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on July 1, 2015
Movies based on books rarely live up to the magic of the book. That’s not a condemnation of movies or the movie industry, but rather a reflection of greatest source of magic of all—man’s imagination. No reality ever lives up to my best fantasies.
Normally, I read a book first and then—if a subsequent film production gets rave reviews—I’ll see the movie. Occasionally, the movie will live magnificently up to all my wildest expectations; To Kill a Mockingbird is a good example of movie-from-book perfection. And occasionally, rarely, a movie will surpass the book. I thought The Graduate a mediocre book, but the movie was and always will be a classic portrait of a particular time and place.
Which brings us to Wolf Hall. I’m not sure how and why I missed the book. It won a Man-Booker Prize (Great Britain’s equivalent of the Pulitzer, though over there they might say the Pulitzer is America’s equivalent of the Booker) and then author Hilary Mantel turned right around and won another Man-Booker for the sequel to Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies. That is, I believe, the only time Booker prizes have ever been awarded to a novel and then its sequel.
Not only had I missed the book(s), but at first, when I saw the trailers on PBS for the film version, I wasn’t all that intrigued. Downton Abbey had just finished its last episode of the season and it was hard to imagine anything equaling that. So, a mini-series based on Henry VIII and his wretched excesses, told from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell, one of the king’s, ah, shall we say, less fastidious enablers… Ho, hum. I’ve read my history; I’ve seen A Man for All Seasons; been there, done that. But a Close Relative By Marriage insisted we watch, and after the first ten minutes you could have set fire to my chair and I wouldn’t have left. That’s how good the production was, and Mark Rylance, the British actor who stars as Thomas Cromwell, gave one of the most compelling performances I have ever seen: quiet, understated, absolutely convincing, and absolutely electrifying. So consider this also a rave review for the PBS series.
(By the way, for those of you interested in historical tidbits: any great English house with “abbey” as part of its name, as in Downton Abbey, is so named because when Henry VIII, aided by Thomas Cromwell, took the great monasteries from the Pope, he awarded some of those lands to favored courtiers who retained the appellation “abbey.”)
After the second episode I galloped to my desk and ordered copies of both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies for myself and just everybody I know, and as soon as they arrived, I dove in. Now I know why Hilary Mantel won the Man-Booker twice. She deserves it.
In case you’re even more of a troglodyte than I and you’ve never heard of Hilary Mantel or Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, yes, it’s Henry VIII and all his unfortunate wives and all those men and women who circled around the king and his court like flies around a corpse, but… But how much do you actually know about Thomas Cromwell? Ah. That’s the point. That’s part of Hilary Mantel’s genius: she has taken a famous and influential man about whom little is known and gone to town with him.
Thomas Cromwell is one of those mysterious figures in history who beggar the imagination. Acknowledged as arguably the single most influential minister (that’s minister in the political sense, not ecclesiastical) in all of English history, he seems to have sprung fully evolved out of his own imagining and will power. Even the authoritative Encyclopedia Britannica describes his origins and early life as “obscure.” Probably (no one knows for certain) born around 1485; probably (no one knows for certain) born in Putney, at that time a decidedly seedy suburb of London; probably (no one know for certain) born to a man who may have been named Cromwell, but who may have been named Smyth who was probably (no one knows for certain) a blacksmith, but who might have been a brewer or a cloth merchant or all of the above; Thomas Cromwell probably (no one knows for certain) and improbably somehow ended up in Italy early in his life; he probably (no one knows for certain) lived in the Low Countries (think Flanders, Holland, Belgium); and he was probably (no one knows for certain) somehow associated with the London Merchant Adventurers. His early history contains the qualifying words “seems,” “appears,” “might have,” and “probably” almost more than any others.
And yet, somehow, out of these inauspicious beginnings, Thomas Cromwell suddenly burst into history in 1520 as a solicitor (that’s “lawyer” to we simple-minded Americans) to the great and immensely powerful Cardinal Wolsey. How did a man from such meager beginnings in such a rigidly stratified society manage to catapult himself into the halls of power and the pages of history?
I stumbled across an interview on the internet with Hilary Mantel, and that question is pretty much what compelled her to start her journey. So that’s half the genius.
The other half is Mantel’s writing.
To quote Rudyard Kipling:
“There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
And every single one of them is right.”
Doubtless very true, and who am I to question as great a writer as Rudyard Kipling? But some methods of construction are righter than others, and Hilary Mantel’s writing is breathtaking.
Of all the varied ways of constructing tribal lays, the one that appeals most to me is the kind where a master artist plays with his or her materials. Think Shakespeare. Think Faulkner. Think Cormac McCarthy. Think Hilary Mantel. The English language, so rich and varied, so ripe with multiple subtle meanings, lends itself to a kind of imaginative playfulness, verbal pyrotechnics, if you like, that amaze and delight. She writes in the present tense, third person singular, which lends an urgency to her tale, but she jumps back and forth in time, sometimes in a sentence, sometimes in a paragraph, sometimes in a section, using the mnemonic device of Cromwell’s memories to give us information about him and his past. But it is the oblique grace with which she tells her story that is so delightful. I will give you one example.
Bring Up the Bodies, the second volume of what will eventually become Mantel’s trilogy, opens with Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII out hawking. In Wolf Hall, Cromwell’s daughters have died, but he cannot allow himself the luxury of grief. He lives to serve the king, and as a minister to the king he cannot indulge in such distracting luxuries as grief or rage or love or hate. Whatever he might feel or want must be subsumed in service to the throne. So in “Falcons,” the opening chapter of Bring Up the Bodies, Cromwell and Henry are sitting their horses and watching their falcons, and a lesser, more pedestrian, writer might have opened the book with a paragraph such as:
“Cromwell watches his falcons plunging after their prey. He has named the birds after his daughters, and as he and the king watch from horseback, this one, Grace, takes her prey in silence, returning to his fist with only a slight rustling of feathers and a blood-streaked breast…”
And so on.
Now, consider this, Señorita; consider how Hilary Mantel handles the opening.
“His children are falling from the sky. He watches from horseback, acres of England stretching behind him; they drop, gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze. Grace Cromwell hovers in thin air. She is silent when she takes her prey, silent as she glides to his fist. But the sounds she makes then, the rustle of feathers and the creak, the sigh and riffle of pinion, the small cluck-cluck from her throat, these are sounds of recognition, intimate, daughterly, almost disapproving. Her breast is gore-streaked and flesh clings to her claws.”
If you don’t like that, you don’t like chocolate cake.
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on October 10, 2016
When I first became enthralled with books about Tudor-era England, C.J. Sansom was the author that got me into the time period. His mysteries set around the time of Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell were well done and historically fascinating. Well, after reading Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, I have to say that she makes Sansom's books seem like pale comparisons. That is taking nothing away from Sansom, mind you. Wolf Hall is just THAT GREAT. We start by seeing the early like of Thomas Cromwell and his troubled youth. Mantel does an amazing job of giving the backstory of the man who would become King Henry the VIII's most trusted adviser and hatchet man (figuratively of course). The story then progresses through Cromwell's life, eventually getting to the most scandalous period and the beginnings of what would become the Reformation movement in England due to the pope not granting an annulment to King Henry. I don't get some of the reviewers who said that this was a difficult read. I had no problems at all following the large cast of characters and the prose. Many complained that Mantel's use of the word "he" was confusing and the reader didn't know who she was referring to most of the time. That didn't faze me at all, in fact, every time Mantel used the word "he" to refer to a character, it was obviously in reference to Thomas Cromwell the main character of the story. I very rarely noticed her using the word "he" to refer to anyone else but Cromwell and very soon got used to it. I thought this book was incredibly insightful and compelling and would recommend it to anyone who loves historical fiction.
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VINE VOICEon February 8, 2016
Last fall, while on vacation in London, we tried and failed to get tickets to the London theater production of “Wolf Hall,” starring Nathaniel Parker as Henry VIII and Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell. The play moved on to Broadway in New York with the same cast, and was staged in two parts. And then the BBC mini-series, starring Damien Lewis and Mark Rylance, aired on PBS (the trailer is below).

It was a wonderful production. I was inspired enough to read “Tudors” by Peter Ackroyd, the second volume in his History of England.

The plays and television program are based on the novel “Wolf Hall” by Hilary Mantel, the well-known U.K. novelist. It is the first book of a trilogy on Thomas Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith who rose to power in Tudor England, to become second only to Henry VIII himself. Wolf Hall won the Man Booker Prize in 2010. The second book in the trilogy, “Bring Up the Bodies,” won the prize in 2012. The third has not yet been published.

Thomas Cromwell was, at first glance, an unlikely candidate for career promotion. In Mantel’s story, he flees England at little more than 12 to escape a drunken brute of a father. He serves in the French army, eventually finds himself in Italy and connecting to the banking families. He finds his way to Antwerp, where he becomes a merchant. And then he returns to England, becoming part of that rising merchant class and London business class that was helping England break out of its medieval history into more modern times. He becomes a trusted advisor to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the Lord Chancellor in Henry VIII’s England. That is the backdrop to “Wolf Hall.”

That is the backdrop, yes, but not the story. The story is the intertwining of two stories powerful enough to stand alone but together the kind of event that changes nations – the royal succession, or Henry VIII’s obsession to produce a male heir to the throne, and the Protestant Reformation. As Cardinal Wolsey eventually fails to convince Pope Clement to annul Henry’s marriage to Katharine of Spain, he finds himself losing his offices, forced to leave London, and living in internal exile. Eventually he is facing arrest and execution – the powerful dukes and the Boleyn family want his head (not to mention his wealth).

The only Wolsey man to stand true to the cardinal in his troubles is Thomas Cromwell – and that is what ultimately commends itself to Henry VIII. Cromwell begins to work for the king, and his successes for Henry begin to propel him upward. He becomes the stage manager to allow Henry to put aside Katherine and marry Anne Boleyn – and it is a production involving church, foreign kings, Parliament, nobles, merchants and businessmen.

Mantel paints each scene with rich, historic detail. The world of the Tudors comes alive. The people who populated that world – from Henry VIII to servants and priests – become three-dimensional people. Cromwell is relentless for the king, but he also has a heart, and tries to find ways to help people escape some of the worst consequences they face. People like Thomas More, Henry’s chancellor after Wolsey whom Mantel paints in a very different way than the saintly Thomas More of the 1966 Oscar-winning movie “A Man for All Seasons.”

“Wolf Hall” is a marvelous novel, so good that one soon forgets he’s reading fiction because this must be exactly the way all that Tudor history happened, right?

The writing, the story, the characterization, the plot -- they're all that good. This is historical fiction at its well-researched best.
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on March 15, 2017
This is a brilliant, stylistic historical novel. Thomas Cromwell is one of the most interesting men in history, and Mantel makes the most of this. Cromwell's wit, his intensity, his striving, his motivations are all compellingly conveyed. It is very hard to put this book down. My favorite device of Mantel's is the use of "He" almost always refers to Cromwell. It makes the flow better and makes us feel like we are in on it. This is a must read for anyone who loves great story-telling and English history. I put off reading it for a while because it was so popular, but it is really good and well worth it.
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on February 1, 2017
Wolf Hall focuses on the early career of Thomas Cromwell who was to become of one Henry VIII's top officials. Mantel takes great care in creating a plausible and likable character. This is important because as you go on to the second book Bring up the Bodies, Thomas Cromwell is also revealed as efficient hatchet man for Henry VIII.

The book is rich in historical details about how people lived, their houses, their social relationships etc. I found this very interesting. As Cromwell prospered, his household expanded but not necessarily with servants but with young men he was training or people he was taking care of.
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on June 15, 2017
I found this book on a list of "If you enjoy House of Cards, then try..." This book can appeal to literature snobs, political junkies, and people who enjoy the parts of Game of a Thrones that don't involve magical dragons. Don't give up if you're put off by the second person present tense that creeps up from time to time---this book puts readers in the room at the most shocking turning points in history.
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on May 6, 2017
Ms. Mantel brings out the interaction between Henry VIII, Ann Boleyn, Thomas Wolsey, and Thomas Cromwell well, brilliantly outlining the character of each in the process. However, I have to say that the four stars I give this novel is generous. One of Ms. Mantel's techniques bothered me. I found her use of the pronoun "He" generally to refer to Thomas Cromwell without identifying him as the speaker or actor quite confusing. For example, she would regularly use "He said" or "He thought" meaning Thomas Cromwell without referencing him in context with another male character. She would would be describing another male character, Henry VIII for example, and then suddenly reference "He" when meaning Thomas Cromwell. She lost me at the turn each time for several pages into the book until I figure out her unique technique. Also I felt there was no resolution to the story; it seemed to end arbitrarily, as if someone simply took scissors to the narrative. I did buy the sequel, however.
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on January 31, 2017
5 Stars

This is the first in a series of books about Thomas Cromwell, the Secretary (of State) to King Henry VIII of England in the 16th Century.

It follows Thomas’ life from boyhood as a butcher’s son to his rise to the exalted position of one of King Henry’s closest confidants.

As a protégé of Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas learned statehood from him. He was very close to the Cardinal and deeply mourned his passing. He was a contemporary of Thomas More and disliked him. He watched More fall from grace as well.

The book talks about Queen Katherine and Henry’s repudiation of her. It introduces Anne Boleyn and her dislike for Thomas, as well as her volatile personality.

He had suffered tragedies with his personal life, with his wife and children passing of various illnesses. He imagines that they are still with him, giving counsel and comfort.

Thomas Cromwell is a most interesting character. Although I watched the Showtime series “The Tudors,” it did not delve into Thomas personal life. Beyond the series, I knew little about him. He was fascinating.

Hilary Mantel did extensive research before writing this book. It is both scholarly and detailed. It is not a dry history like so many biographies are. It is rather a historical story, written in a fashion that is accessible to everyone. My only complaint is one that many readers had, the “he/him” dilemma of not knowing who was speaking.

I have already purchased the second book in the series, “Bringing up the Bodies,” and very much look forward to delving into the next chapter in the Thomas Cromwell story.
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on August 13, 2017
Really makes the history and people come alive.


The author adopts an annoying quirk of writing "he" to mean Cromwell rather than, as English calls for, an antecedent. You get sentences such as "On the night before Fisher's execution, he visits More". Two paragraphs later, you find yourself jumping back to re-read once you puzzle out that the author meant *Cromwell*, not Fisher, visited More. In a book with six dozen characters, most of whom share the name Thomas, Henry, Mary or Anne, I ended up skipping the occasional passage because I couldn't be bothered to figure out which person it referred to.

I guess it's a testament to the story and the telling that I recommend the book despite this jarring, avoidable flaw.
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on May 26, 2015
I do not like this book. I think the author's style is turgid and extremely hard to follow. I know it's a best seller and has won an award, but I think that is more because people think the sheer weight of the work means it must be great. This writer is extremely difficult to follow. She calls Cromwell "he," instead of using his name, even where his name should be used to prevent confusion, so the reader frequently has to back up to make sure which character is doing what. To say her writing is "florid" does not begin to describe her bizarre style. Put simply, the book is hard to read. I love history, and I love the Tudor era. I also love "Wolf Hall" on PBS, but I can't get through this book. I started it, got lost in all the "he's" and put it down. Then I re-started it, got further into it, but then put it down again, and this time I'm letting it stay down.
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