Posted by: Jeanie F | January 30, 2010

Wolf Hall: A Novel by Hilary Mantel

I can hardly believe that I’ve come to the end of this book which is a challenging – and fascinating – read. Definitely NOT the book to read as you’re ready to drop off to sleep, Mantel challenges you to think all the way through.

So many reviews have been written of this Booker Prize winner that it seems redundant to even mention that it’s an oft-told tale – Henry VIII’s renunciation of the Catholic Church enabling him to denounce his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn – told from a new perspective: that of Thomas Cromwell. I began by thinking there was nothing new to learn about this and, in some ways, that was probably true. Certainly there was no question of how the story would end (only, at 600+ pages, IF it would end!).

I was wrong in thinking there was nothing new to learn. Mantel’s choice of Cromwell to narrate the story presented a new picture of Henry, who is shown as vulnerable, insecure, and easily manipulated, especially by Cromwell himself. However, Henry is not wholly unsympathetic, and the reader can appreciate the multi-faceted man who displays humor as well as hubris, kindness as well as obstinacy.

Of course, the main “character” here is Cromwell, and it is his portrayal that is most interesting. History has shown him to be cunning and conniving, and that comes across clearly. But as portrayed by Mantel, he is also a man who never recovers from the deaths of his wife, Liz, and young daughters, who die of a summer fever. He has an impenetrable ability to rationalize his behavior and seems honestly unaware of the influence he wields, such as when his ward, Richard, believes Cromwell will force him into a marriage.  When Cromwell assures Richard that he won’t, and Richard still questions him, Cromwell wonders:

When have I, when have I ever forced anyone to do anything, he starts to say: but Richard cuts in, “No, you don’t, I agree, it’s just that you are practiced at persuading, and sometimes it’s quite difficult, sir, to distinguish being persuaded by you from being knocked down in the street and stamped on.

We also see examples of a self-pitying side to Cromwell, that hints at less confidence that he shows to the world. As Cromwell struggles with his relationship with and to Thomas More, Thomas Audley attempts to console him:

Audley pats his arm. He wants to console him. But who can begin to do it? He is the inconsolable Master Cromwell: the unknowable, the inconsolable, the probably indefeasible Master Cromwell.

One of the things that makes this a challenge to read is that Mantel has chosen to allow Cromwell to narrate in the second person. As seen in the quote above, this can become confusing, as in “He wants to console him. . .He is the inconsolable Master Cromwell. . .” This is Cromwell’s own narration, but it forces the reader to stop and puzzle out the copious masculine pronouns. It also relays a sense that Cromwell keeps himself at as great a distance from himself as he keeps others.

Ultimately, I finished this book with a great sense of satisfaction – not only for an interesting story that I thought was well-told, but that I managed to work my way through it. I don’t begrudge the time at all, but if you’re looking for diversion when you read, this may not be the book for you.

Grade: A-



  1. A lot of people who have read this say that it is really good, and I think that I might give it a go, I usually love anything Man Booker related.

    I will add it to my wish list with a link to your review.

  2. I’m about half way through the book now – and like you I alternate between being fascinated and having some difficulty puzzling out the narration (personally, I don’t like the multiple use of “he” … especially when it doesn’t seem to match the subject of a sentence! I hope to get a review up soon – but this is taking me a lot of time to read!!!

  3. Wendy, it took me six weeks, start to finish (although I had to stop and read The Year of the Flood in the middle for my book club). At one point I considered giving up on it, but I’m really glad that I didn’t do that.

    I set your blog up in my RSS feed, so I’ll look forward to your review!

  4. Hi, I just wanted to let you know that I have awarded you the ‘One Lovely Blog Award’ at Page Turners,

    Check it out and pass it on if you like

  5. Wow, six weeks!??!? I hope it doesn’t take me that long to get through this book…but it is starting to feel like a bit of a burden to me!! Thanks for the encouragement to keep going 🙂

  6. I recently finished this one as well. I had a hard time getting through it. I thought the book was very well written, but the flow didn’t work for me.

    Here is my review if you’re interested.

  7. Oh, I am so slow today – I already read and commented on your review, didn’t I?!?! *laughs* Well, I’m still reading this one…man, I can’t remember the last time it took me so long to get through a book!

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