Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 21, 2010

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel #BookReview

The trouble with big, beautiful books is that they become a part of one’s daily life for so long that there is an aching emptiness when the last page is turned.

So it is with Wolf Hall, 650 pages long and winner of the 2009 Booker Prize. There is none of the usual anticipation about the next book on the TBR; there is only disappointment that there is no more of this one to read.

It is the story of Thomas Cromwell who rose from humble beginnings to be the most powerful man in England save King Henry VIII whom he serves. Mantel has painted a sympathetic portrait of this schemer, starting with his childhood at the mercy of a man most brutal in the days when most men were brutal to their sons. There are only tantalising glimpses of his time in Europe, when, aged 15, he fled one beating too many and so learned the arts of listening, reading, accounting, and the judicious use of a knife. He learned planning and plotting too, and so found himself the useful assistant to Cardinal Wolsey, at a time when the Cardinal needed a wily young adviser. For it was Wolsey’s fate to be senior churchman of Catholic England at the time when the king and the Pope were at loggerheads over Henry’s marriage plans.

Mantel’s sympathies are with the king. With succession wars in living memory, England needed an heir to the throne and Katherine of Aragon had failed to produce one. Anne Boleyn as her successor was no prize, but the king is besotted – and desperate for a son. A solution that would appease his conscience and the law had to be found, and urgently; the Pope – aided and abetted by Henry’s rivals in Europe – wouldn’t annul the marriage. It was Henry’s good fortune that his dilemma coincided with the need to reform a corrupt church, but Wolsey couldn’t get it all together in time. Biological clocks ticked faster then, and Henry needed a man who could give him what he wanted. Wolsey was lucky that old age and infirmity claimed him before anything nastier could.

Cromwell, a lawyer now, survived being Wolsey’s loyal friend and supporter, and became the king’s man instead. Mantel tells this astonishing rise patiently and with style. It is a story we all know, with people familiar to us if not from history lessons then from countless TV series and films. Henry’s six wives have kept the BBC busy since its inception…

Source: Wikipedia

Yet Wolf Hall is full of surprises: Cromwell as an uxorious husband and his sustained grief at Liz’s death; the loss of his children; his patronage of the poor at his gates; and the making of his portrait by Hans Holbein. This most powerful of men was besotted by small dogs, all of which he named Bella, in memory of his only childhood friend. We are privy to his conversations with the rich and powerful, the poor and oppressed. We see the formation of his opinions, the reckoning of possibilities, and his summations of the human beings he manipulates. As his speculations unfold, we witness the development of his plots and plans and his anxieties about how they proceed. We see his thoughts; we share his dreams.

It is a masterpiece.

I will source and add other reviews of this magnificent book when I am home from holidays and have unlimited internet access.  To start with, here’s Sue’s review at Whispering Gums.

Author: Hilary Mantel
Title: Wolf Hall
Publisher: Fourth Estate. Harper Collins, 2009
ISBN: 9780007292417
Source: Personal copy, purchased at Readings, $32.99


  1. I beat you by a day to review this! Great book isn’t it – I felt I was living with it. Loved the sympathetic portrayal of Cromwell… but a friend who read it thought it portrayed Henry as too soft. I’m not sure about that – and anyhow we are seeing Henry through Cromwell’s eyes aren’t we.

    • Oh damn, I’ve missed your review because I don’t have RSS set up on this little netbook. I shall scamper over to Whispering Gums and link it to mine ASAP!

  2. Thanks for your great review. I am so excited to have this lined up to read very soon. I chose this for my face to face reading group discussion in March and I know I have made an excellent choice based on your comments.

    • Hi Jenny, you will love it. But – it’s long, so don’t leave it too long before starting it, and warn the rest of the group that they need plenty of time to get through it before March rolls around!

  3. See, now this is going to make me read it. I was going to try to avoid it, but you’ve made the best case I’ve read yet. Of course, I am about to pop over to Whisperinggums, but you have sold me.

    • You won’t be sorry *grin*

  4. Glad you enjoyed it! I did as well. Enjoy the rest of your hols.

    • Hello Laura, isn’t it wonderful when a book turns out to deserve its hype!

  5. I enjoyed it too – a great portrait of insider politics which is quite contemporary despite its historical setting. I did wonder if Mantel overemphasised Cromwell’s touchy-feely side, beyond the ruthlessness he must have had to be such a successful political fixer? Great novel though.

    • Hello Nick, thanks for joining in the conversation. Yes, I had my doubts about the way Cromwell is depicted – but on the other hand it’s interesting to see the human side of a ruthless man as well, going beyond the stereotyping to whcih we are usually restricted.
      I wonder what she will write next?

  6. A very persuasive review! I don’t normally read historical fiction but I have been tempted to try this and an even more tempted now.

    I saw an interview with Hilary Mantel on The Book Show in the UK and really enjoyed it. She was obviously very passionate and knowledgable about her subject.

    Thank you for helping me to make up my mind. I think I will take the plunge…

    • I don’t think you’ll regret it, Tracey – I think you’ll find Wolf Hall more of a study of a most intriguing mind than historical fiction (which I tend to associate with Jean Plaidy, and I don’t read that either!)

  7. […] ANZ: “It is a masterpiece.” […]

  8. Hi Lisa – I agree with your points. But also there is the HUMOUR! I snickered and chuckled throughout…. I found the portrayal of Cromwell ambivalent – (or maybe this means multi-faceted)..I couldn’t decide whether or not to like him. But certainly the hairs on theback of my neck rose towards the end ot the novel, when it becomes clear his days are numbered.

    • Absolutely CeCe, I think the humour rounded Cromwell out as a character too. Bring on the sequel!

  9. […] Fortunately the book I’ve just finished reading is the redoubtable Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel which has won just about every award there is and has been reviewed all over the place, so there is no need for me to write a review.   I would find it very hard to do anyway, because I do not like to gush in my reviews and I think I would find it very hard not to over-enthuse about the wonders of this follow-up to Wolf Hall.  (You can see my review of that one here). […]

  10. […] Day (1985) is an early novel by Hilary Mantel, now a the bestselling Booker Prize winner of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies fame.  It is quite different in style to the Tudor novels, more like […]

  11. […] The other thing that came in my letter box today is a DVD.  As you know I have been working my way through Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle, and also exploring the work of French Nobel-prize winning author Patrick Modiano, and it is my heart’s desire to read these books in French.  To complement my French lessons with Laura Laffitte Salis-Gabbiani at the Hampton Community Centre, I’ve been watching this and that on French TV, and I came across a great TV series called Un Village Français – but it’s horrible to watch on YouTube because of all the intrusive ads.  JB Hifi got the Series One DVD in for me, and I am starting again with Episode 1 as soon as I finish watching the BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall, which is a very good adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novel. […]

  12. […] a cottage out of town, where I spent almost the entire blissful week reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall punctuated only by The Spouse coming back home from reconnaissance trips to find nice places for […]

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