Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

An interesting question to ponder when thinking about Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is the significance of the title. While the place Wolf Hall, the family seat of the Seymour family, does get a few mentions it does not really function as a location. Wolves, however, are one of the subtle motifs running through the novel. As its protagonist remembers late in the book:

…homo homini lupus, man is wolf to man.

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

Cover image (Courtesy HarperCollins Publishers)

And, after reading the novel, it would be hard to refute this notion! Wolf Hall is set in England between 1500 and 1535, with most of the action taking place between 1527 and 1535. It deals primarily with the lead up to and first years of Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, but as seen through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell. Its plot centres on the machinations involved in dissolving Henry’s marriage to Katherine (Catherine) of Aragon, who had failed to produce a male heir, so he could legally marry Anne Boleyn; its real subject matter, though, is far wider than that. Its time period – the early years of the English Reformation – and its plot mean that it deals with the major issues of the time, including England’s separation from Rome, the translation of the Bible into English and the relaxing of rules regarding access to the Bible, the Act of Supremacy, and succession to the throne. Running through this are the jostlings for power, the skullduggery, and the betrayals (and suprising acts of loyalty) that are the hallmarks of the Tudor Court. Man was indeed wolf to man then (and I sometimes wonder how much has changed?).

This is an exquisite – though large! – novel. It won the 2009 Booker Prize: I can’t compare it with the others because I haven’t read them, but I did enjoy this immensely. In my recent review of The enchantress of Florence – and what fascinating synchronicity to read these two in sequence – I said that the one word I would use to describe it was “paradoxical”. The word I would use for Wolf Hall is “subtle”. It is subtle in so many ways – in its narrative style, its humour, its irony, its symbolism, its descriptions, its juxtapositions. Nothing here is heavy-handed or overdone.

But first, its narrative style. I was forewarned about Mantel’s use of “he” in this novel and perhaps this helped, because I rarely found it difficult or confusing. In fact, I rather liked the style. It’s a bit like a first-person novel told in third person – third person subjective (limited) point of view, I guess – and so the use of “he” reminds us that it is HIS perspective we are getting. Everything we know we know through him, through his thoughts and through his interactions with others. I found this approach intriguing – it gave immediacy and distance at the same time. And this brings me to the man himself.

Thomas Cromwell, for those who don’t know their English history, rose from very humble beginnings to being Henry’s trusted chief minister. He did this by dint of his character and the timely beneficial patronage of Cardinal Wolsey. He became street-smart in his youth but he also educated himself in the culture (literature and art) of the times. He could speak Latin, Italian and French. He was an accountant and lawyer.  He knew about trade. He was no slouch in the kitchen either. He was, indeed, a jack-of-all-trades. Here is a description early in the book (1527):

Thomas Cromwell is now a little over forty years old. He is a man of strong build, not tall. Various expressions are available to his face, and one is readable: an expression of stifled amusement … It is said he knows by heart the entire New Testamant in Latin … He is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcom, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury…

A man, that is, not to be trifled with – and yet he is a man who develops a large and loving household full of loyal children, relatives and “wards”. Some of the loveliest sections of the book are set in his home, Austin Friars. He is also loyal – sticking by Wolsey, for example, in his decline – and firm, hard even, but not cruel.

However, I don’t want this review to be as long as the book and so shall move on. I loved Mantel’s descriptions – they are always short but highly evocative. Here is the Duke of Norfolk:

The duke is now approaching sixty years old but concedes nothing to the calendar. Flint-faced and keen-eyed, he is lean as a gnawed bone and cold as an axe-head;  his joints seem knitted together of supple chain links, and indeed he rattles a little as he moves, for his clothes conceal relics…

And here is another telling description (after charges against Wolsey have been written):

It is a wan morning, low unbroken cloud; the light filtering sparely through the glass, is the colour of tarnished pewter. How brightly coloured the king is, like the king in a new pack of cards: how small his flat blue eye.

Delicious aren’t they?

The novel ends at an intriguing point – but I won’t give that away here except to say that it does not conclude with the end of Cromwell’s life. That, we believe, is the subject of a sequel.

I would love to keep writing about the characters, the language, the way Mantel puts it all together – such as the way she drops hints then explores them later – but that could become boring. Better for you to read the book (if you haven’t already). Instead, I will end with what is probably the book’s overarching theme – that of “how the world works”, and that is through machinations behind the scenes:

The fate of peoples is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions. This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman’s sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rosewater…

It was ever thus, eh?

Hilary Mantel
Wolf Hall
London: Fourth Estate, 2009
ISBN: 9870007292417

POSTSCRIPT: Steven, at A Momentary Taste of Being, posted a link to this fascinating article by Hilary Mantel on Thomas Cromwell. It is well worth a read.

20 thoughts on “Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

  1. I love that description of the Duke of Norfolk. So often writers try too hard when using imagery to describe a character, and one is left confused as to who/what the character is. Here, I feel the language truly gives a sense of the Duke’s physical appearance and his persona – wonderful!

  2. I enjoyed your review. I had set my mind against it, then read Lisa’s review over at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog. She convinced me. I noticed your comment and you have guaranteed the read. Thanks for a great review with a very nice selection of quotes. Clearly, it is a beautifully written novel.


    • Hi Kerry, I’m glad we’ve turned you around. The writing is beautiful – it was hard to pick good quotes! Can you tell me why you were set against it? Length? Historical fiction? Something else?

      • I had no real rational reason. It is historical fiction and lengthy historical fiction. I could have dealt with either, but both together is a bit off-putting. I vaguely recall some reviewer saying something that I could latch onto and use as evidence that the Booker judges probably just awarded it the prize because it was long and historical and competently written. I wanted a reason because 600 pages is really three books worth of book.

        In fact, the 600 pages is one reason I was hoping it would not win the Booker and, then, by winning the Booker, it defied me. This made me angry with it. If only Summertime had won, then I could have safely ignored Wolf Hall and been pleased with myself for doing so.

        This is all an admission that sometimes there is a book that other people like and which is objectively very, very good and which I will feel an immediate compulsion to dislike. Around that initial, irrational impulse, I can build quite impressive fortifications.

        You and Lisa seem to have broken through. I feel a little less secure, somehow. Maybe a moat…

  3. Pingback: Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel « ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  4. LOL Kerry … I can relate to all of that. I am rather fond of short books myself rather than the loose baggy monster! (Even in my youth I did not DO the Russians, and still haven’t done many) And, I don’t naturally gravitate to historical fiction either. A few of the 2009 Bookers were historical though weren’t they? Byatt is pretty long too. But Summertime, yes, well … I’m a Coetzee fan so I could go with that! Anyhow, if you do read it let me know what you think. BTW There are those who don’t like it … so you can maintain your irrational dislike if you like!!

  5. Hi Whisperinggums,
    The sixteenth century (1500-1599) in English history fascinates me, and at some point I’ll probably read Wolf Hall. Curious as to how Henry VIII is portrayed, hero or villain. I believe Elizabeth I was Anne Boleyn’s daughter.

    • Yes, she was. And if you are interested in the era you will probably really enjoy this book. Good question re Henry – probably more villain than hero. Mostly, I’d say, he’s portrayed as rather inconsistent and somewhat easily led by his feelings of the moment. He is certainly portrayed as one fully cognisant of his kingly rights. There is a comment early in the book in which he says something like what is his kingdom for but to serve him, in the sense that people had no other reason for being! I have in fact been meaning to do a bit of a search to see what people think of her portrayal of him in terms of the “real” Henry.

  6. Pingback: Pre-Tournament Prep: 2010 TOB Reviews « Hungry Like the Woolf

  7. Pingback: TOB 2010: Wolf Hall vs. The Book of Night Women « Hungry Like the Woolf

  8. Super review of ‘Wolf Hall’, Sue – or is that rather ‘one I agreed with entirely’?! Well,that too: I was astounded by the mastery, the subtlety, the almost imperceptible use of the telling detail or phrase … and could go on for ages, but you’ve said it all for me.
    Wolf Hall itself no longer stands (although the site, now occupied by a large private house, may be visited. An EngLit Prof has posted pix on his blog (don’t have the link at hand, I’m afraid).
    If you haven’t read Hilary Mantel’s ‘A Place of Greater Safety’, I can’t recommend it highly enough (although I imagine your TBR pile is a tottering tower ;-)).

    • Thanks Minnie, I would indeed like to read more Mantel so will note your recommendation though, as you say, the TBR pile is rather overwhelming. I’ll see if I can find the pics of Wolf Hall.

      BTW I’ve been to your lovely blog a couple of times but it seems that you don’t have comments there. Is that right?

  9. Hello, again, Sue (did I really say ‘tottering’? Gah. I meant ‘teetering’. Worse, can’t think of an excuse for mistake – curses ;-)!).
    I am glad you like what you’ve seen of my blog.
    Yup, strictly no comments policy. One thoroughly nasty infestation too far. And I do mean nasty. In fact, there were a spate of ’em. Mind you, I found it quite flattering to be called a ‘jewist’ [sic] by a crazed, frothing-at-mouth Yank fundamentalist ‘Christian’ evidently far too busy spattering bile around and trying to avoid grazing his knuckles to actually read what I had to say …
    Puzzling, because tend to avoid obvious controversy +/or reviews (life tough enough as it is, etc.). But then, all the more reason for not bothering with comments. Anyway, gave up trying to fathom all this. Only rational conclusion = some people attract nasty stuff (just as, happily, most don’t). To paraphrase the esotericists: as in life, so in the blogosphere.
    Although nearly everything you might need to know about me is already on the log/normblog profile, you can use email for any points you wish to make about individual posts.
    PS Congratulations on your impeccable taste in choice of blogtheme … ! x

    • LOL, I was going to comment on the blog theme synchronicity – and thanks for the offer to email. I realised I could but I didn’t want to make that move without finding out whether you minded. I rather guessed the reason for the no comments, as I noticed in my little survey of your blog that you did have comments in the past. How awful for you – it’s amazing how horrible a nasty comment from someone out there in the blogosphere whom you’ve never met can make you feel. Your rational self says it means nothing, but your emotional self reacts rather viscerally. Anyhow, I will keep a watch on your blog and email when I feel like commenting! (Oh, and I did read the normblog post – nosey parker that I am! It engaged me). Cheers

  10. Yes, and some of the nasties’ timing was bloody awful (albeit accidental).
    Don’t hesitate to use the alternative as and when, Sue: I’d be delighted.

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