Sunday, October 10, 2010

"Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel

Year of first publication: 2009
Genre: historical fiction
Country: United Kingdom

The story is one that has been told many times: Henry VIII wants a male heir and he wants it so badly as to ask the Pope for a divorce from his wife Katherine. The problem is that his wife is aunt to Emperor Charles V, so the Pope will not grant Henry his divorce, in order not to displease the most powerful man in Europe. Henry is impatient: he has a lover who goes by the name of Anne Boleyn and she is likely to give him a son, whereas Katherine has been able to give birth to one single daughter, Mary (later to be known as Bloody Mary). Hilary Mantel chooses to tell this story from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell, son of a blacksmith and thus born low, later a soldier and a cloth dealer, later again a lawyer, a secretary to Cardinal Wolsey and finally King Henry’s chief minister. The book is really the story of his rise to power on the background of the king’s great matter, as it was called at the time.
I am lucky enough to know quite a lot about the court of the Tudors, because I have watched “The Tudors”, an English TV show that despite being inaccurate at times gives an idea of the major characters at stake. I have also read a book recently about the “marital problems” of King Henry (“The Six Wives of Henry VIII” by Antonia Fraser). I find the Tudors one of the most fascinating dynasties in history and for sure it is the most engaging soap-opera I have ever seen. If you don’t know much about the people buzzing around King Henry at the time, I think you’ll struggle a bit with this novel. Henry’s best friend Charles Brandon whom he made duke, the powerful Cardinal Wolsey with his ambition to be Pope, the Boleyns, the Seymours and the Howards, Katherine and her ladies-in-waiting, the ambassadors, Thomas More, they all appear in the book and play their role in the development of the story. Nonetheless, Thomas Cromwell is the absolute protagonist of “Wolf Hall”: everything is seen from his point of view, despite the fact that the novel is in the third person. Usually Thomas Cromwell is depicted as a stone-cold and shrewd person, almost a villain, but Hilary Mantel depicts him as a sensitive person, fond of his family and of his protector, the Cardinal. Of course he’s ambitious and I dare say on the good side of shrewdness, if there is one. He’s learned, almost enlightened, he appreciates Italian painting and has a gift for languages. I was delighted by this book and by the world it opens on: Thomas Cromwell is not just a name on a history book, but he steps into the real world. He has passions, faults, virtues of course, doubts and secrets. And so is King Henry, Mary and Anne Boleyn, Thomas More and all the historical characters of the book. I’m waiting for the sequel that Hilary Mantel is writing (the book ends abruptly when King Henry is about to stop by the Seymour and fall in love with Jane, later to become his third wife). Much has been said about “Wolf Hall” since it won the Booker Prize, for example on the meaning of the expression “historical fiction”. It is obvious that Hilary Mantel did a lot of research to write this book, but it’s impossible for a book set in the 16th century to be 100% accurate, not only because it would ruin the literary value of the work, but also because there are many things we don’t know or we are not sure of. Were Mary Boleyn’s children actually the king’s? Did he also sleep with Anne and Mary’s mother? Did Anne make love to distinguished courtier-poet Thomas Wyatt and was she betrothed to Henry Percy, before she became the king’s mistress? Hilary Mantel resolves this by hinting at things we are not sure of as gossips of the time, but even if she changed things, I personally believe that’s alright, as long as you claim yours is just fiction.
Mantel chooses contemporary spelling over “ye olde-style diction”, as Christopher Tayler writes on “The Guardian”, and present tense over the past tenses, giving an aura of uncertainty to the story (of course Thomas Cromwell doesn’t know that they’ll all end with their heads on the block, whereas we know it). They must have been good choices, because after 650 pages you end up wanting more of the Tudor court as imagined by Hilary Mantel.

About the author: Hilary Mantel was born in Glossop, Derbyshire, in 1952. Her first novel, “Every Day is Mother’s Day”, was published in 1985 and its sequel, “Vacant Possession”, a year later. She has written several novels after that, including “The Giant, O’Brien” (1998) and “Giving Up the Ghost” (2003). With “Wolf Hall” (2009), she won the Booker Prize.


  1. Nice review, Stefania, to the point I think I'll try to get to this within the next few months (I had seen wildly mixed reviews earlier in the year). I don't generally like "historical fiction," but Mantel's prize winner appears to have a lot going for it. Ciao!

  2. Thanks Richard. I don't read much historical fiction, either. I find that most of it is poorly written and cheesy. This one instead is good.
    There are some ambiguities when Mantel uses "he" too many times and you have to figure out to who she is refering to, but overall I quite enjoyed this book. Also because I'm a Tudor freak, eheheh!

  3. Great review. I want to read this book as part of my Booker Challenge and I'm glad about a good review. I'm more intrigued now to read it than before.

  4. Thanks Sabrina. I hope this will be useful. Come back and leave me a comment when you've read "Wolf Hall".