Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Wolf Hall

I will hold up my hands and admit that I had preconceptions about Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. The Tudor period of history was not one that I had much prior knowledge of, excluding the names involved, nor one that interested me; truth be told, I expected it to be as turgid a reading experience as The Children's Book by A. S. Byatt (my thoughts on that book can be read here). Although big books don't normally faze me, I found Wolf Hall daunting; I tried to put aside my negative feelings towards the book but from the outset -and the seven pages of the cast of characters and family trees- that appeared to be a challenge. However, a few pages in and I had set my prejudices aside and was engaged in the story of Thomas Cromwell, protagonist of Wolf Hall. Cromwell is not often portrayed sympathetically but Mantel creates a compelling hero in him and conveys a loyal man and subject. The novel, although preliminarily beginning with his early life, follows his rise from Cardinal Wolsey's man to confidante of King Henry VIII; chiefly Mantel charts the years 1527-35 and Cromwell's influential hand in the annulment of the King's marriage with Katherine of Aragon and his subsequent union to Anne Boleyn as well as the early stages of the Reformation.

Wolf Hall is overly-long; I state the obvious about a heavy 650 pages tome but it does drag and lag in parts. Some of the dialogue could definitely have been cut without detracting from the plot but the minute attention to detail weaves an intricate tapestry of the time. I was fully immersed in the period and have gone from having no discernible history in the era to now seeking out The Tudors and The Other Boleyn Girl to fuel my need for more.

Set in a period where flesh burns and heads roll, Wolf Hall has an engaging plot to propel it forward although I found it lost steam during the last 150-pages or so; once Anne had been installed as (current) consort and the attention was on the imprisonment of Sir Thomas More, my attention waned. The historical events are meticulously researched and often the prose became bogged down in the sheer wealth of information presented; I preferred the less rigid factual detail and instead the insight given into life at court. The bawdy (sixty years at least before Shakespeare) was entertaining with a lot of sex and sexual gossip or innuendo; everyone was apparently sleeping with everyone else, extra-maritally or occasionally incestuously (not incest as it is considered nowadays but the morally ambiguous sleeping with the sibling of a dead -and sometimes living- spouse or the wife of your son). Many parts were humorous with jokes about everyone being named Thomas and if they are not then they are seemingly named Henry I thought that this brought out Mantel's love for the period yet also a sense of humour about the historical facts she was presenting.

I have seen across a number of reviews people's issue with Mantel using "he" continually as a pronoun and confusion over whom she was referring to; I had no problem with this and found it obvious that it was Cromwell, unless otherwise stated. I find it curious that this was not apparent to more people but perhaps I had a better understanding of her style being forewarned. As for the writing itself, the prose is not glowing but it does transport and convey. However, if unlike me, you are aware of the story being told, then the book may fail to captivate you. I seem to enjoy historical fiction when I have no -or little- knowledge of the facts unveiled; I may have enjoyed The Children's Book more if any of what Byatt had told us had been new to me. Mantel was instructive in my case and she intrigued me. My only other criticism is that the title Wolf Hall shifts focus from Anne Boleyn to Jane Seymour, but that I am sure will be taken up in the intended sequel.


verity said...

What a thoughtful review - I'm glad that you enjoyed it more than you thought you might. It sounds very different from Mantel's contemporary novels which I am a big fan of, but as I like Mantel I really should give it a go.

I do like the new background to your blog by the way!

Meghan said...

I'm getting towards the end of this book and mostly agree with you. I think some of the writing is superfluous and the prose isn't perfect, but it does the best job I've seen of getting to the heart of what it might have been like to live at Henry VIII's court. It's been boring for me though. Unfortunately I've just hit More's imprisonment and I know a lot about Tudor history, so I'm expecting the last portion to be a slog now.

Steph said...

I am like you, or at least like you on the outset of reading this book - I pretty much know nothing about this slice of history, and haven't really gotten into the Philippa Gregory books or The Tudors craze. I don't know - I just can't get excited about this one, perhaps due to my dreadful encounter with Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time, that is also all embroiled in British history. How did you think this one compared to the other Booker nominees that you read? Did you feel it was worthy of the prize?

Rachel said...

Nice new background Claire!

I have a fair amount of Tudor knowledge but not that much; so perhaps this would suit me better than The Children's Book. However the thought of slogging through such a tome does put me off!

I'm glad you enjoyed it more than you thought you would; that's always nice! A worthy winner, in your opinion?

farmlanebooks said...

I think you benefited from knowing nothing about the period. I already knew just about everything that happened and so was very bored. The characters failed to engage me and the dialogue just drove me mad!

I loved The Other Boleyn Girl and I think you'll enjoy it too - the characters are amazing and there isn't a dull moment.

I'm pleased that you enjoyed this book and hope I didn't do too much to put you off!

Laura said...

Fantastic review, Claire. I loved this book. Perhaps it's because I'm American and the Tudor period is not well addressed in our educational system, but I found it useful to have some background, even if it was in the form of a bodice-ripper like The Other Boleyn Girl. What made Wolf Hall unique was having Cromwell at its center (vs. Henry, or Anne, or More).

JoAnn said...

Knowing very little about the period sounds like it will be to my advantage here! This is an excellent review, Claire. I'm still next on the hold list at the library, and a little nervous about the no renewal clause (the list is huge now). We'll see...

Paperback Reader said...

Verity, I'm still surprised that I enjoyed it. I need to remember not to be too swayed... if I hadn't read the other Booker nominees and if this hadn't won then this would have categorically not been a book that I would have picked up and that would have been a pity. I am happy I read it and it's always a good thing to challenge one's own beliefs and reading preferences.

Thanks; I like it too!

Megan, I agree about the prose; some of the dialogue I thought there was no need for and it could have been more compact. It is definitely "authentic" though; I felt as if I was in the court of Henry VIII.
I found that last section a bit of a slog but the end is in sight!

Steph, I was far from excited and was dreading reading it but am now happy I did because although it wasn't the best book I've read all year, it was enjoyable.

I purposely didn't comment on whether I thought this was Booker worthy but knew I was going to be asked. There were Booker nominee titles that I enjoyed far more and even though I LOATHED The Children's Book, I thought it was written beautifully in parts whereas there were only brief sections in which I found Mantel's prose sparkling. I also thought that the ideas Coetzee tackled were far more challenging. Wolf Hall didn't challenge me but it did educate me; the writing didn't wow me but it did engage me; I didn't enjoy it as I did The Glass Room but I think it was a more balanced text. Do I think it was a worthy winner? Yes but taking a lot of criteria into account and putting my personal enjoyment aside.

Rachel - the background was fully inspired by yours!

I've just addressed the worthiness of it winning in my reply to Steph. It wasn't, in my opinion, an amazing book but it was balanced, capable and probably ticked all the judges' boxes.

If my request hadn't come up at the library then there is no way I would have slogged through it on the back of The Children's Book! Byatt has made me very wary of tomes now.

Jackie, I definitely did benefit although I found the dialogue witty! The first (earlier) section was differently worded and a little off-putting at first but then I developed a feel for it.

I am glad that I read this and didn't allow the hype to deter me (positive or negative); I always like making up my own mind!

Laura, as a Scot the Tudor period isn't well-addressed in our educational system either! I know very little about monarchy but a lot about War and socialism... make of that what you will! I really liked Cromwell as a character and agree that it is the strength of the novel.

JoAnn, I read this fairy quickly (I read a couple of other books between the first 200 and last 450 pages but the latter I managed within a couple of days). It still managed to be one day late though! I didn't like the pressure of no-renewal but it did spur me into reading it. I hope you enjoy it too.

Paperback Reader said...

*apologies Meghan for misspelling your name :s

Darlene said...

Listening to a podcast last month, I heard there's going to be two more books making this a trilogy. Loved your review and I'm looking forward to reading this book during the winter. Watching The Tudors has been great fun and since I'm familiar with the Tudor era, I know Cromwell's appearances are numbered.

Paperback Reader said...

Hah, Darlene - of course you comment as I ramble about not receiving comments!

I plan on watching The Tudors soon. What, you mean Cromwell dies?! Hee.
This will make perfect reading for you during Winter; there is definitely something seasonal about it - perhaps it is the ermine and velvet of court!

Jenny said...

I feel silly - I hated Beyond Black and so I guess I didn't really pay attention to any of the zillions of reviews I've read of Wolf Hall. I had no idea it was about Thomas Cromwell and the Tudors. I used to be obsessed with the Tudors - in middle school, I read dozens of books about them. Wonder if that would make Wolf Hall fantastic, or tedious?

Bianca Winter said...


I'm really glad you got something out of this book after the dread of reading it!

After a wee break from the Booker madness, I'm still reeling from How to paint a dead man, and think my instincts were spot on that it was my favourite of the longlist.

Does reading Wolf Hall shift your order of preference at all?

Anonymous said...

I am pleased that you enjoyed this more than you thought you would and also love the fact you are honest enough to say so. I fell head over heels with this book as you know which suprised me as a 650page book based around Cromwell was not my cup of tea either but won over I was. Lovely review.

Paperback Reader said...

Jenny, I honestly don't know! It could be tedious to anyone who knows the facts but isn't entirely interested in the period but fascinating to those obsessed with the period.

Bianca, I'm pleasantly surprised that I took more away from this book than I was expecting to. I really built up the dread of it that it was, in a way, anti-climactic!

How to Paint a Dead Man was definitely one of the books from the longlist that I enjoyed most too. All in all, it was a list that made strong impressions either way. I hope you enjoyed that Booker break! It was exhausting.

Wolf Hall slots in midway in my shortlist preferences; I still preferred The Glass Room and Summertime although I can appreciate why Mantel won against Mawer (but I'm not convinced that it was a better book than the Coetzee which was erudite and challenging although ultimately less entertaining).

Simon, I'm nothing but honest! I had no qualms with admitting I had preconceptions and was relieved that this resulted in a positive reading experience. I will definitely read the proposed sequels.

Kelly said...

Admittedly I am put off by the length of Wolf Hall, that and the present tense thing. Plus I never did finish A Place of Greater Saftey (oh the shame). I am however I huge Tudor history fan. Philippa Gregory is OK but there are some far better writers of this period out there. Vanora Bennet's A Portrait of an Unknown Woman is one that springs to mind and Alison Weir does a great turn with both her fiction and non-fiction hat on.

mel u said...

I for sure want to read this book-I read this work-a number of years ago I read A. Fraser, Cromwell, Our Chief of Men, a biography of Cromwell-I want to read Wolf Hall and will do so as soon as it comes out in paper back-I also like your blog background

Paperback Reader said...

Hi Kelly, thanks for commenting. The length of Wolf Hall is incredibly daunting but I didn't have too much issue with the tense (although I struggled with the first chapter). Thank so much for the reading material suggestions. I doubt I'll be reading anything related to the period soon but I do plan on watching The Other Boleyn Girl and The Tudors.

Mel, I hope you enjoy it and I am sure you will have a different perspective having read a biography of Cromwell. Thank you - I like the background too :).

Rebecca Reid said...

I am not sure if this is for me -- I enjoy historical fiction, but maybe not to such a depth! I'm glad you got through it, despite being intimidated!

Paperback Reader said...

Rebecca, it's lovely to read a book that has intimidated you only to find that there was nothing at all to be daunted by! It was definitely an in-depth study of the period.

Anonymous said...

There's a sequel?!? I really want to give this one a try, but I don't want to get sucked into a multi-book saga. Do you think it can be read as a stand-alone? Or were you left anticipating the next book?

Paperback Reader said...

Jill, Mantel mentioned that she intended a sequel. It can easily be read as a stand-alone; there isn't a cliffhanger but it is apparent that there is more of a story to be told although that's clear from the history and that it is just a glimpse of Cromwell's career.