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[392] Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel

” He, Cromwell, is no longer subject to vagaries of temperament, and he is almost never tired. Obstacles will be removed, tempers will be soothed, knots unknotted. Here at the close of the year 1533, his spirit is steady, his will strong, his front imperturbable. The courtiers see that he can shape events, mold them. He can contain the fears of other men, and give them a sense of solidity in a quaking world: this people, this dynasty, this miserable rainy island at the edge of the world. ” (Part 5, II, 427)

Aptly titled Wolf Hall although the residence of the Seymour family plays only a peripheral role, “wolf” evokes the allusion that “man is wolf to man,” and is especially true for the English courtiers in 1530. The country is merely a heartbeat from disaster. If the king dies without a male heir, an inevitable civil war could destroy the country and its monarchy. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of twenty years and marry the infamous Anne Boleyn. The novel begins in 1500 when young Thomas Cromwell runs away from home and his abusive father to be a soldier in France and Italy and jumps ahead 27 years. It finds him a lawyer under the patronage of Cardinal Wolsey. The book chronicles how Cromwell becomes the main player in mediating the king-vs.-church crisis over royal supremacy that ultimately leads the demise Thomas Wolsey, and his successor, Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor who refuses to swear by the Act of Supremacy.

[Cromwell] tells Anne to dismiss the slanderers who claim that the cardinal obstructed her cause. He tells her how it distresses the cardinal that the king should not have his heart’s desire, which was ever the cardinal’s desire too. He tells her how all the king’s subjects repose their hopes in her, for an heir to the throne; and how he is sure they are right to do so. He reminds her of the many gracious letters she has written to the cardinal in times past: all of which he has on file. (Part 3, II, 166)

Astute in reading people and surgically precise in seizing the opportunity, Cromwell is a consummate politician. Until the annulment crisis roils over England, he knows better to put distance between himself and any Boleyns at all, for they don’t seem like a family who mind about their souls. As per his own family, to which Mantel gives consistent weight in the novel, Cromwell treats his wife as his equal and rears a house full of children, biological and fostered, whom he educates.

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. (Part 4, I, 262)

When Henry VIII believes that the papal dispensation for his marriage to Katherine, who fails to produce a male heir, was invalid because it was based upon the claim that she was still a virgin after her first husband’s (Henry’s brother Arthur) death. The king argues that Katherine’s claim was not credible, and thus the original papal dispensation must be withdrawn and their marriage annulled. Convinced that Wolsey’s loyalties lay with the Pope, who threatens to excommunicate Henry, and not not with England, Anne Boleyn, as well as Wolsey’s enemies (mainly the monastic houses he reverted in order to channel money into funding colleges) ensured his dismissal from public office in 1529. His successor, Thomas More, also refuses to concede to the Act of Supremacy that he is put on the death row. Mantel persuasively depicts Cromwell as one of the most appealing and enlightened character, whose acumen and cunning are necessary to steer clear of such treacherous waters. No wonder he reflects that “utopia, after all, is not a place one can live.” It is the king who really hits home about Cromwell’s no-nonsense: for he is a task-master:

‘Do I retain you for what is easy? Jesus pity my simplicity, I have promoted you to a place in this kingdom that no one, no one of your breeding has ever held in the whole of the history of this realm.’ [The king] drops his voice. ‘Do you think it is for your personal beauty? The charm of your presence? I keep you, Master Cromwell, because you are as cunning as a bag of serpents. But do not be a viper in my bosom. You know my decision. Execute it.’ (Part 6, II, 516)

At the center of the book, which overflows with private and public incidents, is the emerging doctrine of royal supremacy over the church. Working diligently on Henry’s divorce both in the courts and politically behind the scenes, Cromwell brings before the Parliament a number of acts that recognize the king as the head of the church, thus finalizing the break with Rome. What his master couldn’t achieve in time Cromwell has sealed with the king’s praise. Told in the perspective of the self-made man, who at the end of the annulment ascends to Henry’s right-hand man, Mantel gives us a Cromwell who has little interest in what motivates his Majesty, but hopes to secure a free England that he honors above all else. Instead of focusing on the royalties, the well-researched novel shows the struggles of those who are well behind the scenes during this tumultuous period of England

532 pp. Hardback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Additional advisory: Pitched against Restoration England, the book employs a huge array of historical characters. The glossary at the beginning of the book, which gives me a pause at first, ends up being be very helpful. Mantel has a masterful grasp on the facts without weighing down her prose—but the writing calls for perseverance. Unless otherwise stated, as the context shall reveal, the many pronouns “he” usually refer to Thomas Cromwell.


20 Responses

  1. Probably the most thorough review I’ve seen, and obviously you loved it. This one smoked me out however. I don’t believe that this would be a very good place for me to start reading historical fiction. I fear I wouldn’t make it past page 30. Which, I know, shame on me.

    • Thanks Sandy. I’m very in this book. After the first slow-going chapters bout Thomas Cromwell’s youth and the intricacies of relationships—allies and enemies, bastards and heir, ex-mistresses and queens, as the context becomes more established, the book completely engrosses me. For every scenario, Mantel always gives you a perspective from Cromwell and derives the consequences from his thinking. Even though he is full of intrigues and cunning, he was loyal to his patron, the Cardinal during his trouble. Is he in for wielding power? Maybe. But I see him bearing an ambition that is beyond power.

  2. Good review. I read the book early last year, and again this year. I never gget bored with it, and my reading pace slows significantly as I realise I am once again edging to the end of the story, after which I know I will feel friendless for a litle while.

    She is writing a sequel – if it hits 80% of the brilliance of Wolf Hall I’ll be happy.

    • My sentiment is the same. I didn’t get bogged down by the intricate details of the entwined relationships, in fact, they really spur me on to reading the novel. She doesn’t take liberty with the history and gives a quite impartial view of Restoration England.

  3. I just started this the other day and right away I was sucked into it and dispite being such a long book I dont think its going to take me long to read it. I do know my Tudor history and the life of Cromwell and so far I like how Mantel is not writing about events that would fill historical gaps.

    • The book does pull you in right from the beginning. However it does weed out the readers who aren’t serious for historical fiction as it goes on. I just enjoy how Mantel doesn’t take liberty with history.

  4. Excellent review. It’s an incredibly good book right from the start (at least I thought) which is sort of surprising given the subject and thickness. Very good stuff.

    • Thanks. This, along with The Remains of the Day, might very well be my favorite Booker winners. It couldn’t be better when you’re given a history lesson and a great, engrossing story.

  5. Although this was slow going and required my full attention, it was well worth the effort. Excellent review – I really enjoyed following your progress!

    • It was slow going at first because I didn’t know who was who. That half the men were named Thomas does not help! But once the context has established, I’m turning the pages. Mantel has a way to punctuate severe episodes with humor.

  6. I know this one was all the rage about a year ago. You have reminded me that I need to move this up my to read list!

    • I’ve had the book since it first came out in 2009, but gave it a pause after looking at the overwhelming glossary of characters at the very beginning. That turns out to be a blessing. I find myself referring to that chart to reinforce my understanding of all the relationships.

  7. I’m reading this book right now, and finding it surprisingly a lot more accessible than I initially deemed it to be. I’m just about 110 pages in, but enjoying it thoroughly.

    I don’t know much about the Tudors, but it doesn’t seem to matter that much yet. Long long way to go.

    • Honestly I never thought I would have enjoyed this book so profusely. I didn’t get all my hope up for this one because of the extreme reviews. That I wasn’t an expert in Tudor history (history in general) I was prepared to be confused. But lo and behold, I enjoyed reading it quite a lot and the book is intriguing.

  8. […] history class. The most recent historical fiction/biography I read is the Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall about Thomas Cromwell during restoration England. It’s dramatic and historical. I also have a […]

  9. […] novel and some big tomes like Ayn Rand. The book that took me the longest to read this year is Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, 14 days. Usually I manage to finish one book a week, a ballpark number that has […]

  10. […] you have to wait until New Year’s Eve for the full list.) A Moveable feast Ernest Hemingway Wolf Hall Hilary Mantel Crossing to Safety Wallace […]

  11. […] Wolf Hall Hilary Mantel I’m glad I have read this one, which was very intimidating in both size and subject matter. At the center of the book, which overflows with private and public incidents, is the emerging doctrine of royal supremacy over the church. Working diligently on Henry’s divorce both in the courts and politically behind the scenes, Cromwell brings before the Parliament a number of acts that recognize the king as the head of the church, thus finalizing the break with Rome. […]

  12. […] goal although the size, the difficulty, and the writing style could deviate from this schedule. Wolf Hall took a while because of its complexity and multiple layers of stories; The Fountainhead its sheer […]

  13. […] Review 2008 Aravind Adiga The White Tiger (India)* Review 2009 Hilary Mantel Wolf Hall (UK)* Review 2010 Howard Jacobson The Finkler Question (UK) 2011 Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending (UK)* […]

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