Wolf Hall: A Novel by Hilary Mantel (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2009. 604 pp)
Born in 1952, Hilary Mantel is a novelist, short story writer, and critic. Mantel began studying at the London School of Economics before transferring to the University of Sheffield where she graduated with a degree in jurisprudence. While employed as a social worker after her studies, Mantel began writing. After a decade of travel with her husband, Mantel published her first novel, Every Day is Mother’s Day, in 1985. On the heels of her first novel, Mantel found employment as a film critic for The Spectator. Over the course of her writing career, Mantel has won the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize for Fludd, the Sunday Express Book of the Year for A Place of Greater Safety, the Hawthornden Prize for An Experiment in Love, the MIND “Book of the Year” for Giving Up the Ghost, and the prestigious Man Booker Prize for Wolf Hall. In 2006, Mantel was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
Editor’s Note: This book review functions as a second take to the perspective previously posted.

History Come Alive

The time of kings, frivolity, and large discontent is what inspired Hilary Mantel to pen her novel, “Wolf Hall”. Elegantly written, she plows through the controversy that is Thomas Cromwell, creating a believable and plausible tale of conversations that might have taken place.
Historical and literary works following Cromwell’s life generally portray him as a manipulative calculating individual, as opposed to the generally held “hero” of the time period, Sir Thomas Moore. Mantel, however, chooses to flip the roles, and portray Cromwell in a kinder light, though she still portrays him as somewhat manipulative.

Unknowingly Evil

The Portrait of Thomas Cromwell

In one particular chapter of the book that stood out to me, entitled “The Painter’s Eye”, Mantel chooses to focus on a painting of Cromwell. Cromwell asks his son Gregory to review it. After Gregory silently judging the painting for some time, a conversation ensues. Cromwell laments, “‘I fear Mark was right.’ ‘Who is Mark?’ ‘A silly little boy who runs after George Boleyn. I once heard him say I looked like a murderer.’ Gregory says, ‘Did you not know’” (432)?

Cromwell, completely unaware of how he acts around others, surely was startled by this affirmation of his evil gaze. As this passage suggests, Mantel captures the heart of her characters impeccably. She perhaps managed to gaze into a past that no modern person will acknowledge: that perhaps Cromwell wasn’t as bad as he is historically painted. Maybe there is even a slight chance that Moore isn’t the saintly hero history has labeled him. Plausibility is what makes this novel sing.

Length

Brevity isn’t Mantel’s gift. Wolf Hall is 532 pages in length, rivaling behemoth classics in scope and substance such as The Grapes of Wrath (619 pages), or War and Peace (1,225 pages). The length would have deterred me if I was not reading it with a group of gentleman, and I love reading. So, I would recommend this book to those who have a large portion of patience, or an exceeding interest in the times of the Tudors. Mantel’s writing is amazing, with picturesque scenes of beauty, and horrific scenes of torture and death. But, it does go on. And on.


Andrew Jacobson is the director of Choral Studies at Bellevue Christian Schoolin Bellevue, WA.  He holds an MM in Music Education from Boston University, as well as a BM in Music Education from the University of Washington.  He loves wine, food, reading, music, and movies.

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  • Susan (Reading World)

    I love in depth historical fiction and this one has been on my to-read list for awhile. I know I'll have to invest some concentrated effort though, so I'm waiting for the right time to dig in.

  • Andrew

    Thanks Susan! It's a wonderful read. I hear she's writing a sequel as well…

  • Matthew (The Bibliofreak)

    Haha, a fine point about the length of the novel! I think many will find this a slog, particularly with the slightly unusual style.

    On the other hand, I really enjoyed it. I found Mantel's brutal vision of Tudor England engulfing and was thoroughly fascinated by the subtle interactions between the characters.

    My review: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

  • Andrew Jacobson

    Thanks Matthew. For a completely different Mantel novel, check out “Fludd” -it's fairly hilarious.

  • Ceska

    Wolf Hall is one of the best works of historical fiction I've ever read. The book deals with the reign of Henry VIII of England from just before he meets Anne Boleyn to just after the execution of Thomas More. It is told from the viewpoint of Thomas Cromwell, who was Henry's right-hand man after the fall of Cardinal Wolsey and one of the most feared men in England, although the book presents Cromwell sympathetically.

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