Monday, March 4, 2013

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

I should have put Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel on my 2013 TBR pile challenge list–then I’d have one book checked off! Wolf Hall has been on my TBR list since it came out and on my bookshelf since 2010. My husband, who rarely reads fiction, was intrigued by all he kept hearing about it and actually read it before I did. He wrote a guest post for me back in January 2011. At that time, I imagined I’d get to it soon. I don’t know why, but the book kept dropping down my priority list.

And then, my historical fiction/history book club chose it for our next meeting. Finally! A deadline! I read the book.

As everyone knows, Wolf Hall is another Tudor book, but it’s not just another Tudor book. This one has literary cred. Not only did it win the Man Booker Prize in 2009, but the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, just won another.

Hilary Mantel tells us the story of Henry VIII’s obsession with Anne Boleyn, but he tells it from the perspective of the man who is to become the second most powerful man in the kingdom: Thomas Cromwell.

The son of a n’er-do-well blacksmith, Thomas Cromwell leaves home at a young age to make his way in the world, and make it he does. He enters the service of Cardinal Wolsey, serving him faithfully, even when Wolsey’s break with the king (and Anne) means his ruin. Wolsey is ruined, but Cromwell lands on his feet and transfers his loyalty to the king (and to Anne.)

Cromwell is a man you want working on your side. Not only is he loyal, but he’s hardworking and clearly the most brilliant man in the kingdom. Whatever needs doing, he’ll get it done–even something as impossible as ending King Henry’s marriage to Queen Katherine to pave the way for the king’s marriage to Anne Boleyn.

Wolf Hall is a marvelously detailed work of historical fiction. Mantel teases out the political, religious, economic, and interpersonal period details so that you end up with a very broad (if one-sided) view of Henry’s court from 1500 to 1535. Cromwell is a fascinating character to choose as the protagonist (despite or because of the awkward third person narrative voice) because he had a finger in every pot. Cromwell can certainly inform the reader what is going on in England. Moreover, the moral ambiguity of his character adds a great deal of depth to the read. I can admire his many skills, but what, exactly, are his goals? Is it mere ambition driving him? Desire for vengeance? Wealth? Is it only the desire to serve his master–to prove himself? Is it that he craves the reward of having his talent recognized by those who want to believe themselves "above" him? He can be kind and introspective in one passage and in the next, ruthless and fatalistic.


Wolf Hall is, of course, a worthwhile read for historical fiction fans and for anyone who would like to know more about the Tudors. But I can’t honestly say that it was an easy read, or that I was engrossed. The novel had slipped down my priority list in part because of its reputation for being a "doorstop." I have the hardcover and it looks like a time-sink. In fact, it’s 532 pages, and the print is a reasonable font size, not tiny. So it isn’t a daunting book when you actually open it up and look at it. But, for me, it read like a much longer book. Mantel uses a very carefully crafted style that means you’ll have to concentrate while you’re reading. I often had to read passages more than once to figure out who was speaking or what character was being discussed. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing to make your readers slow down and pay attention to what you’re saying. There’s a lot of sly humor sprinkled through the book that I might have missed if I were reading along at my usual pace. But, Wolf Hall was the longest 500 page book that I’ve enjoyed that I’ve ever read.

The historical fiction challenge 2013 is hosted by Historical Tapestry. Join in!


  1. I had mixed feelings about both this and Bring up the Bodies. I just found them a bit slow and dare I say it, a bit boring! As you say, it's not engrossing enough.

  2. I absolutely love this novel. I actually speed through it as I simply couldn't put it down (I was totally engrossed in the story). I love Mantel's writing style, although I realize it definitely won't appeal to everyone. I thought Bring Up the Bodies to be equally fabulous and can't wait for the trilogy's conclusion.

  3. I'm sure it definitely counts for your TBR challenge! I've got Wolf Hall sitting in my TBR too (I found a $5 copy at one stage), but haven't got to it yet as I too am overwhelmed by it's size. I'm a slow reader as it is, and always struggle with big, big books. I would like to get to it eventually though, I fear my reaction would be a bit like yours, and I wouldn't be one of the people swept away.

  4. I loved Wolf Hall, but it was certainly a heavy read, wasn't it? I found the concept fascinating, but sometimes had a little trouble in figuring out what was going on - I had to reread a lot of passages, as you did.

    But it's a good book to have under your belt! :)

  5. Tremendous insights of a leader of reform Thomas Cromwell. The detail and unfolding of Cromwell as a man of circumstances and a strategic planner are elegantly balanced in an enthrall lint novel.

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