Saturday, 23 January 2010

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

Ten of our current active members attended our first meeting of the year at which we were to discuss Hilary Mantel's whopping Wolf Hall. Not only did ten turn up but a goodly number managed to finish it - or make a good fist of it. Most liked it, some really loved it...and that set us up for a good discussion.

It turned out that our hostess, also our newest member, loves historical fiction - and is pretty interested in this era in particular. She started us off by saying how much she liked the book. She enjoys, she said, what she calls "historical fiction lite" such as the works of Philippa Gregory - but this, she suggested, is a cut way above. When we asked her to define the difference, she said there were two main differences: in historical fiction lite
  • every character has one strong trait that tends to deny complexity of motivation; and
  • the story's the thing.
Well, Wolf Hall is somewhat different from that. Its story is strong of course - dealing as it does with the machinations involved in getting an annulment for Henry VIII from his marriage to Katherine (Catherine) of Aragon so he can marry Anne Boleyn. But alongside this story is a lot of detail about the issues surrounding this: the freeing up of access to the Bible, the separation from the Church in Rome, the Act of Supremacy, the rise of the trading class ... to name a few. And the characters - particularly Thomas Cromwell through whose eyes the story is told (albeit in 3rd person) - are complex. In fact, the story is really the story of Cromwell told through the Henry-Katherine-Anne plot.

We compared a little Mantel's interpretation of Cromwell and Sir Thomas More with other interpretations more favourable to More, such as A man for all seasons. Many of us would like to see that play/film again in the light of this book. Mantel clearly has some sympathy for Cromwell and has presented him more favourably - though not denying the fact that he was an ambitious, clear-eyed political-player willing to make hard decisions - than many before her have. One member questioned the interpretation of Henry VIII as a fairly "soft" man, though another wondered whether this was because the story is told through Cromwell's eyes. Is this how Cromwell saw Henry?

We talked a little about the style - particularly its third person point-of-view and the sometimes confusing way Mantel uses the pronoun "he". We liked its humour, particularly shown through Cromwell's interactions with such characters as "Call-me Risely" and next-door neighbour Chapuys. One member referred to Mantel's conversation with Ramona Koval (of ABC Radio National fame) about how she develops rhythm in her writing.

It was suggested that there was a point to writing this book now, since a major thread running through it is religious fanaticism: people are burnt - and are often prepared to be burnt rather than recant - for their religious beliefs, which is not far removed, she thought, from some of the fanatical religious behaviour evident in our era.

...and so we continued to toss ideas around. There were no gaps in our discussion about this book ...

We would highly recommend it to other groups, but with one proviso: people need to have the time to commit to it. It is not necessarily a hard book to read, but it is one that you need to get momentum going in order to follow its flow.

Cover image: Used courtesy HarperCollins Publishers


  1. It was terrific to read this book, although daunting as well. The list of characters was large, although I loved the contrast of Cromwell's domestic scenes, with the political intrigues of the court and the clergy. He was quite a rounded character, with genuine feeling for his family and loyalty to Wolsely and his staff, alongside his clear-headed pragmatism and 'can-do' attitude.
    Comwell's contribution to the rise of the bureaucracy and legal framework for the actions of those in power, makes for fascinating reading. A must for all public servants I sugggest!
    Mantel is working on a follow-up volume, which I think will be worth reading, especially as one becomes quite familiar with many characters after journeying with them to Wolf Hall, although not quite arriving there!

  2. Thanks Kate. I'm glad you made the point about public servants! Also, that contrast with the domestic scenes - how enjoyable the Austin Friars sections were...and also it is apparently true that his kitchen there fed large numbers of people. Fascinating man.

  3. I followed up with a new biography of Mary Tudor as the first Queen. Interesting but missing the political governance curretns running around, but showed how clever Mantel had been in building the pricture of the warm family and friendships in the Cromwell household compared to the dysfunctional Tudor family and the viciousness of court politics.

  4. Thanks Helen ... that's an interesting comment. I wonder how historically valid Mantel's picture of Cromwell's household is? It certainly fleshed him out as a complex character. In one of my online groups, a member said that the picture provided in this novel was more like the picture she learnt BEFORE A man for all seasons which showed More in a positive light and demonised Cromwell. Just goes to show how much interpretation there is in both history and fiction!

  5. We want historical novels to plunge us into a world different from our own while enabling us to understand that world and the people who inhabit it. We want not a series of familiar puppet-figures parroting their famous lines on cue, but portraits of real human beings with strengths and failings, beset by ambitions and lusts and needs and dreads. We want to understand why issues that would not plague any of us for more than a second can have an entire world up in arms. Mantel not only gives us all of this -- she makes it look easy.

    1. Couldn't have said it better ourselves Eesti. And we are now looking forward to reading her sequel, Bring up the bodies.


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