This is my review of Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.
Wolf Hall gives a different slant on the well-known tale of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn by taking the viewpoint of Thomas Cromwell, and transforming him from a sinister, unappealing villain into a complex, intriguing character who, if not exactly likeable, commands respect. Hilary Mantel has clearly come to love her unlikely hero, even making him into something of an "homme fatal" with a stream of women appreciating his charms – or perhaps respecting his power – Mary Boleyn makes a (not very convincing) pass at him, Jane Seymour finds him sympathetic and so on. Although clearly materialistic, manipulative and ruthless, Cromwell has a soft spot for children, women who have hit hard times and young men in his service, he can engage with people at all levels, and has a natural desire to turn his hand to any practical task which is at times almost comical for a man of his hard-won status. We see how the king and the nobility come to use Cromwell – the super-competent, lateral-thinging, can-do fixer – whilst despising him for his low birth. Yet even when he is at the height of his powers, he hears the inner voice reminding him that he may be brought low, like the unseen fist which once felled him in his youth.
The book evokes powerful sensory images of life in the sixteenth century – the sounds and smells, the unfamiliar food and long-lost customs, the muddy roads, the appalling brutality of public executions. Many in the large cast of characters are well-developed as distinct personalities warts and all: the bluff, tactless Norfolk; unworldly, cerebral Archbishop Cranmer who somehow manages to acquire an illicit wife; Anne Boleyn, clever,calculating, yet driven to tantrums in her deep sense of insecurity. Mantel captures Henry's charisma, combined with the casual cruelty arising from his understandable fear of being deposed without a male heir, and qualms about breaking free from the Catholic church mixed with the irrestible temptation of tapping the wealth of the monasteries, made possible by Cromwell's genius for organisation.
The author's take on Thomas More was particularly interesting: a man normally portrayed as a principled saint is presented as a religious fanatic and sadistic torturer of those who do not hold his views, also cruelly sarcastic to his wife, critising her to his dinner guests in the Latin she cannot understand. His execution forms a moving climax to the end of the book, preceded by some well-written scenes in which Cromwell, whose complex feelings for More include some sympathy based on the length of their acquaintance, uses his powers of argument to try to induce More to recant: the pragmatist against the idealist.
I also found the dialogues very entertaining and play-like – witty and clever, often causing me to laugh out loud.
This book needs to be read slowly to appreciate it fully – a problem if you have borrowed it from the library with no prospect of renewal. My opinion of it improved as I read further and I would like to read it again – the highest accolade for a book BUT I share some of the criticisms made. The continual reference to Cromwell as "he" amongst all the others is very confusing. It is annoying to be obliged to reread a passage twice or more to get the sense. Also, some allusions to previous scenes require the reader to have picked up and retained some small detail which could easily have been overlooked. As a result, a few passages did not make sense to me – good editing would have prevented this. I also agree that the style was at times rather stilted. This was very noticeable in the early chapters, also to the extent of putting me off continuing. The dodging about in time – recording Wolsey's downfall before the events leading to it, and introducing the lords sent to arrest him before developing them as clear characters, created a sense of confusion which detracted from the overall book. I agree that it would have been worth knowing a little more about how Cromwell came to work for Wolsey.
Finally, the ending seemed rather limp – definitely leaving the way open for a sequel or two. And why was it called Wolf Hall (the home of the Seymours) which features very little in the book? – I assume it was to point to a sequel in which Cromwell, whilst drawn to Jane Seymour as a future bride sees the scope for her to be Henry's next victim -or perhaps the increasingly ruthless Henry steals her from under Cromwell's nose.