HISTORICAL FICTION. Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2009 and read by Paul Mcgann. Paul was requested especially by the author to read Wolf Hall. 'Lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning,' says Thomas More, 'and when you come back that night he'll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks' tongues, and all the gaolers will owe him money.' England, the 1520s. Henry VIII is on the throne, but has no heir. Cardinal Wolsey is his chief advisor, charged with securing the divorce the pope refuses to grant. Into this atmosphere of distrust and need comes Thomas Cromwell, first as Wolsey's clerk, and later his successor. Cromwell is a wholly original man: the son of a brutal blacksmith, a political genius, a briber, a charmer, a bully, a man with a delicate and deadly expertise in manipulating people and events.
But Wolf Hall is more than just a tale of political intrigue. Mantel takes the reader deep inside Cromwell's mind and heart. Far from being an unfeeling politician, Thomas Cromwell was a most human protagonist. He rose well above his lowly birth, and was not just literate but multi-lingual. He moved with ease among dukes and royalty, but never forgot his origins. And while he was a savvy negotiator, he also showed compassion, especially to those like More who would lose their lives as part of the English Reformation. Cromwell was also intensely devoted to his family, providing for nieces and nephews as well as his own children. As his wealth and influence grew, he was able to broker advantageous marriages for his family that continued to move them up in society. Almost single-handedly, he changed the course of history.
The fate of people is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions. This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase ... (p.499)
The novel ends in 1535 on a high note: Henry VIII was still married to Anne, and Cromwell was at the peak of his career. And yet, anyone with even a passing knowledge of Tudor history knows of Henry's mercurial behavior. Both Anne and Cromwell would eventually fall out of favor. But that's a story for another novel, one that Mantel has hinted she intends to write. I can't wait.
The novel starts spectacularly, as a young Thomas Cromwell is being beaten nearly to death by his blacksmith father:
"So now, get up."
Felled, dazed, silent, he has fallen; knocked full length on the cobbles of the yard. His head turns sideways; his eyes are turned inward towards the gate, as if someone might arrive to help him out. One blow, properly placed, could kill him now.
Cromwell remains the major character of the novel, as he escapes the wrath of his father, and rises from his humble beginnings to attain fame and fortune abroad in Italy. He becomes the trusted adviser to the powerful Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who himself is King Henry VIII's right hand man.
As the second part of the novel opens, Henry is seeking permission from the Pope to divorce his first wife Katherine, who has yet to bear him a son despite nearly 20 years of marriage. He has his eye on the young Anne Boleyn, whose ego, ambitions and deviousness extend beyond the kingdom and are masterfully portrayed throughout the book. Wolsey fails in his task to have the king's marriage annulled, and is expelled from his lavish residence. Somehow, Cromwell manages to retain loyalty to the cardinal while positioning himself to make himself indispensable to Henry and avoiding the hostile plans of the king's other chief advisers, most notably Thomas More, Thomas Howard and Charles Brandon. Despite the devastating loss of his wife from the sweating sickness epidemic of 1528, and his beloved daughter in the following summer's plague, Cromwell's influence grows, as he also skillfully aligns himself to Anne and the Boleyns while maintaining his own independence and dignity.
Due to Cromwell's legal acumen, Parliament grants Henry supremacy over the Church of England, and he becomes the king's chief minister. Henry takes Anne Boleyn as his second wife, but she too is unable to bear him the son that will become the rightful heir to the throne. Dissent spreads throughout and beyond the kingdom, as opponents to the king's rule over the Church and the replacement of the former Queen, including Thomas More, who replaced Wolsey as Lord High Chancellor, are imprisoned and brutally executed.
Mantel's ability to place the reader in Tudor England, Henry's court and, most deliciously, Anne Boleyn's company is the most impressive aspect of this novel. A tremendous and essential aid for me was the Cast of Characters at the beginning of the book, which I referred to frequently in the first half of the novel. Wolf Hall clocks in at just over 650 pages, and it somehow seems both larger than that, yet not large enough. It is very readable and quite captivating, especially when taken in 50-100 page leisurely segments. I look forward to giving this another go in the near future, and cannot recommend it highly enough.
1. Do not be intimidated by the length of the book. In actuality, it’s twice as long as it appears because the writing is so dense and you need to continually make references to
2. The list of characters at the beginning of the book. Five pages long! Plus two pages of family trees. These pages are your friends. They are absolutely vital to your understanding of the text, especially if you don’t know Henry VIII from Louis XIV. On page 516, I was still referring to these pages!
3. The members of the clergy at this time in history bear no resemblance to what you may have been brought up to believe a clergyman should personify. They play a huge role in politics and, as a matter of fact, the struggle between the Church and the Crown is the main theme in the book. The second most powerful man in England, when the story begins, is Cardinal Wolsey.
4. You will never get used to the many and tortuous ways in which people are killed at this time in British history. It may be necessary to gag your way through parts of the book that dwell on these torture sessions and executions. After reading this book you may consider “waterboarding” a day at the beach.
5. Thomas Cromwell is the star here, not Henry VIII or Anne Boleyn or any other names that might jar something loose in your brain from a high school history class. He is a common man who rises among the ranks of the powerful in the British court of Henry VIII. He is so important that right from the beginning you will notice that when he is speaking Mantel never says, ‘Cromwell said.’ It is always ‘he said.’ It’s a little off-putting at first but you soon get used to it and realize the author wants you to note the importance of this character.
Now, you may think I didn’t like this book but you would be dead wrong. I LOVED this book. The descriptions of London at this point in history are impeccable. On page 397 she describes London on the day of Queen Anne’s coronation:
“So many fountains flowing with wine that it’s hard to find one flowing with water. And looking down on them , the other Londoners, those monsters who live in the air, the city’s uncounted population of stone men and women and beasts, fanged rabbits and flying hares, four-legged birds and pinioned snakes, imps with bulging eyes and ducks’ bills, men who are wreathed in leaves or have the heads of goats or rams; creatures with knotted coils and leather wings, with hairy ears and cloven feet, horned and roaring, feathered and scaled, some laughing, some singing, some pulling back their lips, to show their teeth; lions and friars, donkeys and geese, devils with children crammed into their maws, all chewed up except for their helpless paddling feet; limestone or leaden, metaled or marbled, shrieking and sniggering above the populace, hooting and gurning and dry-heaving from buttresses, walls and roofs.” Can’t you just see it?
The author’s style is so smooth that you glide along with her and the hours fly by as you’re reading and enjoying the yarn she has to tell. The characterizations developed by Mantel are absolutely fascinating. Thomas Cromwell is such a complicated character you aren’t sure what to think of him; just when you make up your mind that he’s benevolent, he turns around and makes you decide he’s a bully. He is the consummate politician and can read people so very well. His wit and humor make him endearing. His humanity shines through, for the most part, and I have to say I am looking forward to the follow-up book that Mantel is said to be working on. The Booker committee got this one right. So if you know absolutely nothing about British history, do not be apprehensive about reading this book. It doesn’t matter. The story carries you along and….well….you’re in for the ride of a lifetime. For me, I wish I could give it more than five stars. It’s that good.
Thomas Cromwell, the son of a common (and brutal) man, works his way up the political ladder in 16th century England, becoming an advisor to Cardinal Wolesey, and then King Henry VIII. Along the way he amasses wealth, knowledge, followers and enemies. Not much is known about the actual Thomas Cromwell, so Hilary Mantel imagines one for us - an urbane yet somewhat threatening man, someone who speaks several languages, takes in orphans and widows, but who also looks like a murderer and has no qualms in wielding his significant power. Through the course of the book, Cromwell is concerned with three things (besides money, which is the oil that keeps the machinery of society going): serving the King, helping single-minded Anne Boleyn to be Queen, and disentangling England from the Catholic Church. And this is all done through Cromwell's ability with words. He spends most of his time listening to rumors, gathering information, writing letters, gently turning the King's opinion one way or another.
I had a few quibbles with Wolf Hall. One is that Cromwell was too . . . too. He knows everything. He can taste a soup and know what it needs, he can look at fabric and jewels and instantly tot up their total worth, he is smooth in elegant society while also nurturing servants and stablemen as informants. He is smart, he is compassionate, he is multi-lingual, he is tolerant. He never makes a mistake. In the end, I found him at once fascinating and unbelievable. My other quibble was the sheer number of words in Wolf Hall. It dragged in the middle, lost momentum. After the wonderful first third, in which Cromwell is first serving Cardinal Wolsey (such a perfectly well-drawn character!) and then getting established in Henry's court, the middle part fell flat for me. While the reader definitely gets the sense of just how long Henry waits to marry Anne, it got a bit tedious for this particular reader.
However, all in all Wolf Hall is a good, solid book, a book about the impact of words. HIlary Mantel breathes life into Henry VIII's court, the Church, and 16th century English society. Her characters comes to life: Cardinal Wolsey, Anne Boleyn, the Duke of Norfolk, Thomas More - these historical figures became almost three dimensional under Mantel's watch. The reader learns about the subtlety of religion, the importance of relationships and the judicious use of words.
Wolf Hall is a fictionalised account of the life of Thomas Cromwell, an English statesman in the 16th century (not to be confused with his great-great nephew Oliver Cromwell, also a prominent statesman one hundred years later). He was a close advisor to Henry VIII, whom I was somewhat more familiar with for having six wives, one (or more?) of whom he beheaded. That’s about the limit of it. I have a solid understanding of Australian and American history, but Britain has too many goddamn centuries under its belt.
In any case, the story of Thomas Cromwell is a promising one: a blacksmith’s son, born into relative poverty, who rose up through the British class system on nothing but his wits. That has potential. Unfortunately, I didn’t care for Mantel’s writing style in the slightest: foggy and murky, prose clinging to the random thought paths of various characters, and the novel rarely making concessions to a reader who is already having a difficult time keeping up with the story, since he has no prior knowledge of the period and the characters are all named either Thomas, Henry, Anne or Mary.
Looking back over my review of The General In His Labyrinth, I began it with the sentence: “This is one of those difficult books that was objectively good, and I know it was objectively good, and yet I didn’t like it.”
Was it, though? Just because something is held up to wide acclaim by the intelligentsia, does that make it “objectively good?” I’m not railing against literary fiction. There are plenty of prize-winning, highly regarded novels that I’ve read and loved (like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and Life of Pi). But those books were entertaining as well as having literary merit.
I think a book like Wolf Hall, that sits in the “literary merit” circle of the Venn Diagram of Fiction, well away from the overlap, is just as guilty of wasting my time as a book by Matthew Reilly or Clive Cussler, which would sit in the “entertaining” circle but be equally as far away from the overlap. There are so many great novels in that overlapping slice, so why should I force myself through something that is brimming with artistic credentials, but an absolute drag to read? Certainly, there are occasional flashes of beautiful clarity: the death of Cromwell’s wife and children, the downfall of his patron, the burning of a Lutheran… but the vast majority of Wolf Hall is an unpleasant slog through a dreary landscape.
I’ve made up my mind: just because a book is widely acclaimed does not neccesarily mean it is worthwhile. Last night I was trying to print off a list of every Pulitzer and Booker winner so I could blu-tac it to my bookshelf and cross them all off as I go, but my printer malfunctioned. Maybe that was a sign.
Starting with a bang, we watch Cromwell's rise, his fight to stay popular and also to provide good advice, his fights against those who would tear him down for being a blacksmith's son, and his personal life.
He seems to have been a person of intense intelligence and charisma, who succeeded in an unparalleled rise to success, at a time in history that allowed the common man to achieve what he was capable of.
Not only was this man's life fascinating, but Mantel's prose is exquisite and breathtaking, almost poetic at times in her descriptions, without being self absorbed. She invokes all the senses necessary to bring Tudor London to life, and has a talent for producing just the right detail to finish the picture and make it 3D.
Despite its 650 page length, I wanted it to go on much much longer. I was gulping it down at the end, and I KNOW that I will want to reread this as soon as I have begun to digest it. There is simply so much going on within the words that it is impossible to take in the first time.
Not just for lovers of historical fiction, this truly is a staggering piece of literature, and one that deserves its popularity and hype. I haven't read any of the Booker shortlist but I'm not sure any could compare anyway. If you are any kind of booklover, in terms of appreciating language and the art of good storytelling, you MUST read this book.
Principally, Wolf Hall is an absorbing, stimulating, shrewd portraiture of Thomas Cromwell – his life, past and present, cleverly unfurled through his pithy, personal discernment and from the author’s superbly-illuminated slant. From this unfolds the spectacular, the simple, the cruel and the forthright clarity of the mores of the times; an era of immense upheaval in the lives of many. The influence, the unquestionable impact Cromwell had on the reign of Henry VIII is reinforced with such subtlety in this chronicle by merely addressing our man throughout as ‘he’ – no name thus expressing the character’s worth. From 1500 to 1535, smoothly back and forth, we follow the joys and sorrows and the rise and rise of this intriguing son of a blacksmith, who against all perils survived to shape a nation.
Don’t be put off by the Tudor history even if you hold no interest in these times! This is foremost a most entertaining tale; more so due to the rich interpretation Ms Mantel applies to the facts. I cannot commend the masterly creativity enough. There are throwaway lines in the narrative which deliver, with restrained ease, such knock-out blows, characterising the many and varied cast with laconic understatement; none more so than Thomas Cromwell as we become privy to his every thought in snippets of conversations thus:
Now he fixes an eye, red and fiery. ‘Cromwell, I am content you are a burgess in the parliament.’
He bows his head. ‘My lord.’
‘I spoke to the king for you and he is also content. You will take his instructions in the Commons. And mine.’
‘Will they be the same, my lord?’
The duke scowls. He paces; he rattles a little; at last he bursts out, ’Damn it all, Cromwell, why are you such a… person? It isn’t as if you can afford to be.’
He waits, smiling. He knows what the duke means. (p. 163)
My greatest satisfaction, however, is with the drollness inserted throughout, and delivered with such delicacy, it is at times necessary to pause to admire the underlying punch:
Kratzer is from Munich……. The cardinal had been his patron, and he had made him a beautiful gold sundial. When he saw it the great man had flushed with pleasure. ‘Nine faces, Nikolaus! Seven more than the Duke of Norfolk.’ (p. 314)
Despite the length of this book, and notwithstanding the challenging size of the font in my copy, it was a worthy investment; a continual delight – and even knowing somewhat the conclusion to most events I was engrossed with this whole chronicle, dismayed at specific situations, riveted by certain escapades, amused constantly and completely enamoured with Thomas Cromwell himself. I willed him on regardless of actualities!
And the writing… I find myself wishing to emulate the considerable skill and proficiency embodied throughout. And I am now quite keen to learn more about these times, both actual and fictional; particularly with what I hope may continue at Wolf Hall in Ms Mantel’s hands.
(Feb 2, 2010)
What I Liked: Most particularly, I liked the marvellously written character of Thomas Cromwell! Mantel’s portrayal of him is magnetic. From blacksmith to money lender to loving father to lawmaker to the king’s closest and most trusted advisor, I was spellbound. Cromwell is “cunning as a bag of serpents” (6.2) and a man of many talents: “draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury.” (1.2) His streetwise, shrewd observance of others undoubtedly facilitated his rise to power. Cromwell appears to be aware of his flair here: “I am always translating, he thinks: if not language to language then person to person. Anne to Henry. Henry to Anne.” (5.1) Without doubt, his uncanny knack for reading others served him well:
“From the day he was sworn into the king’s council, he has had his face arranged. He has spent the early months of the year watching the faces of other people, to see when they register doubt, reservation, rebellion – to catch that fractional moment before they settle into the suave lineaments of the courtier, the facilitator, the yes-man.” (4.1)
What I Didn’t Like: Not to flog a dead horse, but Mantel’s intentional use of ambiguous pronouns was irritating. (I nag my students mercilessly for this grammatical faux pas!). Her decision to use “he” almost exclusively to refer to Cromwell made for unnecessary confusion in passages (and there were a lot of them) where “he” could have referred to other male characters or speakers. Rereading for clarity got tiresome very quickly. (Apparently this has been addressed in Bring Up the Bodies.)
Wolf Hall, while it took some concentration to get through, was more than worth the read and is highly recommended. I will definitely be following through with Bring Up the Bodies.
Wolf Hall takes the current romantic views of the Tudor period (thank you, cable television), puts them in a blender, woozes, strains, and bakes them into an entirely different dish. No courses of true love, kings as eye candy, mistresses and lovers as beautiful people with perfect teeth, skin and hair, are recorded here.. The reader who wants martyrs and principled statemen should look elsewhere. The reader who wants an in-depth historical fiction about Henry VIII's court from the fall of Wolsey in 1529 to the execution of Thomas More in 1535 need look no further. Hilary Mantel has written a book unlike any other novel about the Tudors. Traditional "heroes" are not very heroic and "villains" become complex, sympathetic individuals.
Wolf Hall is told from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell, reviled in pop culture as the man who was the main cause of the deaths of the sainted John Fisher and honourable Thomas More. In a unique style which takes some getting used to, the pronoun "he" usually refers to Cromwell, no matter where in the paragraph it falls or who in the paragraph may be speaking. This style and the present tense give an immediacy to the action, as if the reader is really inside Cromwell's head and sees every scene through his eyes.
The book opens in 1500 when the young Thomas is beaten and nearly killed by his brutish father. As soon as he is able, he runs away to the continent where he becomes a soldier in the French army and sees, not glory in war, but a waste of lives and, maybe even more important since life in the 16th century is cheap, a waste of resources. After the army he is seen in Italy in the employ of Italian bankers, in court arguing points of law, in Flemish guildhalls dealing with merchants. After only ten pages, it is 1527 and Cromwell is established as the most trusted employee of Cardinal Wolsey. From his childhood Cromwell learned to counter bullies, value family and listen to the whispers of the street folk; in his young manhood he learned how to kill, how to make money, how to interpret the law, how to speak foreign languages, how to read the monied and ruling classes, and how to remember. As a servant of Wolsey he learned patience, loyalty, and pragmatism. He knows when to support a cause, recognizes when a cause is lost, and how to turn an enemy into an ally.
Thomas Cromwell understands one thing very clearly. England needs a strong king and a solid government. The War of the Roses is within living memory and the Tudor claim to the throne is still tenuous. There are claimants ready to challenge Henry as the rightful heir, and even if Henry keeps the crown firmly on his own head, with only a daughter as successor, the wars could resume after Henry's death. There has not been an English queen who ruled in her own right since Matilda. Cromwell does not want another civil war. It is bad for the country and bad for business. Peace means prosperity, especially for a man who is able in law, languages, trading, property manipulation. What is good for the country is good for Cromwell.
Cromwell realizes two important things in this novel and I do believe that Mantel wrote him as a very modern, possibly the first modern, politician. He knows that whoever controls the purse strings has power, so his appointments are to positions where he knows to the penny what the treasury holds, what the coinage is actually worth, how much debt Henry and his nobles carry. He has in his head the taxes the noble families collect and pay to the crown and how much revenue is lost because one third of the property in the country is owned by the tax-free Catholic church. The second important thing is that information is the lifeblood of a man in power. He is generous to the poor because he feels he should be, but also because the street people tell him things....wives will never accept Anne Boleyn as queen because they can see themselves put aside, as Catherine of Aragon was, if they fail to produce the correct children, sex and number considered. He educates bright young men and women who become servants and scribes in households eager for quality retainers. His extended family has his interests to heart and Cromwell has the interests of the king.
Henry VIII is a capricous monarch. He is highly intelligent, sensual, easily bored, lacks patience and needs to be placated.. He can destroy a man with a sentence. In one chilling scene, he tells Cromwell that the queen (Anne pregnant with her second child) wishes to see him. If Cromwell upsets her and she becomes ill, Cromwell's head will be off his shoulders. Cromwell knows the king is not exaggerating. He also knows that the king must be strong for the country to stay sound, so he counsels Henry and befriends Anne because Henry wants Anne. (He says that he cares little about what goes on in the king's bedroom; he cares only that Henry acts properly as a head of state. But Thomas will use the knowledge of what happens in the bedroom to his advantage. He is the first to recognize that after seven years of pursuing Anne, Henry is disenchanted immediately after the birth of her daughter. The second miscarriage seals Anne's fate and Thomas make a generous loan to Edward Seymour, brother of little Jane Seymour, the only kind heart in Westminster.)
The major events in the novel are the divorce from Catherine of Aragon, the split with Rome, the beginning of the dissolution of the monasteries, and the rivalry with More. Throughout these events Cromwell is analyzing, pulling puppet strings, gradually shifting alliances.
The tapestry of this novel is rich and detailed; there are no stereotypes or heroes; each historical characters has virtues and flaws, (well, maybe except for the Duke of Norfolk who is a real worm!). The author doesn't appear to condemn or condone, but she presents Cromwell in a much more flattering light than most depictions of him. Her skill is that the reader accepts the portrayal and wants more of Cromwell, even though the tale will end with a botched execution......
Wow! These historical figures actually possess a sense of humor, they have strengths and foibles and they feel completely human. I can imagine Mantel's files are bursting with descriptive information concerning Anne and Mary Boleyn, Thomas More, Cardinal Wolsey and Princess/Lady Mary to name a few. Mantel's ability to write believable dialog between these high profile people is phenomenal. Wow! Hall is a literary masterpiece which draws the reader into a time lost to ruble and ruins yet in Mantel's words everything is alive once again. Each time the novel is opened it seems as if these men and women jump out from the pages as if to gasp a breath of 21st century air. For this reason I recommend reading Wolf Hall at long intervals as to sustain the spell that enfolds you.
Wow! Wolf Hall offers the reader much information but it is not written as if a textbook but an entertaining jaunt through Tudor England. Wow! It had me crying out "more, more, more". No, not Sir Thomas More but more Mantel.
Mantel gives Cromwell, who is often vilified in many Tudor history accounts, a human face. While he's busy rewriting life at court to suit his majesty and most often, to suit himself and his own desires for reform, Cromwell also is shown to be a family man and a man with a heart who cares about those less fortunate than himself. Cromwell's present is largely defined through his past, and it is through Cromwell's eyes that the reader watches the Tudor world unfold.
Mantel's characterization is excellent -- Anne Boleyn comes off as a cold, calculating queen wanna-be who will stop at nothing to get her way. Mary Boleyn, the queen's former mistress, is a bit Ophelia-like, capturing Cromwell's sympathy. Mantel's Henry (via Cromwell) is a monarch more concerned about the lack of an heir rather than the tyrant or the woman chaser that many books make him out to be. The side players are also well characterized: aside from Cromwell's family and friends, the various dukes, courtiers, and people of the French Court become very human, often with the veneer of royalty and nobility stripped off to reveal crudity, greed, ambition jealousy and fear. Even some of the "common" people, the subjects of Henry VIII, are portrayed here.
Wolf Hall is simply a masterpiece. Even though it comes in at about 651 pages, it goes quickly as the reader gets caught up in the world Mantel so eloquently creates. I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in Henry VIII and that time period. Readers looking for something along the lines of "The Other Boleyn Girl" won't find it here...this is fiction at its finest.
The story is extremely well-crafted, written in present tense, repeating certain phrases and highlighting the metaphor of wolves with the title. Besides being the actual home of the Seymours, Wolf Hall aptly describes King Henry VIII's court and his counselors vying for power: "The saying comes to him, homo homini lupus, man is wolf to man" (468) sums up the constant political machinations, infighting and backbiting that's going on throughout the story. Indeed, I found most of the characters, except perhaps Gregory Cromwell, unlikeable and felt that Cromwell was - purposely but frustratingly - a bit of an enigma. As the best historical fiction does, [Wolf Hall] gave me more detailed information than a mere high school textbook about a particular period and interested me in learning more. I only wish that the author's note gave more detail about background sources that I could go to next, and where she either reinterpreted or took liberties with the historical record. The present-tense narration takes some getting used to. I found it distracting, particularly in one chapter that covered about nine years in such away that left me a little confused about the chronological order of events. But at the same time, I cannot fault the author for her choice, because it leaves the reader with a sense of immediacy - all this may have happened 400 years ago, but you are there with the characters, traveling as they do through their choices and compelled to read on to find out what happens next.
It took much effort and will power (and some peeks at the tutored thread hosted by Chatterbox and Smiler69) that I stuck through it. It took me six days to finish the first three hundred pages but after about two hundred pages the story starts to flow smoothly. I gobbled up the last three hundred and fifty pages in one night. Once I got a handle on the characters and the style of writing then the story really took hold for me. By the end I realized that I had really enjoyed the book and especially the way Mantel makes Cromwell funny in a deadpan sort of way. "If Anne were my wife, he thinks, I'd go out for the afternoon. She looks haggard, and she cannot stay stil; you wouldn't trust her near a sharp knife."
I really look forward to picking up Bring up the Bodies!
His eloquence, sharp mind and genius with financial matters brings him into the confidence of Cardinal Wolsey and manages to keep him apart from the Cardinal's disgrace later in life. His quiet determination to do what he thinks he must, while keeping his religious leanings to himself, brings him to the attention of King Henry, then grappling with the difficult task of getting the Pope to annul his marriage to Katherine, his Queen, so that he can marry Anne Boleyn, sister of Mary whom he had kept as a mistress. Despite the other aristocrats looking down their noses at him because of his impoverished and common background, they come to rely on him even if they do not consider him their equal or a friend.
Thomas Cromwell was indeed an interesting figure. He spoke multiple languages, traveled widely for his time, fought as a soldier (albeit for France rather than England), built a profitable business, and became an adviser to the King. The way he maneuvered his way around and between the various players in and out of the royal Court was like watching a well choreographed ballet. And while he grappled with the various political intrigues while keeping an eye on his business, he still manages to spend time with his extended family and keep them well taken care of. He was a man of secrets and also knew how to keep the secrets of others.
One of the impressions I got was that Thomas Cromwell was a loyal subject to his masters. He seemed to immerse himself with trying to get them what they felt their hearts desired, but without losing himself in the process.
Definitely a book well worth reading.
Two statements best sum up Henry: "Oh but...the dreams of kings are not like the dreams of other men." and "Henry loved to hunt." That pretty much covers him. He loved to hunt: for women, wars and wild game; and he thought "the people" existed only to provide him the means to accomplish his hunts.Unlike other novels and movies I've encountered about this period, Anne Boleyn is not depicted as romantic at all, but as a woman who withholds her sexual favors for 7 years in a calculated political grab for power.Thomas Cromwell is depicted as a polyglot accountant and supremely accomplished diplomat. Evidently he was hated by many, but the reasons for that hatred, except jealousy by those less competent, are not made clear in the book. Saint Thomas More comes off as a sado-masochistic, dogmatic tyrant. This representation serves to demonstrate what seem to me a central idea of the novel, that religion is the tool by which rulers get their subjects to support the power and authority of whatever idea is in ascendancy at the time.
I haven't read any of Mantel's other books, so don't know if Wolf Hall is representative of her style, but it's the choppy style that's responsible for most readers' disappointment. Reading Wolf Hall is like looking at a flock of birds through binoculars. You see individual birds in all their charm and color, but are frustrated by never being able to view the flock as a whole.
Some of the lovely birds I saw: When describing the Savonarola's bonfire of the vanities into which people threw everything they liked, "When they got up the next day they were aching from the hard floor, and there was no table for their breakfast because they'd used the tables to feed the bonfire, and no stool to sit on because they'd chopped it into splinters, and no bread to eat because the bakers had thrown into the flames the basins and the yeast and the flour and the scales. And you know the worst of it? ... Last night took their wineskins... they were sober and their heads were clear, and they looked around and they had nothing to eat, nothing to drink and nothing to sit on."
When talking about Cromwell's childhood, "One fear creates a dereliction...and there comes a point where the fear is too great and the human spirit just gives up and a child wanders off numb and directionless and ends up following a crowd and watching a killing."
A favorite oath, "Oh, by the thrice beshitten shroud of Lazarus!"
Cromwell about Henry, "The world is not run from where he thinks. Not from castle walls, but from countinghouses, not from the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus."
About diplomacy, "The making of the treaty is the treaty. It doesn't matter what the terms are, just that there are terms." and "The fate of people is is made like this, two men in small rooms."
"Comfort is often... imparted at the cost of a flea or two."
Again about his sometimes forceful diplomacy, "...it's just that you are practiced at persuading, and sometimes it's quite difficult to distinguish being persuaded by you from being knocked down in the street and stamped on."
And more, "When you are writing laws you are testing words to find their utmost power. Like spells, they have to make things happen in the real world and, like spells, they only work if people believe in them."
About Elizabeth Barton's having money to pay the hang man, "In England there is no mercy for the poor. You pay for everything, even a broken neck."
Of religion and politics, "Thomas More spread the rumor that Little Bilney, chained to the stake, had recanted as the fire was set. It wasn't enough for him to take Bilney's life away, he had to take his death too."
So, there are lots of individual birds to delight, but the book as a whole did not provide a sense of an integrated whole flock.
This version of Henry VIII's saga is told from Thomas Cromwell's perspective, yet it's in the third person, so how can that be? Mantel achieves a mammoth feat here that transcends genre; she presents a story so thoroughly detailed and clearly from her protagonist's point of view, without its being written from his actual voice or his once using the word "I," unless in dialogue. It's almost as if the narrator is inside Cromwell's head, embodying his thoughts and feelings without being Cromwell himself. Although I do agree with some of the critics who have mentioned that the third person narrative makes this book somewhat confusing (it can be difficult to distinguish to which "he" Mantel is referring), if anything, the authors' doing so only made me pay even closer attention to the minute details of her writing. I did have to go back and reread a couple of passages just to make sure that I knew exactly who the subject of the sentence was, but I don't consider that to be a bad thing. This book required a lot of reading between the lines, and there were so many nuances and details to pick up on that I was glad to go back and discover anything I had missed the first time around, anytime I was thrown off by a seemingly mysterious "he" reference.
Usually portrayed in an unsympathetic light, the Cromwell of Wolf Hall is not the untouchable "bad guy" of novels past, but rather a well-intentioned human being with equally human flaws. Here, he is the glue that holds everybody's sanity together. He's a father, a friend, a mentor, a teacher, a counselor. Mantel's Cromwell is a paradox, an agent provocateur when he needs to be, yet a peacemaker when called for. He is everyone's man and yet nobody's man but his own.
I was glad to read a novel that vilified Thomas More. Saint or not, I've never been a big fan of More's and I loved reading how Mantel made More a foil for Cromwell. Their back and forth debates about theology left me endlessly entertained. Where Cromwell was a family man who respected his wife and children, More did not permit his string of wives the luxury of literacy, nor did he demonstrate much affection towards the rest of his family. Where Cromwell enjoyed lively debates with heretics, burning their minds through intelligent conversation, More preferred a more literal type of burning. Where Cromwell was borderline-heretical himself, More was staunchly Catholic, even to the point of flagellating himself regularly. A great statesman who learned from the master of the art, Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell was a fascinating choice of protagonist.
I very much applaud Mantel's descriptions of members of the main cast of characters surrounding Henry VIII's court. Characterization is clearly her strong point, as I felt I absolutely grasped all the main characters' motives and mindsets throughout the entire novel. Mantel's Cardinal Wolsey is excellent (you can read an excerpt about Wolsey that I especially enjoyed by clicking here). I also loved how she portrayed social issues and class structure, something of particular import to the protagonist, as he was born a "nobody"——or as the Duke of Norfolk refers to him, a "person" ("Damn it all, Cromwell, why are you such a...person?!"). Were this novel told from any other "person"'s point of view, the significance of commoner vs. aristocracy so prevalent during the time would not have resonated as strongly as it did. It was brilliant of Mantel to key in and illustrate this fact decidedly so, as it is a main source of conflict in King Henry's choice of Anne Boleyn as his second wife, which essentially caused the Reformation and his separation from the Catholic Church, bringing about the creation of the Church of England.
Wolf Hall was no light read. It was definitely dense, and even challenging at times. At 560 pages, it's no quickie, either. It's every bit as much literary fiction as it is historical. I had to really pay attention to every single word while I was reading this book, and I actually read a couple of lighter books along side it. But I enjoyed every single bit of it, sopping up every last drop like a piece of bread to the bottom of a soup bowl. I was initially hesitant to read yet another novel on Tudor England, but my background knowledge on the period actually made me enjoy this one that much more, rather than making me bored, as most Tudor hist-fic tends to do for me these days. Tudor fans and those new to the historical fiction genre alike will find that this spellbinding novel will leave them begging for more. Hilary Mantel is currently working on a sequel to this Booker Prize-winner, and if it's anything as amazing as its predecessor, you can bet your bottom dollar that I will drop everything to read it the moment it becomes available.
FTC Disclosure: This book was sent to me by the publisher for review.
Author Hilary Mantel takes as her subject the court of Henry VIII during the period when the king was weaseling his way out of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon and into the bed of Anne Boleyn. That ground is so well trodden that it’s positively threadbare, but Mantel conjures the people and atmosphere of Tudor England with such mastery it’s as though you’ve never heard the tale before.
Every person in the novel – from Thomas Cromwell (the central character) to an urchin the street – is vividly rendered and seems as real (if not more real) as your next-door neighbor. While no one will ever know the underlying motivations of all players in the turbulent drama of England’s break from the Catholic Church and King Henry’s messy personal life, Mantel weaves a compelling tale that is utterly believable. It’s as vivid as the office politics in your own life, albeit on a grand, and very, very dangerous stage. Fantastic reading for anyone who likes a good intrigue – it won’t matter if you don’t know the first thing about English history. If you are interested in that moment in time, the pleasure of Wolf Hall will be all the more keen. I highly recommend.
This novel demonstrates a unique knack by the author for getting under the skin of her characters and capturing them (one feels) as they must have been. The basic plot is well known (Henry VIII changes wives), so there can be no surprises there. The adventure is in progressing through the “third person/virtual first person” narrative that lets the reader inside Cromwell’s mind and provides a semi-omniscient overview of the era. The story is told largely with the use of conversational dialog and interior thoughts of Cromwell. The reader is allowed to figure out who the various characters are by what’s being said and by context. Inference and subtlety are used where other writers might have used flat declarative sentences. The chronology of the story jumps around unpredictably as Cromwell’s recalls earlier experiences. The effort required to follow the action pulls the reader into the story so that by the end it feels like one has actually experienced living in the 16th Century (and thankful to be able return to the 21st century with head still connected to the body).
There's plenty of history remaining to be covered when the end of the book is reached. So I think it likely that there will be a sequel.
One of the reasons Wolf Hall works as well as it does is because it is written in the present tense. Even though we know what happens to some of the players like Anne, Mark the musician, and even Cromwell himself, it doesn't matter because the reader is engaged in the unfolding drama. The book ends in July, 1535 when Cromwell is still rising and consolidating his powers. He knows he is playing the unpredictable games of power and he knows (being a reader of Machiavelli's The Prince) how fast things can shift. But he is still very intent of playing the game to its conclusion and trying to influence the powers that be into his corner. Friends build up but so do the enemies. The delicate dance of using the law, rumors, finance, and personality to advance are just too tempting to Cromwell to think of easing into a more placid retirement.
Mantel uses he and him many times when attributing conversation or thought to Cromwell. Reading too fast will lose or confuse passages meant to be attributed to Cromwell. There are also eleven Thomases to keep track of. She also can turn a phrase that is quite eloquent but biting. Some of them are of modern English usage but that didn't bother me but might bother others. In some books I can get lost in the story and forget the author and the writing but with Wolf Hall I was always aware of Mantel's voice and style. That's not a bad thing. Wolf Hall is not so much a celebration of Thomas Cromwell as it is a celebration of Hilary Mantel.
I read this because it was the 2009 Booker Prize winner, got tons of praise on lt, and I won it as an Early Reviewer which was something of a big score as far as Early Reviewers go. My thought process starting it was to wonder how a work of historical fiction of this era (How many books of historical fiction must there be on Henry VIII? That I’ve read none of them before is irrelevant.) could possibly win the Booker Prize.
Well, I’ll stand mute on its merits for the award. I will agree with most of the reviews I’ve come across in that it’s a great read, terrifically done, even if I’m quite as enthusiastic. It’s about part of the life of Thomas Cromwell, a commoner apparently born dirt poor who became, for a time, Henry VIII’s most trusted advisor. But, and I’m going on a bit of an edge here, it’s not really about Thomas Cromwell because the character Mantel creates is a modern personality, a modern style hero of sorts. Sure he does terrible things, but he’s so careful and thorough, and he has his principles and his many interesting sides. He’s Mantel’s anachronistically modern Renaissance man who does everything well, including, especially, walking an impossibly small tightrope of the 16th century English power games with the upmost grace…and without breaking a sweat (that anyone can see).
I suspect we don’t know what the real Thomas Cromwell was like. The real one did lots of terrible things (vengeful executions and whatnot) made lots of enemies, but apparently also won over people completely; his supporters were fiercely dedicated and loyal to him. He was a complex and clearly intelligent person. The rest, I think, is up to your imagination, or Mantel’s.
Mantel doesn’t stop at Cromwell. She creates an entire world around him, heavily based on real persons and known details. We get everyone from Cromwell’s father to Henry VIII to Cromwell’s sisters (one of whose direct descendents was the better know Oliver Cromwell).
A couple things stand out in this work. First is a bit at the beginning where a young Cromwell, badly beaten by his father, goes to his sister for aide and Mantel somehow strongly inserts women’s perspective that I think colors the whole book of mostly men and deranged queens. The thing is Cromwell’s sister is a very minor character who we hardly hear from again, and we don’t get her point of view…just her comments and details about how she goes about things. And it’s such a minor thing you might not even notice it.
The other thing is the intelligence in the writing. Mantel has an interesting style where she expects you to be able to put things together that she doesn’t make clear, but yet she still makes it perfectly clear. This style is perhaps limiting, but she masters it giving her, instead, a great deal of freedom. It’s very strange how little happens in this book and how inconclusive it ends and yet I enjoyed reading through it (slowly, in my case) because of the atmosphere Mantel creates. She made me feel smart and comfortable, whatever she might be doing with her (clear to me unrealistic) version of Thomas Cromwell.
That all being said, for reasons I can’t quite explain, I’m not in a rush to read more from Mantel.
Written in beautiful, slightly quirky and so captivating prose, it’s full of vividly realised scenes and characters to care about, of engrossing argument in which the stakes couldn’t be higher. For me the main pleasure was of historical revisionism. In taking Thomas Cromwell as its hero, it effectively challenges the version of the English Reformation – indeed of the Protestant Reformation as a whole – that I absorbed from the nuns and brothers and, I’m embarrassed to acknowledge, remained pretty much intact under the assault of an undergraduate course in Reformation History. I’m consoled somewhat by having the great Erasmus as an offstage character who pretty much shares my understanding, and by a sense, especially toward the end, that it’s Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons rather than my young self that Hilary Mantel has in her sights. Thomas More – that’s Saint Thomas More to me – is portrayed here, among other things, a pitiless torturer and a misogynist a***hole, who had a gift for self promotion as a saint. I suppose my younger self might have read this as Protestant propaganda. I hope I would have checked the evidence, and come to the conclusion that if it is propaganda, what it’s propagating is the view that rigid and intolerantly held religious views are an abomination, and that there is great virtue in devoting one’s self to making things go well, that there is much to be said for pragmatism and compromise.
I can't read historical fiction these days without sensing Inga Clendinnen reading over my shoulder. I think she would approve of this.
Cromwell is shrewd, to be sure, but we also see a human side of him in his dealings with his household: in his lingering depression over his wife's and children's deaths, in his attachments to his various wards, and in his conflicted attachment to his son. Yet we also see the hard-driven side of Cromwell in his dealings with Thomas More-- who is not in his most noble character of A Man for All Seasons. We see his deep attachment to Wolsey, an attachment that transcends political and religious transformations. Cromwell is in no way a man motivated by one single ambition or one single view of the human character.
And the peripheral characters are no less intriguing. We see Henry's conflicted relationship with the Church at Rome, his desire for male issue, his complex (but never truly romantic) relationship with Anne Boleyn; Anne Boleyn as a shrewd (not to overuse the word) character in her own right; her sister, Mary, as a woman caught up in and overused by the court; and Jane Seymour, always fluttering at the edge of the narrative, waiting to step in and take center stage. Wolsey is a magnificant portrait. More, flawed and intractable, is presented in a new light, and his character is fresher for being presented in such a way. Minor characters, such as the boy Christophe, provide comic relief and allow us to see Cromwell's human side.
The novel is deeply researched, yet a decent, Wikipedia-level familiarity with persons and events will suffice to get you through the book without getting you bogged down in detail; everything is contextualized well enough that you can follow along. That's saying a lot, considering the complexity of the material Mantel is dealing with and the level of socio-political-religious upheaval that was occuring in Europe at the time. I was impressed at the wealth of detail, and yet there were only a few points at which I felt a bit adrift.
The naming sometimes does get confusing; it reminded me a bit of a Russian novel in this way: everyone has their familiar name, their family name, their courtly name, and their nickname. There is a reference at the beginning of the novel that provides an overview of the cast of characters, but interrupting the flow of the novel to go back and reference who's who can be tedious. And there's the simple fact-- unavoidable-- that there were not that many different names in circulation at this time.
Wolf Hall is powerful, moving, and immerses you deeply in its time period. You will feel caught up immediately in the sweeping changes of the time period, feel immediately caught up in the tide of change, and identify immediately with a man-from-nowhere who is at the center of these changes. It is very powerful to see how one man can define himself in an era where a king's word controlled the very life or death of a human being, where human life itself was so tenuous that it hung by the will of a sleeping sickness or a sword. Cromwell stands like a stone, yet he is human; he is a paradoxical character, difficult to grasp hold of-- as his contemporaries saw, and as Mantel makes us see. History and the novel resist attempts to define him, and the result is quite an accomplishment.
Drunken, violent blacksmith’s son made good, Cromwell ran away from his abuser at an early age and made his way to success via stints as a hired fighter in foreign armies, then learning the arts of being a merchant. He returned to England to work for Cardinal Wolsey, long King Henry’s right hand man. Cromwell survives Wolsey’s fall from grace and rises dizzyingly to the top, becoming Henry’s top servant in short time.
Normally painted one sided as a greedy, amoral man with no redeeming graces, Cromwell emerges in this book as a man who suffers, worries and celebrates the things all humans do. He loves his wife and children, cares deeply for the fates of the people who come to depend on him, likes cats, and can hold a grudge for his whole life. He is a protagonist that the reader can care about and relate to, something I did not expect given the image I had of him from history books.
Mantel brings Tudor England to life vividly, not just the splendors of the court- which isn’t really very splendid at all- but the dirt and poverty of the lower class and the day to day life of the middle class. This creates a balanced picture of the age that most historical novelists do not bother with. She also provides an alternate, and surprising, motive for many of Cromwell’s actions beyond mere greed.
Despite the great detail and depth of the book, it’s not perfect. The author does not always make it clear who is speaking. Dialogue does not always have quotes bracketing it, and she frequently changes subject within a paragraph, starting the paragraph with one person speaking, then referring to ‘him’ or ‘he’ in the next line, but not referencing the speaker but Cromwell. Cromwell is simply ‘he’ a lot of the time, and it’s very confusing. Almost equally confusing is Mantel’s alternate use of a characters name or his title, but there is a cast of characters in the front of the book to deal with that. Still, this is a marvelous, engaging book that lovers of the Tudor age should read.