Fri
Nov 18 2011 3:30pm

Like Being There: Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall

Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is a book that has been very successful — it’s a huge historical novel that won the Booker Prize. It has 240 reviews on Barnes and Noble’s website. It’s a bestseller. It needs no praise from me. But I haven’t heard much talk about it among fantasy readers, and so I thought it would be worth burbling about here a little.

All I want to say about it is that it’s brilliant, it’s compelling, and if you like Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire books and you’re not violently allergic to books set in real history you should rush out and read it. It’s the story of Thomas Cromwell, a blacksmith’s son from Putney who works his way up by skill, intrigue and cleverness to being one of Henry VIII’s closest counsellors and one of the most powerful men in Britain. The title comes from the name of the home of the Seymour family, Wolf Hall, but also from the aphorism that is the theme sentence of this novel “homo homini lupus,” “man is wolf to man.”

Tudor England is as strange and alien as any fantasy world or alien planet, and as fascinating. Thomas Cromwell has usually been cast as the villain of this story — he’s the villain in the movie A Man For All Seasons and I believe he’s a villain in the TV series The Tudors. It’s very interesting to see this world and these controversies from his point of view as he manipulates and plans for contingencies. “It’s all very well to have a plan for next year, but you also have to have a plan for tomorrow.” We have the fall of Cardinal Wolsey, Henry’s divorce, and the beginnings of the Reformation, all in the context of Cromwell’s own life and ambitions and hopes. It doesn’t matter whether you know quite a lot about the period or nothing at all, the book contexts itself and draws you through exactly like a fantasy novel. If you know more, it all connects on, if you don’t, it doesn’t matter.

Mantel doesn’t make the mistake historical novelists sometimes make of having too narrow a field. These are characters living in the consequences of earlier history, their own and the country’s. She also doesn’t limit herself to England — Cromwell’s experiences and connections in Florence and Antwerp and France are all part of the web. This is a big book in all senses, but I wish it were twice as big and I long for the sequel.

This is a book about sex, religion, intrigue, integrity, love and money, with well drawn characters and a great deal going on. I’ve read it twice now and been absolutely absorbed in it both times — I hardly put it down. As well as reminding me of Martin it also reminds me of Abraham’s The Dragon’s Path. The thing it does that neither of them do is the focus on one man — Cromwell’s a man of no birth in a world where everybody who is significant is supposed to be a noble. (“How is it you’re such a person?” the Duke of Norfolk asks him, bemused.) He’s aware of his birth and his natural and acquired skills and he’s not above wanting revenge. He’s also keen to elevate his family — and Oliver Cromwell was his great-great-great nephew, a hundred years later.

Anyway, if you want a fat novel to fall into and come out gasping and wondering what century and country you’re in, you’d be hard put to it to do better than Wolf Hall.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

25 comments
AlecAustin
1. AlecAustin
That sounds lovely! I'll be sure to pick it up when I get a chance.
ChristyC
2. ChristyC
It's a great book. I just finished it and it's going to be with me for a while. Fascinating.
ChristyC
3. Yatima
This post appeared in my feedreader the exact second I finished IMing with a friend about whether to buy my mother Wolf Hall or Among Others for Christmas. I chose Among Others.
Ken Walton
5. carandol
Oo, that does look good. He's the villain in C.J. Sansom's Matthew Shardlake novels too. (Which you might well like, if you haven't read).
Karin L Kross
6. KarinKross
I love this book, and I've been on a bit of a Hilary Mantel kick ever since. Fludd is also excellent, and A Place of Greater Safety an absolutely incredible achievement. I've just started on her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost.
Jon Evans
7. rezendi
I admired Wolf Hall more than I loved it, mostly because I seemed to be allergic to that kind of milieu (and because really Cromwell was the only character in the book whose company wanted to keep) but there's no denying its brilliance.

It is worth noting, for those who like A Man For All Seasons and its Thomas More, that here More is depicted as an awful human being who (more or less) got what he had coming. It's an interesting contrast.
Sherri Nichols
8. snichols
I loved it, but it is a little tricky keeping up with all the Toms and Thomases. Not Mantel's fault, obviously; she didn't get to name her characters!
Pamela Adams
9. Pam Adams
he’s not above wanting revenge. He’s also keen to elevate his family — and Oliver Cromwell was his great-great-great nephew, a hundred years later.

Now that's revenge.
ChristyC
10. Lauren J
I loved this--it had the density of history, but its focus on Cromwell lent it an intensity that I don't see as often in historical novels, which tend to go for breadth. This goes--at least as I remember it--for depth instead, so that if you put it together with all the other accounts, you gain this Rashomon-like effect wherein this is the story from Cromwell's point of view and therefore not necessarily objective or wrong. (That helped mitigate for me the decided anti-More slant that rezendi pointed out, since I have a fondness for More as well as Cromwell.)
ChristyC
11. Lauren J
Forgot to add that for the Rashomon effect you technically have to set Wolf Hall up with all the other Tudor-centric stories, obviously.
Richard Boye
12. sarcastro
I simply loved this book. The author has a real flair with metaphorical description , for example, I refer to Anne Boleyn's eyes being compared to the beads of an abacus, black beads that click from side to side as she calculated how to use to her advantage. Indeed, the book's portrayal of Anne Boleyn is so devastating I would wonder if the remnants of the Boleyn family don't sue for libel.

The whole book is just clever, and the title is a subtle nod toward that real winner in the games on display at Henry's court.
Jo Walton
13. bluejo
Yatima: I really hope she likes it now. If Hilary Mantel had written a post.... no, never mind.
ChristyC
14. a-j
Will give this a go. Up to now I've been put off by the fact that it's written in the 3rd person present tense which, for some reason I find very difficult. Entirely my own problem I admit. Oddly enough, I don't have this problem with 1st person present.
Naomi Libicki
15. AetherealGirl
What struck me when I read this is that Mantel's Cromwell is basically Aral Vorkosigan. Did anyone else come away with this impression?
ChristyC
16. Foxessa
Thomas Cromwell is also a villain in C.J. Samson's excellent Shardlake mystery series set in the period. Of course then comes an even worse villain as in the Tudor television series too: Thomas Cranmer.

I read Wolf Hall after reading the first Shardlake novels, but before I watched The Tudors. But before any of them I had read a couple of works on the other Cromwell in connection with my historical research. You don't need to know history to enjoy any of these but the more history you know the more you enjoy them -- if only to giggle at the many fax r rong in The Tudors. {Though the series remained quite faithful to the period and what a cess pool x-ed with snake pit Henry's court -- maybe any and all courts -- were like -- even though not historically accurate in terms of the characters -- and certainly not in hair and clothes and so on. Surely people didn't get quite so nekkid so often either, in the Little Ice Age?}

Love, C.
ChristyC
17. Foxessa
Thomas Cromwell is also a villain in C.J. Samson's excellent Shardlake mystery series set in the period. Of course then comes an even worse villain as in the Tudor television series too: Thomas Cranmer.

I read Wolf Hall after reading the first Shardlake novels, but before I watched The Tudors. But before any of them I had read a couple of works on the other Cromwell in connection with my historical research. You don't need to know history to enjoy any of these but the more history you know the more you enjoy them -- if only to giggle at the many fax r rong in The Tudors. {Though the series remained quite faithful to the period and what a cess pool x-ed with snake pit Henry's court -- maybe any and all courts -- were like -- even though not historically accurate in terms of the characters -- and certainly not in hair and clothes and so on. Surely people didn't get quite so nekkid so often either, in the Little Ice Age?}

Love, C.
ChristyC
18. Eliana
I bounced off Martin fairly spectacularly - the level and type of violence was beyond my tolerance.

Wolf Hall *sounds* fascinating, but how akin to Martin is it? Does it fall strongly on the.... 'gritty' end of the spectrum? Is the violence explicit, extended, and/or highly prevalent?

Unrelated note: You inspired me to do another reread of the Secret Country trilogy - thank you! ...and I finally went and searched out your speculative conversations on rec.arts.sf, which gave me a lot to think about (and watch for!) during my reread. It is so encouraging that there are others who love these books so much!
Jo Walton
19. bluejo
Eliana: It's violent. I'd say there isn't as much direct violence... however I have an easy test. The very beginning is a description of the young Thomas being kicked by his father. If you can read that, there's nothing else in the rest of the book that's any worse.
ChristyC
20. RobL
This book is seemingly in my wheel house. I love good historical fiction, and it came highly recommended from people who normally have similar reading tastes. My initial attempt only lasted 60 pages. Reading this post inspired me to start again. I'm now 100 pages in and ready to quit again. I'm not sure what everyone else is seeing that I'm not. I don't particularly like that it's written in the present tense (it feels like I'm being manipulated), and Wolsey is the only character I find intriguing. I'll keep reading because it was so highly recommended, but apparently I'm not getting it so far.
ChristyC
21. JennyC
And in a move well-known to fantasy readers everywhere, she is starting work on a sequel....
ChristyC
22. AlanW
Also loved the book. As a Catholic it's a bit hard to take the depiction of More, but I think More's reputation doesn't need defending at this point. Very interesting use of narrative techniques more commonly associated with genre fiction to convey information and context without stopping the story. Couldn't put it down.
ChristyC
23. Eliana
Jo: *thank you* That is exactly what I needed to know. I read the first bits via Amazon's free sample & felt safe buying the book - which I am now devouring. ....knowing there isn't something hideous around the corner is very reassuring. Uncomfortable pieces, bits for which I need to... shut my eyes, so to speak, but manageable.

The writing style took some adjustment - and the viewpoint... it is a little like reading Rosencrantz and Guildenstern...not stylistically, of course, but the way I'm seeing an intimately familiar story not just from a different viewpoint, but... as if the images are being refracted through a prism and then, differently shaped and colored, blended into a different author's work. I'm not finding the right words... but it is a fascinating experience and I am glad to have had the opportunity highlighted here!

Hmmm... I think I will reread Mattingly's bio of K of Aragon next... or maybe just his Renaissance Diplomacy... and I know a reimmersion in Shakespeare's HVIII is inevitable now.

Thank you for giving me a measure by which to gauge how 'safe' this would be for me... and for sharing so generously your reading experiences. My reading life is the richer for it - my husband is now used to new book arrivals being labled as "Jo's fault"... and he too appreciates the results very much!
ChristyC
24. dmg
"... but I wish it were twice as big and I long for the sequel."

Not only a sequel, a trilogy!
"BRING UP THE BODIES, Hilary Mantel's sequel to WOLF HALL, publishes in the UK and Canada in May 2012. (Autumn 2012 for the USA.) Mantel is writing now the third book in the series, THE MIRROR AND THE LIGHT."
Douglas Merrill
25. merrilld
I've long thought that Henryk Sienkiewicz' brilliant Trilogy (With Fire and Sword, The Deluge, Fire in the Steppe) could find an enormous audience among fantasy readers. It's lighter than Wolf Hall, if only because one of the main characters could be John Falstaff's Polish cousin, and lacks the geographic concentration, if only because the Noble Republic of Poland-Lithuania is a tad larger than Tudor England, but it, too, is brilliant and compelling, drawing readers into a world as peculiar as any fantasy and more completely realized than most. Hold out for the modern translation by W.S. Kuniczak; the early 20th-century translation clunks like a motor of that period.

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