Review: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

UK book cover of Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

It amuses me no end that the previous owner of this book has scrawled ‘BORING’ at the top of the first page. Seriously. I wouldn’t say it’s strictly true but I can see where they’re coming from. It’s not the easiest book in the world to plough through.

Plot summary: England in the 1520s is
a heartbeat from disaster. If the king dies without a male heir, the
country could be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his
marriage of twenty years and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope and most of
Europe opposes him. Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell: a wholly
original man, a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist,
astute in reading people, and implacable in his ambition. But Henry is
volatile: one day tender, one day murderous. Cromwell helps him break
the opposition, but what will be the price of his triumph?

Historical fiction seems to run one of two ways.

Option A: Philippa Gregory
These books get a lot of stick but I quite like them. They focus more on bringing characters to life and sustaining your interest more than any sort of historical accuracy. There’s a lot of dialogue and not much prose. They’re entertaining and a quick read, and you really care about the characters, but you probably shouldn’t put much stock in anything you’ve ‘learned.’

Option B: Hilary Mantel

These books are long and dense. There’s not much dialogue and background information tends to be explained in prose. These can be more of a chore to pick up than the other kind and often expect you to have some prior knowledge, but you come away feeling likeyou at least know more about the time period than you did previously.

Why is there no middle ground? Why do I have to choose between entertaining and informative!? Because, whilst Wolf Hall certainly felt educational, I’m pretty sure I would have been more inclined to continue turning the pages of a Philippa Gregory book.

It’s just so… dense. See, I love the Tudors. I have a fairly impressive related non-fiction book section on my shelves and I’m That Person who always talks over television documentaries. I got the third highest score in the country for A2 history. But even I thought Wolf Hall was unnecessarily long.

It follows Thomas Cromwell, who rapidly rises from Cardinal Wolsey’s Secretary to Chief Minister of Henry VIII, primarily by bringing about the King’s divorce of Katherine of Aragon. It discusses Cromwell’s ascent to power in great detail and is therefore centered around Tudor politics for a large portion of the book. Not the interesting politics either – Henry and Anne Boleyn rarely actually pop-up – it’s consists more of the behind-the-scenes squabbling with other politicians. There’s a lot of prose and a lot of dialogue and I really struggled to be interested in some of it.

It assumes a fair amount of prior knowledge which I just didn’t have, egocentric above paragraph notwithstanding. I struggled to keep all the politicians and ministers straight, especially as they have two or three different titles used interchangeably. I couldn’t always figure out who worked for who, and which party supported each side, etc etc. I shudder to think how long this book would have been if she’s actually explained herself properly.

The bits that I did like, I liked a lot. Henry’s squabbles with Anne Boleyn, for example. But even then, I’m tempted to consider whether it’s just the history that I like. I have always, and will always, take great pleasure in the fact that Anne was eventually executed. Justice be served and all that. Funny how I started to take an interest in this novel when Henry started flirting with Jane Seymour.

I’m not sure it’s actually all that well written either. It follows Thomas Cromwell, as we’ve established, but I don’t think the narrative refers to him once by name. It just says ‘he did this, and he did that…’ When three or four people are involved in a scene, it mays it very difficult to figure out exactly who’s talking and several times I had to skip back a few paragraphs just to figure out what’s going on.   

I think it would be fair to say that I liked this more than it appears from the above (one day I’m going to embroider that on a bloody pillow). There were parts of it that I did enjoy, I just struggled to pick it up once I’d put it down again and some it I outright skimmed. I’ll probably buy the next book, Bring Up The Bodies, if I see it in a charity shop, but I admit that’s partly because Anne Boleyn hasn’t died yet…

Read Bex’s thoughts about Wolf Hall at An Armchair by the Sea. 

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