Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

cryo_guy's review against another edition

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“If you have been in the street in Paris or Rouen, and seen a mother pull her child by the hand, and say, 'Stop that squalling, or I'll fetch an Englishman,' you are inclined to believe that any accord between the countries is formal and transient.”

“Le mort saisit le vif.”
-French common law

“The dead grip the living.”


So I read this for my bookclub, picked by my friend Jill. I didn't know exactly what to expect because it's been a while since I've read historical fiction, but it sounded interesting and I was keen to see how the events of history would play out. I found out that both this and its sequel had been awarded Man Booker prizes so I knew something must be worthwhile about the series. Immediately, it's obvious that Mantel is a good writer and that she's trying to place you alongside the characters of her 16th century England. The main character is Thomas Cromwell (the trilogy all being from his point of view, more or less), but it's not written as a diary or anything, it uses a 3rd person narrator. I enjoyed Mantel's narrative voice and I think it fit well with her prose and characters.

*my rant about gr reviews comments*

The only somewhat distracting thing about that is the liberal use of the third person pronoun “he” which invites ambiguity into certain conversations. The second-most liked review of Wolf Hall on GR laments how terribly bothersome it is to not know exactly who “he” is. I get this for the first hundred pages, but after that, one should have enough of a familiarity with the prose of the book to not let such pronoun usage be an impediment to understanding who's speaking and further to reading (and enjoying) this book. Unless it's your thing to be extremely literal with the language use of any given book you read (yes, I know such people exist; I've met them), I think it becomes natural who “he” is in the book. I bring this up because it's discouraging to me to hear serious readers give reasons like this for why they disliked a book. If you dislike a book for a reason like that, I think you really aren't trying hard enough to let the book reach you. I know, because I've done it. It's incredibly easy to interpret the way a book is written as being inconvenient and contrary to your sensibilities, especially if you're only seeing the book through your private lens of whatever principles allow you to judge good-bookness (as easy as it is to assume that someone is being disingenuous just from reading text). I would, however, suggest a different strategy when reading books-one that involves giving the benefit of the doubt to the book and trying your best to understand the book in its own terms. Clearly, this is not an absolute statement. Sometimes books are just bad, or poorly written. Sometimes you don't like a book even if it is good, or well written. Not all books deserve the benefit of the doubt nor a blank slate when it comes to approaching them. And, of course there are many other factors that go into making these sorts of judgments. But it strikes me as infelicitous to dismiss a book like this for such a trivial reason as a lack of completely unambiguous use of pronouns in narration. I'll admit that I have been in such situations where pronoun use has been distracting for me. This time, it simply isn't the case. And so: please do not dismiss this good book because that guy said he didn't like the pronouns. If the pronouns are distracting to you, try not to think about it too much, and it'll probably become clear to you. The other half of my positive argument on this topic, other than advising you against using such a reason as a legitimate complaint against books in general, is that in Wolf Hall the narration is quite vivid and well put to use. This might be my bias (rather than getting riled up about ambiguous third person pronouns), I don't particularly like the 1st person or 1st person narration. I can't say for sure, I might have liked this book just as much if it had been written in the 1st person, but in general I favor third person narration. First person narration just makes me feel too close to the narrator and what's more, it complicates the distance the narrator can have from their own actions. With the exception of having a mixed person narration, any self-reflection is somewhat compromised (let's not even get into unreliable narrators). I don't let that get in the way of books I do read with 1st person narration, but I'm using it as an anecdote to illustrate that there really are people who appreciate this type of narration and that even if it can be ambiguous, it's worth it. In the course of the book, the narration melds with Cromwell's vivid wit and produces a highly desirable effect-one in which the narrative voice and the main character have an inner harmony that is exactly the opposite of distracting. To some extent, I think the challenge of writing a book is to make characters vivid and interesting without making them too vivid and too interesting-overly witty and ostentatious. My argument for this book is that the narrative style avoids that pitfall and successfully presents a united narrative voice (even though it is not all that united!). And as far as being close to the character...I don't really have a problem connecting with the main character of a book-most of the time that means I'm sympathetic or I hate them, but it seldom becomes an issue of intelligibility. The other alternative would be oh why can't she just use Cromwell's name? Well that also has an effect on the prose and I can just as easily imagine someone's plaintive cries against the burdensome and clumsy overuse of Cromwell as I can the insanity of ambiguous pronoun use. What a world.

Okay, well since I'm on the subject of shitty, but plurally-liked GR reviews, the first most liked GR review (also a one-star review), while also bemoaning the pronoun ambiguity, complains of the book's colon usage (“so frequently and somewhat oddly that I would recommend a complete colonectomy.” Hilarious. A complete colonectomy, as opposed to a partial one. We wouldn't want any semicolons running about.). It resolves that despite it having lovely prose, Wolf Hall is just too stylistically repulsive to even be finished and that this must be one of those books like a joke that only half the people in the room get. So I'm here to say that I don't think Wolf Hall is a truly masterful book that only some people have the capacity or the stylistic flexibility to like it-quite the contrary. I think the book is rather accessible, if that's something that's important to you. But hey, I don't want to begrudge these people their tastes, I just happen to think their reasons are stupid and other people who come along and decide they might want to try the book out shouldn't be swayed by their reviews. In my estimation, it's far more likelier that the length of the book is the biggest obstacle to finishing it, not any stylistically devastating catastrophe like ambiguous pronouns, overuse of colons, the course of the plot, or the historical veracity of a historical fiction. I'm also willing to grant that this book as the first of a trilogy may not end with a completely satisfying conclusion. Gee that just seems outlandish doesn't it? That you might have to read all of the books of a series in order to get a proper conclusion?

*end of rant*

I just wanted to take a little bit of time to somewhat refute these two reviews because they are the top ones, which proffer what I imagine might be easy to take away criticisms that aren't really all that legitimate. Now then, onto what I think. I think I've said enough about the narration, but none of that would be possible without making a worthy Thomas Cromwell character. And I assert that such is done! I fell in line behind Thomas and became a member of his household like many of the other characters that punctuate the scenes between his meetings with Henry and other courtiers. I hoped that Thomas would find some moments of prosperity and would be able to establish his one stable household in the midst of a tumultuous kingdom. I admired him for his realistic outlook, his wit, his persuasive talents-which go beyond the simple rhetoric of sophists but rhetoric that inspires, rhetoric that resonates. Cromwell, while having so many skills-having been raised as a blacksmith, been taught to read and write, served as a soldier, become a successful merchant-, is first and foremost a wordsmith, as is aptly brought forth by one of his servants: once they put him in his coffin, he would talk himself out of the grave. It's remarkable that Thomas isn't too witty, but I think this is a marker of Mantel's talent-despite being able to spin words in all the right ways (he plays dream interpreter to Henry in a tense situation), he still comes off as very human. That's the sort of thing I like to see in a book. Somewhere else I've talked about the difference between characters as elegant symbols vs characters as mundane realistic people. I tend to enjoy characters as symbols because I've read too much Greek tragedy and I like to think about what people as archetypes would do and what that means abstractly rather than characters as realism because mundanity bores me. But I also think that a good novel rides the line and has elements both; that in a good novel you can see its characters as symbols and interpret them and their actions along abstract lines AND you can also see them as real people not implausible creations of an author's mind. The truth is, a well done mundane scene can be quite enjoyable and I've probably had more of those moments than I'd like to admit (in books), but much less than I'd hope for (in media. Except Better Call Saul, that show is the master of exactly this). Similarly I object to the sentiment that one shouldn't take fiction too seriously because it is always and necessarily more interesting than life itself, a most boring affair. Well life is undoubtedly very boring, yet part of that is how much you're interested in it. And while making life interesting is not by any means something that is achievable solely by strength of will, one's attitude does have a lasting effect on how one experiences life, that is, whether it's interesting or not so much. For fiction, the joy is in the act of taking them seriously, but in their own terms.

Wolf Hall has characters that are both larger than life, but also pieces of a realistic puzzle that presents a semblance of 16th century English life. This is what I think one of the Man Booker prize judges meant when he talked about the “sheer bigness of the book. The boldness of its narrative, its scene setting...The extraordinary way that Hilary Mantel has created what one of the judges has said was a contemporary novel, a modern novel, which happens to be set in the 16th century.” I like these observations about the book. It (and its scene setting) does have a sheer bigness in scope-which through the novel it successfully, methodically narrows for the reader. And I agree that it does very much read like a modern novel that just happens to be set in the past. It's not that the trappings of 16th century aren't fully presented (although they are modified with modern syntax and such), but the flow of scenes and the movement of the plot is modern. One feature I'd hold up as exemplary is Mantel's use of flashbacks. She doesn't overuse them. Because she starts the book so early in Cromwell's life, we get the gist of his past. But there are later events in his life that need to be contextualized by his memories (as is the case for most people). In particular, there's a bleak memory of going to a public execution-a burning-which provides a juxtaposed image for the many executions that go on under More's direction. Impressionable, young Cromwell is set aside savvy, yet still-waters-run-deep old Cromwell and violence is matched with violence. I think it works quite well.

Here's a quick rundown of the characters: As Cromwell grows older and richer, his household rises with him and it's engaging to see how many of his wards are influenced by him with relatively little effort on his part, but still have their own identities apart from Thomas. At first he japes around with Cardinal Wolsey-an excellent character, though headed for a stark downfall-and establishes his skill as a man of action. He seems to be assiduously capable, but not without sentimentality. He begins to become involved with members of the court, they all possess something of the entitlement of nobility and unique temperaments for Cromwell to bandy with. Anne Boleyn notably is paradigmatic in her display of social decorum, finding ways to get exactly what she wants. When he finally meets the king himself, you get the first taste of Henry's duality as petulant childking and idealistic poet and aspirant ruler; he wants to make something of England. Mantel's king Henry is not necessarily sympathetic (though I'd say he is) as much as he is compelling: What will this king do next? Can he be assuaged to the benefit of all England? That point becomes the beacon of the book, or at least of Henry as king-What is to become of England and can it rival France and the HRE? These questions flit on the borders of the main plot. Cromwell gradually works more and more for the future of England, but he carries a magnetism of his own that focuses the plot on him.

You can tell that the women of the novel have gotten a substantial amount of attention. They are poised and fitted into each scene with an expert eye. They may not have as much agency as the men, but they are as able as any to reply to a witty comment or machinate devious plans. The church gets some nice play, being at the center of Henry's conflict about how to secure a male heir. The bishops and priests are more than that conflict however, which plays out on top of the religious divide of the Reformation. Another somewhat random group is the various scholars that flit in and out. Most are affiliated with the church, but the German painter Holbein gets some page-time and a sort of obscure Italian named Camillo is inventing a mysterious memory theater. It's a strong suit of the book that with all of the different factions, it's rare that a character's singular motivations are lost in the swirl of events. While it may not always be clearly exactly what people have planned, there is the impression that they exist independent from the broader swaths of history.

So what else can I say? It's well-written. I like the narrative style quite a lot. Cromwell's a great character, as is most everyone else-I don't think I was dissatisfied with any character in particular. If I had to point to a negative aspect of this book I would say that it does lag in the middle, but I'm also not one to be particularly bothered by slow-moving books. I grant that it does do that though. Oh and, the ending is not that final but I sort of addressed that by appealing to the fact that it is the first of a trilogy. In general what I liked most about this book is that it combined elements of wit, poetry, and drama to be a book I could delve into without worrying about historical accuracy. In that respect, it is masterful the way Mantel has created completely original characters that meld so well into 16th century England. So while I wouldn't call this a masterful book, there are some rather expert things about it. The violence is never gratuitous as it plays a backseat to the dialogue and feeling of the book.

I would recommend this book to...people who won't get mad about having to read a 600 page book. Seriously. If you don't have the time, don't encumber the rest of us with your shallow insights. Okay, I'm being harsh. I would recommend it to people who like historical fiction, are interested in 16th century England and Henry the 8th. I didn't know all that much about Cromwell and it was exciting to read a period in history I've always heard from one perspective (Henry the 6 wives king) from a different one. On top of there's Cromwell's own intrigue. You don't even need magic!

The French quote I put at the top is a law that means that as soon as a king dies, his heir inherits the throne without any period of interregnum. Cromwell cites it in order to soothe Henry about a bad dream which he took to portend ill for his reign. Henry accepts Cromwell's interpretation and all is well. But I think there's another layer to the quote if interpreted literally. That the dead grip the living in their memories. This is another facet of the book, in the form of a truth about life, that Mantel executes well-memories of the characters hold sway over them and influence their actions and behavior in profound ways. She exhibits the same layering with the title of the book “Wolf Hall.” Its the name of the Seymour's castle, but it also evokes a quote mentioned twice in the novel “where man is wolf to man.” So there's two ways you can take the title, Cromwell's got business with the Seymours-which he is about to (and he seems to have some creepy fascination with Jane Seymour) and the stage of English history and Henry's court are played out according to man being wolf to man.

Here are some worthy quotes I've picked out, mostly from the beginning of the book.
It really does have a nice sense of humor to it:

“'Its all over the parish! They were lining up on the wharf to tell me, they were shouting at me before the boat tied up. Morgan Williams, listen now, your wife's father has beaten Thomas and he's crawled dying to his sister's house, they've called the priest...Did you call the priest?'
'Oh, you Williamses!' Kat says. 'You think you're such big people around here. People are lining up to tell you things. But why is that? It's because you believe anything.'
'But it's right!' Morgan yells. 'As good as right! Eh? If you leave out the priest. And that he's not dead yet.'
'You'll make that magistrates' bench for sure,' Kat says, 'with youre close study of the difference between a corpse and my brother.'”

“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. His hair is dark, heavy and waving, and his small eyes, which are of very strong sight, light up in conversation: so the Spanish ambassador will tell us, quite soon. It is said he knows by heart the entire New Testament in Latin, and so as a servant of the cardinal is apt – ready with a text if abbots flounder. His speech is low and rapid, his manner assured; he is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop's palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed. He makes money and he spends it. He will take a bet on anything.”

"He sees it; then he doesn't. The moment is fleeting. But insight cannot be taken back. You cannot return to the moment you were in before."

"Clerics can do this: speak about your character. Give verdicts: this one seems favourable, though the doctor, like a fortune-teller, has told him no more than he already knew."

“'Your dad used to shut up shop in this weather. Put the fire out and go fishing.'
'Lashing the water with his rod,' he says, 'and punching the lights out of the fish. Jump in and drag them gasping out of the green deep. Fingers through the gills: “What are you looking at, you scaly whoreson? Are you looking at me?”'”

cryo_guy's review against another edition

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I've been wanting to read the second of this trilogy for a while, but after talking to a friend, realized I had forgotten some of the nuance so I decided to revisit it in the form of-not just an audiobook-but an eAudiobook, which brings me to my first point:

1. LIBRARIES ARE AWESOME. Did you know that if you can get a library card (which for me, at my county's library-also my closest library-you can acquire with but a driver's license as proof of residence) that then allows you to make a library account which means you can borrow ebooks? I had heard about this and I'm not savvy to who the borrowing works as somehow the files are deleted, nevertheless! you can download these ebooks directly onto any manner of device you have for a 3 week period after which you have an annual number of times you can download a given book in that manner. Ebooks! great. But honestly, ebooks aren't the hardest thing to find and they usually aren't that expensive if you really want to get a hold of them. So what im here to tell you is: you can also download audiobooks in the same manner! And that's how I got this book, all thanks to my library.

2. I had fun this time around and found I remembered more than I thought. It really is an excellent book but as an audiobook, it was more evident how dense the book really is. I liberally paused and relistened to sections and it made me think about this continuing issue of audiobook habits. I won't get into my tract on that right now, but its a matter of curiosity how we listen to audiobooks and whether there's a marked lack of retention depending on how one is listening. At any rate, Mantel-excellent writer, Cromwell-great protagonist, and

3. SIMON SLATER-excellent, virtuoso narrator. I know this edition won an "Audie" and I think it deserves it. Slater really gives it his all. I've also been thinking about how much must go into the production of an audiobook...anyway, yes sometimes his accents are a bit off and his Italians start sounding a little Russian but he's an overall great performer. I think his voice for Cromwell really hits the mark, Woolsey and Moore are also topnotch, and I have no complaints about his Henry either. His voices all around were fantastic; a great range of characters.

4. Errata-as far as the actual book goes, I won't rehash the review I already made but lots of great themes and prose, narration and psychology. At times I wished I were reading it so that I could get a better feel for the words, but at the same time hearing them with tone added a lot that I would've missed only in text.

machelriller's review against another edition

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I was so excited about this book, and disappointed I didn't like it more. Mantel is clearly an incredible writer, but the most positive adjective I keep coming up with for this book is "well-researched." It's ambitious, detailed, and in some places beautifully written, but for all that reading it felt like a chore. I enjoyed it rarely, and felt dissatisfied overall by the experience. Cromwell as a character felt too distant from the reader, which is fine in some circumstances, but he wasn't a character I wanted to struggle to know for 600 pages.

kimberly_b's review against another edition

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Absolutely brilliant. Incredibly intelligent, subtle, yet powerful writing. Mantel shows Cromwell's evolution from a young, beaten-down (literally) youth to the powerful right-hand man of Henry VIII. For me, this book wasn't about liking or disliking Cromwell; it was about understanding him (as much as one can such a chameleon). There are so many juxtapositions to his character: faithful yet self-serving, feared yet friendly, a fighter yet calm. One thing you can say about him for sure is that he didn't ride anyone's coattails on the way up the social ladder (as far as Mantel portrays him); the man worked for everything he had in life. I am completely intrigued and can't wait for the next book in the trilogy!! In the meantime, I feel a need to brush up on my Tudor history... :D

samidhak's review against another edition

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I always thought that in history, Cromwell was always shown as a bit of a villain, with respect to the royalty. I am so glad, I got a chance to read this book, it is wonderfully detailed and gives character so many of the historical figures.

vanessar's review against another edition

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Very good if not scintillating read. It took me a while to get into the style and the overuse of the pronoun 'he', but once that had clicked I really enjoyed the character Cromwell, all of his family members and of course the royal court. Mantel did well to take the focus off the Tudors and the Boleyns and still end up with a great story.

luisvilla's review against another edition

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This had a lot of elements that I normally love, but I found it plodding and dry.

tizzytiz's review against another edition

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DNF at 40%

judyboom's review against another edition

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challenging dark emotional sad tense medium-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? A mix
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? Yes
  • Diverse cast of characters? No
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? It's complicated


aquinna's review against another edition

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  • Loveable characters? No