The scope and breadth of this novel is immense. Hilary Mantel sets out to describe a tumultuous period in English history, not by focusing on the main event- Henry and Anne- but by showing the struggle faced by those more behind the scenes. Thomas Cromwell says, late in the book, that worlds are not changed by kings and popes, but by two men sitting at a table, coming to an agreement, or by the exchange of thoughts and ideas across countries. And that is what Mantel seems to believe, too; thus, she does not focus her story on the huge proclamations or big meetings. She shows us Cromwell, alone at his desk, thinking and reminiscing. She details short, almost off-hand conversations between Cromwell and his wonderful family. And then, sometimes, she will give us fascinating debates between Cromwell and Sir Thomas More, the "man for all seasons" who was ruthless in his practices to rid England of heretics.
Even the title of the book is more suggestive than straight-forward. Wolf Hall is the seat of the Seymour clan, but no scene in the book takes place there. The Seymours make cameos, and Cromwell takes note of them, but Wolf Hall is a distant building for most of the book. Instead, it represents Cromwell's forward thinking. He is grateful to the Boleyns for his rise in court and favor, but he does not allow himself to depend on them. He tells his son, "...it's all very well planning what you will do in six months, what you will do in a year, but it's no good at all if you don't have a plan for tomorrow." And Cromwell always, always has a plan for tomorrow.
I am not sure if I fully believe in Mantel's reconstruction of Cromwell as a man who wanted only to reform England, and was so forward-thinking in his ideals. However, it's understandable; Cromwell was a blacksmith's son who rose to prominence at a time when everyone important was noble or royal. Of course he would want the same opportunities for his family and friends. Perhaps in the promised sequel, we'll get the hardened and more ruthless Cromwell that people remember.
Mantel's writing style drew me in completely. This book reminded me a great deal of A Place of Greater Safety, in terms of writing style. I don't think I enjoyed it as much as that book, but that's probably because the French Revolution absorbs me far more than Tudor England does. Mantel writes so lyrically, so adeptly. She immerses herself in the period- the food, the clothes, the heat, the stench. She researched this book for years, and it's obvious in the product. But she does not get bogged down by her facts, or by history. Her flair for witty conversation brings her characters to life, giving them flesh and blood where history only gives them stark facts and wooden portraits. Yes, Cardinal Wolsey was able to tell a joke. Yes, Cromwell loved his wife. We don't see those things, 500 years later.
The only parts of the writing that annoyed me, stylistically, were as follows: first, Mantel usually uses quotation marks to denote conversation, but sometimes she does not; second, Mantel uses the pronoun "he" too much. The first is just frustrating in reading such a thick novel because it can interrupt a rhythm. The second is confusing because there are often multiple "he" in conversation, and you can't be sure who she is referring to, all the time.
Other than that, though- this book is great! Very worthy of the Booker Prize, in my view, and I look forward to the sequel. Lovers of epic, varied novels will be thrilled. Not only are extensive family trees provided, but there is also a five-page long list of characters. This isn't the sort of book you read for ten minutes on the morning commute. It's one to savor with a glass of wine.
on October 19, 2009
Wolf Hall is 2009's Man Booker Prize winner and was the favourite from the beginning with something like 10 to 11 odds at winning. The Booker judges have a habit of surprising but didn't do so this year.
I'm not an expert on the history from the time of Henry the 8th though it's certainly one of the most heavily mined topics in fiction. I began this book with only a basic knowledge of the history and was not familiar with the protagonist of the story Thomas Cromwell.
The novel has a short preamble from Thomas Cromwell's youth and then traces his rise from a common son of a blacksmith to one of the most powerful men in England. Through Cromwell, we experience Henry, Anne Boleyn, Thomas More, Thomas Wolsey and many, many other characters of the time. The main historical focus of the novel is the events leading to Henry's second marriage and the extreme philosophical and popular debate and passion that it causes.
The author deals with the events in great detail and focuses both on the debate, the reaction of the people and the intricate political wheeling and dealing. Mantel immerses us in the time and explains all sides very thoroughly. While I've mentioned that it's detailed, it doesn't really lag as for a 600+ page hisorical novel, it moves very quickly.
Thomas Cromwell is the star of the novel and through force of will, financial competence, good judgement and political savvy, he rises to power and wealth. He moves from poor child to a man with significant contacts and talent in the mercantile world to top advisor to Lord Chancellor Thomas Wolsey to ultimately Master Secretary to Henry the 8th. He is the backroom dealer and driving force that makes Henry's second marriage possible despite great opposition from the Roman Catholic Church and many others. He is also a trusted advisor to Anne Boleyn.
Throughout the novel, Cromwell is reminded of his humble beginnings and looked down upon by noblemen who wonder how he has been able to rise to such lofty heights.
I liked Wolf Hall but ..... I didn't love it. This is perhaps more a comment on my affinity for historical fiction and 16th century England than anything else. I certainly see why Wolf Hall won the Man Booker and have no particular objection to it. Ultimately, I wasn't emotionally affected by the novel and for me, that is the difference between a good novel and a great novel.
Maybe I'm being petty but Mantel also made choices that annoyed me. I had trouble with distinguishing characters at times and had to refer back to the listing of the characters frequently. There are a number of characters named Thomas, Anne, Mary etc. and she sometimes just used those single name labels to describe them. In a novel with a plethora of characters, this needlessly aggravated me. She also referred to characters sometimes by their names and other times titles. Fore example, sometimes she referred to the Duke of Suffolk as Charles Brandon and other times as Suffolk. Again, in a novel with many, many characters, I had some trouble keeping track of who was saying what. Sometimes when authors are very close to the material and the characters they can forget that the reader is not as familiar as they are. This was a flaw though not a fatal one.
Summary: Good book, well constructed, very detailed, very well researched. I liked it. It did lack emotional impact for me and while I appreciate it, I do not have much affection for it.
I recommend Wolf Hall especially to lovers of historical fiction.
I have to say that I love all things Tudor, and Wolf Hall is no exception, but it is exceptional. In most of the novels about Henry VIII's England, Cromwell plays a role, but he's never been the main character. Writers most often leave the famous wives of Henry VIII (divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived) to play that role. In reality, not a lot is known about this person, but Hilary Mantel has woven her tale not only around Cromwell, but through him.
In Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel takes a slice of Tudor history and allows the reader to view it through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, who rose through life from his origins as the son of a blacksmith to become the chief minister of King Henry VIII. From his humble origins, he manages to become an important advisor to the ill-fated Cardinal Wolsey, who, as everyone knows, started his downhill slide because of his inability to provide Henry VIII with a Church-sanctioned divorce from Katherine of Aragon. It is, ironically, Wolsey's fall that begins Cromwell's rise. Cromwell survives by his own maxim: "inch by inch forward. Never mind if he calls you an eel or a worm or a snake. Head down, don't provoke him." (4) His fortune is on the ascendant throughout the story, but as everyone also knows, fortune is fleeting, and especially in this time largely at the whim of the king.
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.
Author Hilary Mantel gives the reader a new take on that oft told tale of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn by showing it through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, who despite humble beginnings was able to raise himself very high while aiding Henry VIII to rid himself of Katherine of Aragon in "The King's Great Matter", as well as his involvement in the Reformation and destruction of the monasteries and abbeys (to his own great gain). I think most of us have read enough about Henry and his six wives and know the basics, as well as enough reviewers have come before me so I don't need to rehash it all again. I'm just here to give my two cents on the book.
While I did enjoy a fresh take on this period, seeing it through the eyes of Cromwell, as well as seeing him interact with his wife, children and other family members, I did find the present tense very distracting and I had a difficult time getting started. Frankly, I picked up (and finished) four different books in between periods working on this one - although one covering the same period helped me a great deal as it served as a *refresher course* on who and what Cromwell was.
I found I couldn't read it during the work week at the end of the day when my brain was tired as well as on weekends when it was getting too close to bedtime - I put it down and read something lighter. That said, by the time I hit page 150 or so I was enjoying it a great deal and eventually I wasn't bothered the present tense at all, nor the excessive use of referring to Cromwell as "he" (it will drive you nuts at first).
I've seen this book described as a "rich meaty stew" and that's pretty much how I approached it, I took it in small bites over several weeks instead of gorging myself all at once and getting heartburn (reader burnout). Or you can look at it like you're climbing a mountain - you have to stop to rest and acclimate yourself, as well as slowing down to savor the shifting scenery as it changes from the alpine meadows and flowers to the starker views of the alpine tundra above the tree line. And wow towards the end when I reached the summit and saw the beauty of it all below me.
I loved the characterizations of the Boleyns, especially Anne, Mary and George (and oooh, his witchy wife Jane Rochford), anytime they were in a room things really moved along. I really enjoyed Cromwell's dry wit and I'll share some of my favorites here,
Cromwell's family asking him about Anne Boleyn,
"They say she is graceful. Dances well."
"We did not dance."
Mercy says, "But what do you think? A friend to the gospel?"
He shrugs. "We did not pray."
"Are her teeth good?"
"For God's sake woman: when she sinks them into me, I'll let you know."
"Anne has very long legs. By the time he comes to her secret part he will be bankrupt. The French wars will be cheap, in comparison."
Discussing Anne's virtue (or lack of) with Wyatt,
"...Besides, the king is no judge of maidenheads. He admits as much. With Katherine, it took him twenty years to puzzle out his brother had been there before him."
Final thoughts - if you're a first time novice reader on this period this is not the book for you - you need to come into this knowing who is who and who did what to whom. If it's been a few years and you're feeling rusty, find something else first and give yourself a refresher course. Lastly, do not be afraid to put the book down and take a breather and pick it up again later. If it isn't the book for you don't be afraid to just stop, prestigious literary award or not. Not every book is going to be for every person and life is too short. 4/5 stars.
Thanks to Henry Holt and Company for my copy of this book.
on April 19, 2010
He reads the book which his friend lends him, even though he detests pieces written in the present tense. Writing in the present tense is a pretentious gimmick that almost makes him give up the book, but soon enough the story holds its sway, so he reads on, in spite of the writing. He hopes by the tots of St Agnes that he is not infected by the affected, somewhat confused, writing style. English tenses are beautiful.
It happens that he had picked up a DVD of A Man For All Seasons not long before, in which Thomas More the hero is undone by Thomas Cromwell the villain. Wolf Hall apparently redresses the blackening of Cromwell. Colin Burrow's review in the London Review of Books calls Wolf Hall alternative history: well put.
The novel brings alive the tastes and concepts of 16th century England. In contemporary America, a blacksmith's son who worked his way to the very pinnacle of power would be admired, but the contemporary peers never forgive him for his blood.
He is not a great fan of thou art and thou shalt, so he is just as happy that the book is written in modern English. A few sentences are a bit too modern, such as `verbal instruction'. But that is not a serious flaw. More serious is when he reads that Cromwell stands up for Wolsey as Henry VIII and More bring him down and he goes north to York while he brings 44 charges against him and he defends him and he is so confused he can no longer figure out who the heck `he' is.
Mantel would do well to heed the advice in Strunk and White: "Be obscure clearly! Be wild of tongue in a way we can understand!" Consider this sentence: "The evening before Fisher is to die, he visits More." By any logic, this would mean that Fisher visits More, but surprise, surprise, Cromwell visits More while Fisher stays locked up. An author's duty is to write sentences which can be understood; if the reader has to backtrack to straighten out an unclear construction, that is shoddy workmanship.
He suspects that Wolf Hall is not the author's chosen title, for it has very little relevance to the story within these covers. Perhaps the author's title is London Smoke or Tudor Rain and the publisher wants something more dramatic, and wolves are dramatic. But for relevance to the story, the novel would be more aptly titled Anne's Belly.
Spoiler alert: from the length of the book, he guesses it ends with Cromwell's execution after the execution of Anne Boleyn, but it ends with More's execution. Although the story fascinates, the book drags and droops from time to time, and perhaps could be handled more economically. Perhaps a sequel is in the making. Certainly the executions of Boleyn and Cromwell are worth a rousing novel. Fine, but he hopes Mantel remembers the elegance of the tenses of the English language. And tell us clearly who `he' is!
Something about this novel really troubled me, but I have to admit I enjoyed it enormously. To me it was a great read. I regularly read books about Tudor history and maybe because of that had no difficulty distinguishing who the characters were without looking at the character lists at the front of the book. The use of the pronoun "he" sometimes confused me momentarily. I would have liked it for the author to have been a little clearer at times about which "he" she was referring to. But overall, I thought the prose style was brilliant.
My problem, if that is the word, with this novel is with the historical accuracy of the portrait presented of Thomas Cromwell. The entire story is told form his point of view and he is highly likable--humane, witty, ambitious but not fiendishly so. We first meet him as a fifteen year old beaten almost to death by his father. He is sympathetic from the beginning as he bravely sets out to escape his miserable home situation. My heart broke for him a little when he had to leave his beloved dog behind. The guy loves dogs! Many years later, when we meet him again as a prosperous man in his forties, he always has a little dog named after the one he left. He is a good husband and a kind father, grief-stricken when members of his family die from the plague. Hilary Mantel made me love the guy. What a wonderful character she created!
But...There is a point in which he is trying to get Thomas More to sign an oath, acknowledging Henry VIII as the head of the church in England, supplanting the pope. We know that More has burned heretics, and, on a more personal level, treats members of his own family with contempt. As a reader I was rooting for Cromwell. Why can't the tiresome, bigoted More sign the oath? Then I sort of stepped back. More's historical record is not an appealing one; he vigorously persecuted Protestants as heretics, when he could just as well have left them in peace. But--okay, here is the but--Thomas Cromwell wrote a loyalty oath that people like More and other devout Catholics, could not sign in conscience. More and Cardinal Fisher were executed as a consequence. Certain monks who did not sign were publicly butchered for it; they suffered absolutely horrific, torturous deaths. Whether or not we find anything else admirable about More, he was condemned for upholding his deepest religious values. In the novel, Cromwell tells More that he would leave him alive and let him alone if he were king. He is, in other words, just following orders? In fact, Cromwell is participating in something absolutely atrocious. That seems to be glossed over. I say "seems to be" because I was not sure whether the writer wanted us as readers to think, "Look at this awful thing Cromwell, nice as he is, is up to his neck in," or if we were just supposed to go on thnking of him in more or less glowing terms.
My favorite Tudor period figure is Elizabeth I, who was tolerant as far as she was able to be and survive, and who famously said she wanted no windows into men's souls. Cromwell helped create windows into men's souls, just as More did. This novel ends before Anne Boleyn is condemned--in what is generally considered a frame up orchestrated by Cromwell, which sucked in innocent people--and before the dissolution of the monasteries gets into full, brutal swing, and before the Pilgrimage of Grace and its horrific aftermath. But with More's condemnation we see the writing on the wall. And the historical record is clear--many people suffered and died because of governmental actions that Cromwell either instigated or vigorously carried out.
I wonder what the promised sequel will be like. Is this the tragic story of how a man with many good qualities (and I believe Cromwell did fit that description) is led to do awful acts? Or is this some kind of ahistorical whitewash? The thing is, based on this novel, I can't tell. In my view, a truly great historical novel needs to be fundamentally true to history. It should not shroud unpleasant truths. Maybe I've got an unfashionable liking for moral clarity, but I can't give this novel a 5, even though in many ways it is terrific. The portrait of Cromwell is just too prettified. I do plan to read the sequel.
on October 4, 2010
I guess I can understand why people who are fascinated with this time period would be drawn to the book, but if this is deemed the best representative novel of the year for British fiction, then the state of the realm's fiction is in sad shape indeed.
The most glaring problem with the book is its absolute lack of any plot. It's really a series of vignettes stitched together by the author's desire to reveal to the world just what a wonderful researcher she is. And yes, there are lots of period details that show she did her homework, but that doesn't make an interesting novel. It felt more like reading an eager history student's term paper than a novel.
And not a particularly well-written term paper at that. The author isn't clever enough to use the pronoun 'he' to good effect without requiring the reader to constantly flip back to determine the proper antecedent. For all the period-piece detail research, the dialogue reads more 21st-century, destroying any effort the reader invests in suspending disbelief.
The whole Cromwell-got-a-bum-rap idea seems clever enough, but played over and over again, the thing is a one-note song. If you revel in period details more than an actual plot, then this lone note will be music to your ears.
on March 29, 2010
Hilary Mantel subverts the views the general public has of some of the great figures of Henry VIII's time. Wolsey at the time of his fall is shown as an attractive, gentle and stoical figure; Sir Thomas More - bigoted, personally present when suspected heretics are tortured in his dungeons, treating his wife with wounding contempt - is far from saintly (though he was prepared to die for his own faith: the several scenes in which he makes this clear to his interrogators are among the best and most powerful in the book). Cromwell himself is presented in a much more favourable and human light than conventional accounts have attributed to him: affectionate head of a household full of nephews, nieces and wards; genuinely loyal to Wolsey even after his fall; cautious, self-controlled, blandly ignoring the frequent insulting reminders by the nobles and by Henry of his low-born origin; making himself apparently indispensable to the King, but shown as mostly more schemed against than scheming (or at least, if he does scheme, it is - except in the case of the Maid of Kent - not shown to us here: he simply carries out the King's wishes with efficiency - and of course with immense profit, both for him and for his master); less committed to the current orthodoxy and more inclined to mercy - up to a point - than the more fanatical of his colleagues.
There are some good portraits: of the unpredictable Henry VIII, a creature painfully besotted for years by Anne Boleyn, ruthless and sinister, but neurotic, superstitious, swayed by those around him (until he turns on them) and never quite certain of himself; of Anne Boleyn, hard, calculating and vindictive; of Anne's brutish uncle Norfolk, crude and choleric to the point of caricature; the fiercely defiant teenage Mary Tudor. The book is loaded, indeed overloaded, with a mass of detailed knowledge of the period. Hilary Mantel can keep track of who is who in her huge cast of characters, how they are related to each other, who has been betrothed to whom only to be forced to marry someone else; but it is hard for the reader to follow her, even with the cast of characters and the family trees (neither of them entirely adequate) she provides at the beginning of the book. She is steeped not only in the politics, the intrigues and the terrible executions of the time, but also in the way people lived, what they ate and what they wore. From time to time there are striking poetic similes.
But I cannot understand how this book could have won so much praise from discerning critics and won the Man Booker Prize to boot: it is, I think, so badly written. Because Cromwell is the central character, we are supposed to take for granted that the pronoun `he' often refers to him when grammatically it might refer to the last-named person in the previous sentence - a willful, pointless and anti-syntactical mannerism in someone who is acclaimed as a master novelist. Nor is it her only idiosyncrasy: direct speech is sometimes in inverted commas, sometimes not. The style is staccato and hardly ever flows. Sometimes, increasingly so as the book proceeds, the writing is so elliptical as to leave its meaning obscure. She uses the Historic Present throughout because, she says in an interview at the end of the book, she wanted to capture "the immediacy of experience"; but the unremitting use of all these mannerisms through 650 pages is exceedingly wearisome.
Nor can I see any artistic point in the irritatingly unchronological order of the first four chapters: the opening chapter, set in 1500, deals with Cromwell's brutalized childhood and his running away to sea; the second, set in 1529, deals with the day when Wolsey is dismissed as Chancellor; the third goes back to 1527; and the fourth, dealing with the period 1521 to 1529, fills in the gap between the first and second chapter, gives an immense amount of historical information - some of it in a moderately indigestible form and of questionable necessity, as well as straying into the mythological past of Britain.
Only from the fifth chapter onwards do we get a chronological sequence and a sense of events moving, very slowly, forwards until the book at long last comes to an end in 1535: Anne Boleyn still has her head on her shoulders, but Thomas More has just lost his. It will be five more years before Cromwell will lose his own; but at the end of this first volume he is more powerful than ever.
I shall not embark on the promised sequel.
on November 10, 2009
I rarely give books negative reviews--simply because I think I have some idea what kind of Herculean effort and ability it takes to write a novel.
So my review here is more of a warning to people who might be looking for a "story."
I bought my copy at a local independent bookstore, and I paid full retail, $27, for the book, and for the first time in my life, I later looked at the receipt and considered attempting to return it--even for a store credit.
The opening scenes here of Cromwell as a boy are quite strong, and I had no trouble following the prose, even though the pronoun "he" was sometimes a little confusing.
But then, I slogged through about a hundred pages, trying desperately to figure out who was speaking, who was thinking . . . and at times, if the conversation was actually happening or in someone's mind. After about 127 pages, I began alternately skimming and reading some parts closely, all the while hoping a story might begin. I read a number of paragraphs six or seven times just to try to figure out what in the world was happening--and most of the time, I never did.
Rather than needing an editor, I think this book needed a much, much more stringent copy-editor. The copy-editor is the person who goes over the final manuscript and looks for a number of things, such as continuity issues . . . or sentences or areas that don't make sense.
Clearly, some people really liked this book, and so I don't want to be discouraging. I just warn people who are looking for an actual story in a novel.
on February 1, 2015
I thought I would read Wolf Hall to see what all the fuss is about. Well, you know you're in trouble when you're turning the pages forward, looking for the end of the chapter, thinking 'How long does this stuff go on for?' Page 72 and it's bogging down badly - pretentious present tense, disorientation, lack of narrative drive, no attempt or even acknowledged need to appreciate the mindset of the time - doubt if I'll reach page 100. 'He, Mick, thinks it is rubbish.' A glance at Amazon shows I am far from alone here.
Btw, I read English at Cambridge and can tackle and enjoy difficult and challenging texts. Joyce and Henry James have been no problem for me. The point is that you can accept the difficulty when there are other things that draw you forward. Here there was nothing.