Review: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Book info:
Form: e-book, mobi format
Genre: historical fiction
Target audience: history geeks, adult and young; other readers as well


England in the 1520s. Relatively young Henry VIII has a family-related problem – a wife much older than himself and no male heir. Should I say more? His story of love and marriage with Anne Boleyn has been done to death – you might choose between books, movies, plays, you name it. This time it is presented from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell – a man of humble background who starts as a blacksmith’s runaway son and a mercenary; then he rises to become one of Henry VIII’s top advisers and courtiers. But the king is volatile: one day tender and kind, the other day impatient and even murderous. Cromwell helps him break the opposition, but what will be the price of his triumph?

What I liked:

First let me just say that the scope of this novel is simply immense. I was totally awed that Hilary Mantel set out to describe the whole tumultuous period in English history, not focusing on just on Henry, Anne, the court and the plotting but showing also the struggle faced by those behind the scene – simple people like a mad village prophetess or a little French thief, Christophe, who asks Cromwell for protection and a job…those huge proclamations or big meetings between the rulers are here too but the most important scenes are described by Cromwell, sitting alone at his desk, thinking and reminiscing. It was spell-bounding, like watching a real-time strategy game, not like a boring history lesson.

The narration is hardly linear – you must pay attention and let the book take you forth and back but I must say in my case the effort paid off. From time to time I felt as if I was sightseeing the 16th century England.

Portrait of Thomas Cromwell. New York, Frick C...Thomas Comwell painted by Hans Holbein via Wikipedia

The novel was very well researched and rather detailed but it didn’t spoil my reading pleasure. Thomas Cromwell –what a main character! The word ‘three-dimensional’ doesn’t do him justice – not really. Small wonder I simply couldn’t get enough of him. He was a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people and a demon of energy: an honest person but also a consummate politician (say: liar), hardened by his personal experience, implacable in his ambition and cunning. Very human, very flawed, completely ruthless but not to those who are weaker than himself. He lacks principles but it is actually an advantage if you live in a period when people with principles are being beheaded for them.

Finally Henry and Anne…those two have been portrayed time and again from every angle – most often he is the beast (big, fat and red) and she is the beauty (dark, delicate, feminine). Well, not in this book. Anne is definitely one of the baddies here – cold-hearted, false, overly ambitious, cunning and selfish to the extreme, especially considering her treatment of her pretty sister, Mary. I did start pitying the king as he was portrayed here – he fell in love with such a snake of a woman.

What I didn’t like:

As I mentioned above the novel is long and complex. If you don’t have enough time for it (like at least several days, I am not kidding), don’t start it – it is not a flaw, just a warning- because then you will be forced to drop your reading and the return is not exactly easy – think about the return of the king in LOTR and you might get an idea how difficult exactly it might be. 😉

I did try to pay attention but still sometimes I had trouble with distinguishing characters, especially that there was a number of people called Thomas, Anne, Jane, Mary and Henry (in that one it seems that indeed every man is called  Tom, Dick or Harry). From time to time somebody is referred to by his or her name and other times by his or her title. That’s why it happened I had some trouble keeping track of who was saying what and to whom.

Final verdict:

I recommend this book to all fans of good historical fiction, no matter how many versions of Henry VIII’s story you have read/heard/seen. However, if you happen to suffer from low boredom threshold or you are being busy you might find Wolf Hall quite a challenge. This book demands your full attention not unlike a king or a queen.

Portrait of Anne Boleyn, Henry's second queen;...Anne Boleyn the evil queen via Wikipedia
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18 Responses to Review: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

  1. You know, I've always been fascinated by history, especially European. I used to follow the free introductory history lectures on the Yale youtube channel. Good stuff, that.I think I'll read this one solely for the challenge of it being very demanding. Great review, Anachronist!

  2. Tracy says:

    I'm so glad you loved this book, Anachronist – I thought it was wonderful. And Thomas Cromwell is just very, very human – loved the reaction of his future wife (her father chooses him for her) 'You didn't choose him for his looks!' But despite his flaws, didn't you fall in love with this character? But it was his role as a father-figure that really stood out for me.I agree about the confusing narration – one key scene, a meal with Thomas More , I had to read three times to figure out who was speaking, and even now I'm not completely certain which character said what – they were all called Thomas or He!Your review does it much better justice than mine did – I'm afraid I made the mistake of reading through the two pages of reviews at the beginning of the book before writing mine – and several of the observations I wanted to make had already been done (which is why I try to avoid other peoples' reviews before I've written mine).I can't wait for Mantel's sequel.

  3. Aurian says:

    Great review, and I am glad you like the book. But it is not for me.

  4. Anachronist says:

    I used to follow the free introductory history lectures on the Yale youtube channelA great idea, thanks! I think I could do with some refreshing history course! I am glad you liked my review and I am looking forward to reading yours, Absie!@Tracy – thanks for your kind words; your review wasn't that bad as it motivated and encouraged me to look for this one and start it. Thomas Cromwell was indeed a character to fall in love with, even though at the time of the narration he is definitely past his prime.@Aurian – there is at least one series we both like and equally appreciate, though! 😉

  5. I started reading this and got busy, then came back to it and had to go back a few pages to pick up the thread. It is definitely one that should be read uninterrupted but I loved how vivid it was. Poor Anne has been portrayed as a schemer before, i.e. Anne of a Thousand Days, The Other Boleyn Girl. She was a smart and educated woman who chafed under the limited role she was given in life: trophy wife to a king

  6. Anachronist says:

    She was smart ideed and educated for sure; the author of this book presented her, however, as a very ambitious, manipulative and cold person. Smart I understand, cold- not really. I didn't like how she manipulated Henry, clearly very much in love with her, even pairing him with her own sister so he didn't take other mistresses during her pregnancy. I don't know whether the real Anne was like that but if she was I would abhor her.

  7. Mel says:

    I love historical novels but haven't read this yet as it is such a big book – almost a door stop!! However, seeing how much you loved it I think I might invest in a kindle version… 🙂

  8. Blodeuedd says:

    We had the same thoughts 🙂 Yes it is not a book to start if you do not have the time. I have seldom read more carefully.And I liked Anne as a snake, I doubt she was a nice little virgin all in awe of the king after all

  9. My biggest problem is that I don't know if I could enjoy the book with Anne as a manipulator. I mean don't get me wrong, I can see her that way to an extent (and like it), but it cannot make Henry a victim. I can't see him that way in ANY way nor as a compassionate man toward those lesser than him. I'm still on the fence… I'm glad you seemed to like it though.

  10. Anachronist says:

    @ Mel -I had an e-book myself and it still looked like a seriously big file but when I started reading I couldn't stop, not really…@Blodeuedd – I agree, if whe hadn't been a manipulative clever snake she would have never been a queen…aparently her sister was prettier than her and even gave the king a son but Henry got rid of poor Mary in no time…@Melissa – Henry is not completely a vicitm in this book, just presented as a real man, with his strengths and weaknesses. What's more the book ends with Anne being the Queen so before Henry turned really ugly.

  11. Kristin says:

    I'm still reading this book and at times I have a hard time following it–like you say it's not linear and you really have to pay attention. But Anne is already portrayed as a greedy, selfish, conniving woman. Her sister seems much nicer and would have made a much better queen. So far I haven't met Katherine of Aragon but already I feel sorry for her. She's too good for Henry and I know she regarded herself as Henry's wife till the day she died. So much pain and a country torn in two, all because the king didn't believe a daughter could rule as well as a son. Katherine had a different view of it, though. As the daughter of a reigning queen herself, she knew full well a woman could have done just as well if not better. Thomas Cromwell is only human and I really like him. No, he's not perfect, but it seems to me he's a man of his times and he did what he could to survive. I don't see him as being cold and calculating, though he could sure do that. I wonder if anyone ever knew the real him, other than his wife.

  12. Anachronist says:

    Kristin, thanks for a visit and your comment! Yes, Mary would have been a better queen but it seemed she wasn't clever enough to keep the interest of Henry. Katherine of Aragon is portrayed here as well but we just see short glimpses. Ler me just say she impresses Thomas Cromwell a lot.

  13. Carole Rae says:

    I think I'll pass this one up. I'm not a Cromwell lover at all. I think Anne is presented in only two ways: poor victim or a cunning snake. However, I personally believe she was both. My favorite version of Anne was the one from the tv show 'The Tudors' they tried to make her both. Great review, even though I will skip this.

  14. Anachronist says:

    Hi Carole, nice to see you. I do hope the image of Anne will change in the sequel, to be published soon, as it will deal with the abrupt end of her short life. During that obnoxious trial of hers she was really a victim.

  15. What if Anne was sincere and not conniving? What if Henry really believed he had committed a sin and was being punished? After all, Mary and Arthur were married for seven months before he died. Did they really not consummate the marriage?Henry wanted a strong and uncontestable heir to the throne after all, England had recently endured the War of The Roses. I think Anne belived in the Protestant cause, it wasn't just to put her on the throne.

  16. Anachronist says:

    The Red Witch, interesting questions and the beauty of them is that we will never be 100 % sure. I think Henry might have believed he had committed a sin taking his brother's wife but it took him quite a long time to figure that out and, speaking from the contemporary point of view, his doubts were voiced, surprise, surprise, when he hit the begining of male menopause and was anxious to find a younger partner and, er, prove himself. You must admit it makes his sincerity a bit dubious. Also Anne might have had some other, more noble goals on her agenda, like furthering the Protestant cause, but I suppose she was an ambitious, ruthless woman as well. Otherwise she wouldn't have become a queen.

  17. Henry didn't become paranoid and trigger happy until after his accident in the year Anne was accused. With a festering injury, he grew fat and was in constant pain. Doesn't excuse what he did but Anne didn't make her sister have an affair with the king. Mary had her affair with Henry while Anne was still at ourt in France. She rarely came to court while her sister was queen.And for all of Cromwell's sincerity in reforming organized religion, he became wealthy from the disolution of the monasteries.

  18. Anachronist says:

    I am talking only about how Henry and Anne were presented in Wolf Hall, not about the historical veracity. The injury is mentioned here too, along with the fact that Mary used to be the king's mistress. However, in the novel Anne makes Mary stay at the royal court while she is pregnant with Elizabeth and forces her to bed the king again so Henry doesn't take another mistress. Afterwards Mary remarries clandestinely and leaves, not wanting to be her sister's puppet any longer.Cromwell never states he is eager to reform the religion, he is just an opportunist.

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