on October 25, 2009
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 February 18, 2010
Wolf Hall is, quite simply, a literary tour de force. Although much has been written about the momentous political and religious upheavals that marked Henry VIII's tumultuous reign, Hilary Mantel manages to deliver a refreshingly original version of these events as seen through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, Henry's most trusted advisor and confidant. Cromwell's background as a man of humble origins who has carved out a stellar reputation as a lawyer, businessman, diplomat and political strategist makes him an ideal choice to spearhead Henry's bitter power struggle against the Church. While the historical terrain may be quite familiar, what really sets this book apart is Martel's superb attention to detail and a remarkably intimate present tense narration that draws the reader right into the story. Admitedly, this intimacy can sometimes lead to confusion, especially since Martel consistently identifies Cromwell simply as "he," even when the antecedent would seem to suggest that a different character is being referred to. On the whole, however, this technique is highly effective. We are made to experience events just as Cromwell himself does and are privy to his innermost thoughts and opinions. This, in turn, helps us to better understand the complex political climate in which these events are played out. It also gives us an opportunity to explore not only the public persona but also the private life of this enigmatic historical figure. What emerges is not the conventional portrait of Cromwell as an intellectual bully but that of a multi-faceted, charismatic man, full of personal ambition yet sympathetic to the plights of others. In Martel's skillful hands, Cromwell is transformed from a one-dimensional political animal into a highly believable flesh and blood character who is more a humanist than a villain.
on January 19, 2010
I loved this novel, it was brilliant, intelligent, witty, sad, funny, utterly captivating: really created the world of Tudor England, King Henry's court, his courtiers and mostly gave a terrific portrayal and story to Cromwell. You cannot help rooting for him with his staggering intelligence, vast experience and his kindness towards those less fortunate while he ensnares those high-born wastrels with priveledged positions into his debt.
Nevertheless, if you are not passing familiar with the facts of Henry's 'Great Matter' and the players involved, then this novel will be very confusing because there is little offered in the way of explanations of who is who and what they are after. If you watch 'The Tudors' or have read any of the histories of Henry's wives, then you will love this fictional account of history through the eyes and mind of Thomas Cromwell.
on November 27, 2009
Although historical fiction is one of the most popular and prevalent genres available to us today, it is rare that we find a book that goes beyond retelling familiar stories to actually making the past come alive. We are all familiar with the story of the famous Tudor monarch who's multiple marriages are a staple of book and film, but Wolf Hall make the alien universe of 16th century England come alive to us. I found, reading this book that I could smell, hear and experience a long lost world. Mantel dares to re-imagine the roles, experiences, and stories that we thought we knew and I found her version compelling. This book is not to be compared to popular historical fiction, it is serious reading based on tremendous research and it well repays the effort made to read it.
on June 8, 2013
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel is a passport taking you 500 years into the past to follow the career of Thomas Cromwell, son of a common smith, who we meet first as a child fleeing his abusive father. Mantel skips over the years when Cromwell is by turns soldier, traveller, merchant and student, during which he learns courage, cunning, half a dozen languages including Latin and Greek, and a shrewd grasp of the law -- all of which lead to his becoming right hand man to Cardinal Wolsey, who is the most powerful man in England, excepting only Henry, who he serves devotedly.
Henry VIII is secure on his throne, but he lacks a male heir. His first wife, Katherine of Aragon, has produced a daughter, Mary, but Henry needs a son. Henry turns to Wolsey to get him a divorce.
Mantel takes us into the family feuds, the political intrigues, the international machinations and the theological debates of the Reformation that all tangle together as Cromwell serves Wolsey, and Wolsey serves the king. Henry needs to overturn the Pope's ruling that allowed him to marry his brother's widow Katherine, so that he can put her aside and marry Ann Boleyn with whom Henry has fallen in love. Wolsey fails, is disgraced and dies, but Cromwell goes on to engineer the events that lead to Henry's marriage to Ann, the birth of their daughter who will be Elizabeth I, and the establishment of the Church of England headed by Henry.
In Mantel's account, Cromwell is a church-going agnostic, pragmatically aware of the power of faith in the life and politics of his time. He is a political fixer, strategist and designer of laws. He is essentially the first English civil servant: neither a churchman nor a member of the nobility. If you have seen Cromwell only as the man who was responsible for the death of Sir (or Saint, if you prefer) Thomas More, be prepared to reconsider or at least modify your views, because Mantel achieves the supreme goal of historic fiction: she so immerses you in the spirit of the time that you see from the perspectives of the historical figures she portrays and understand Thomas' from his point of view. This is sharply different from those who offer only a well-researched romp through history with occasional cameo appearances by well-known names, dressed for Hollywood, and talking modern English with an occasional "forsooth" tossed in for effect. Mantel's characters were real people who she brings back to life so vividly, that even when we know the outcome in advance, we share Cromwell's anxiety at each moment when his fate, as well as that of his king and country, hang between plan and outcome.
Mantel bends novelistic convention by referring to Cromwell as "he" while giving us his point of view as a first-person observer and participant. It took a little while for me to get used to the technique, but soon I was experiencing the unfolding present as if Cromwell were writing the story modestly himself. This stylistic trick lets us see the details of life in the time of the Tudors through contemporary eyes, rather than the fall-back position of many historical novelists who laboriously tell us how different then was from now.
Wolf Hall is a psychodrama, not an action thriller. Murders, executions, births, wars and assassinations take place off stage. We experience them through Cromwell's consciousness and feel his reactions. The historic events are important to him, of course, but so are his glimpse of Mary Boleyn's green stockings, or his tenderness towards the child Jane Seymour, who we know and he doesn't, will be Henry's third wife -- and the only one of the six to die naturally.
The book ends well before the death of Ann Boleyn, leaving me wanting 650 pages more in Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel.
on January 6, 2011
I originally borrowed this from the library, as a new book with a 2-week loan period (no renewals). I got to page 500-and-something before I had to relinquish it back to the long line of waiting cheapskates.
So I finally broke down and bought it, and realized that I needed to start from the beginning.
And I am glad I did.
I've read the negative reviews - too hard to read, the story wanders, sometimes you can't tell who's talking. Yes, it's a challenging read. But most worthwhile pursuits are difficult; if we could all win at Wimbledon, it wouldn't be much of an accomplishment.
Typically, the greater the effort, the greater the reward, and Wolf Hall is no exception. I will say that, as someone born in the 60's, who reads, on average, a book or more a week, this is by far the best (fiction) book I've ever read. Ever.
And it's not because I am fascinated by this period of English history - I have no interest in King Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, or Cardinal Wolsey. I watched a couple of episodes of the first season of the Tudors before my attention wandered.
It's the semi-stream-of-consciousness writing, elaborately and perfectly fleshed out with details. Each character is fully inhabited and perfectly expressed by the author. As I read Wolf Hall, I often stopped and pondered what I had just read in disbelief. How could someone could be so imaginative and creative as to write it, and express it in such an elegant and simple way?
Read it slowly, and carefully, and it may become the best book you've ever read as well.
on May 13, 2010
Let it be known beforehand, I have never fully understood the public's recent infatuation with the Tudors time period. I've never read "The Other Boleyn Girl," and I've only caught glances of the Tudors television series. Going into this book, I didn't have any preconceptions, and while I knew some basic characters of Henry's court by names, I didn't know much beyond that.
So, that out of the way, how did I feel about the book? Firstly, I didn't have the issues some had with Mantel's writing style; I could follow the action fairly easily after getting acquainted to it in the first chapter, and, to be honest, it was refreshing to read this type of 3rd-person narrative. Mantel has a fantastic way of describing things beyond the simple metaphor. You often find yourself imagining you can truly feel the chill of the October London streets, or even hear the voices of those having been long deceased in Thomas Cromwell's Austin Friars home. She weaves a fantastic tapestry of words, one which is a delight to feel between your fingers. Beyond this, however, is where I feel the "story" weakens.
The novel is plot-heavy. I imagine most expected this coming into it, but for me, not having read widely in the historical fiction genre, and especially not when it concerns the Tudors, this focus of plot over characterization created a gap between myself and the protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, that I found myself unable to bridge by the time I closed the book on page 650. While Mantel weaves the plot effortlessly, court intrigues and whirlwind beheadings included, I didn't find myself truly caring for the trials and tribulations of Thomas or the other characters as much as I felt I should have. For example, while Mantel did a good job of conveying the confused nature of Henry VIII in scenes where he switches from one emotion to the next based on a few choice words from certain wise-men, it felt superficial, and without lasting feeling, certain of which I require to really love a book.
Overall, while full of expert prose, a finely paced plot, and a huge cast of characters, I just didn't find myself caring about these conniving people's of Henry's court enough to state that this is a book I will remember months from now. In the true litmus test of what makes a novel great to me, I ended the book without pausing to consider the exploits of the souls that populated it. Should it have won the Booker Prize? Well ... It left me feeling slightly hollow -- while caring somewhat about Cromwell and co., unfortunately, just not caring enough.
on November 1, 2009
This is a delightful read that I found difficult to put down. Through the person of Cromwell we are not only able to see him as a three dimensional person, but also to understand a great deal more of the political quagmire that characterized the English court. Cromwell is insightful, steely, and a master at court intrigue. This book is well deserving of the Booker Mann prize.
on April 22, 2010
I will snap up any book with "Henry VIII" on the cover or in the blurb, so I bought this book right away. It's rather enjoyable, but it has irritating flaws and could have been so much better.
Wolf Hall is a novel about Thomas Cromwell - Cardinal Wolsey's legal advisor and later, Vicar-General and de facto chief councillor to King Henry and supremo of the government. One of the most interesting and controversial men of the Tudor Era. Was he a good man? Was he a bad man? A political reality or political expedient type, who could have helped Nicolo Machiavelli write "The Prince" if they had ever met in Italy.
Although very sympathetic, this book brings out very little of the man's character and achievements. It's a rounded character study. Cromwell is seen in his counting house, in his law offices, with the King, the Duke of Norfolk, Thomas More, the Emperor Charles' ambassador, Anne Boleyn and certainly with Cardinal Wolsey. He loves the Cardinal, and he loves his family. But I don't think it goes far enough and detailed enough into his young manhood in Italy and elsewhere. Teasing little flashbacks, but I couldn't see in them What Made Cromwell Cromwell. (And it would have been good for the novel to show him in action on the Italian battlefields or with the Florentine bankers, learning all those languages and how to survive that Medici and Borgia intrigue.)
That constant personal pronoun "he" kept throwing me out of the author's web of 16th century England and back into the 21st century present. Not good. I admit the paucity of description made my own imagination work to clothe the Cromwell family and servants, but I wanted a little more atmosphere to get into the book again after backtracking every fourth paragraph to find out if Cromwell or Cavendish had said the words "he" said.
I suspect Sir Thomas More was the 'antagonist' to Cromwell as 'protagonist'. The villian to his hero. The author did a good job contrasting them. Her version of More as a hair shirt wearing hypocrite and reactionary heretic hunting papist had some truth behind it, but it was very unsympathetic to More, who was doing his all to defend his religion. From what I've read of Thomas Cromwell, he was ruthless guy because that was taking care of 'business'. Like portrayals of the Cosa Nostra godfathers: he was protecting his 'people': his dons Wolsey and King Henry; his family and his employees and his clients. "Nothing personal," Cromwell seemed to say when he closed a monastery, whereas More subordinated his public duty to his personal religious zeal in snuffing out those who did not believe the official Roman way. The yin vs. yang is good stuff. I hope there will be a sequel, because the historical Cromwell had a fight on his hands with Gardiner and with Henry's own conservative "Catholic without the Pope" bent.
The title, I agree, is all wrong. Wolf Hall is Jane Seymour's father's estate. The Seymours are little involved in this story. The 'wolf' can't be Cromwell, because he is shown as a rational, practical family man. Henry? Norfolk? Perhaps, but the novel shows Henry as a milksop torn between his love of Anne and his love of Wolsey; and, though there are several references to Norfolk's threats to rend and tear, the Duke seems all bark.
It's worth one read as a library book; but not worth buying.
Books to read with this one: Thomas CromwellThe Cardinal and the Secretary: Thomas Wolsey and Thomas CromwellIn the Lion's CourtThomas MoreStatesman and Saint
on January 9, 2010
Over the years I've read many biographies about Henry VIII and his wives. It is an intriguing period, and
I never get tired of a new point of view. Wolf Hall, a novel, brings yet another, and one which puts the
reader into the scene, with Cromwell leading the way. Some of the characters of the period who up until now we've only known superficially, are given voice and feelings, and as a result, a new dimension has been added.