rome is threatened by the activities of people like Luther and Tyndale in making the bible more accessible to the “man in the street” and undermining the Pope’s authority.

Through all of this Cromwell remains firmly as the main character in the book, despite the whole raft of familiar names – King Henry, Anne Boleyn, Thomas More, Cranmer filling the pages.

The missing years from Cromwell’s youth are filled in by references throughout the remainder of the book as characters mention stories they have heard about his past. Of course he seems more than happy to let some less than truthful accounts circulate – perhaps an early example of political spin!

For me, it feels an unusual choice for a woman having a man as the main character in a novel like this – but there was nothing about the portrayal of Cromwell which didn’t seem to ring true. Of course it is one era in English history that almost everyone knows something about – whether through reading (Alison Weir, Phillipa Gregory, C J Sansom), film (A Man for All Seasons) or TV (the ‘sexed-up’ Tudors). This makes it all the more remarkable that Cromwell appears as a sympathetic character. Although the book ends before he begins his real work for Henry VIII on the dissolution of the monasteries, for which he is possibly most notorious, you can see how Cromwell could come to support the later actions.

The book seems to tread a fine line between the more dry and impenetrable historical novels and those which take a more frivolous attitude to their characters. Not only is Cromwell a convincing character, he inhabits a very credible sixteenth century and the book is peppered with the mundane aspects of his life made interesting.

The judgement I can’t make is how accurate all of this is. For all I know the Tudor London Cromwell inhabits may be a complete work of fiction, but I enjoyed it and I wasn’t reading a biography, so I’m not sure that it matters.

Mantel uses a particular style of writing which, while avoiding having people speaking a sort of Tudor English (doth & dost) is certainly not a style you would find in contemporary fiction. And here is one of my gripes. There are too many places where more than one man is present and the use of ‘he’ or ‘his’ make it unclear who is doing the talking. There were a lot of places where I needed to read the text several times and in fact some where I never really could decide who had spoken.

I also found myself occasionally confused by the different names used for characters. For example Charles Brandon could also be the Duke of Suffolk. I know this is how things were, but in such a long book it was difficult to give 100% of my attention all of the time.

Not for the faint hearted – this isn’t a light read, and I wouldn’t suggest leaving it too long to get to the end or you may forget who’s who or what’s what.

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