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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?

653 pages, Paperback

First published April 30, 2009

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About the author

Hilary Mantel

97 books6,965 followers
Hilary Mantel was the bestselling author of many novels including Wolf Hall, which won the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. Bring Up the Bodies, Book Two of the Wolf Hall Trilogy, was also awarded the Man Booker Prize and the Costa Book Award. She also wrote A Change of Climate, A Place of Greater Safety, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, An Experiment in Love, The Giant, O'Brien, Fludd, Beyond Black, Every Day Is Mother's Day, Vacant Possession, and a memoir, Giving Up the Ghost. Mantel was the winner of the Hawthornden Prize, and her reviews and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, and the London Review of Books.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 18,937 reviews
Profile Image for Lewis Weinstein.
Author 10 books512 followers
June 3, 2012
I just started Wolf Hall, and I find the relentless use of "he" to be extremely irritating. In the first several chapters, there are dozens of instances where it is not clear who is speaking. Every once in a while, as if recognizing the problem she has created, Mantel uses the phrase "he, Cromwell." Why not just say Cromwell?

Unless there is some good reason which I can't imagine, this sort of obfuscation is just lazy writing which disrespects the reader. May I re-think that, based on a comment by another reader. It's not lazy writing. It's very purposeful. And very distracting.

... later ...

I just read some of the amazon reviews. There are actually quite a few readers who found the "he" business as disconcerting as I did, and who expressed their displeasure in rather strong terms, along with many *-star ratings. However, many others really liked the book, as do many Goodreads readers, so it must not bother them as it does me.

Another Goodreads reader suggested that the use of "he" all the time created a closer intimacy with Cromwell. Perhaps, but I see it differently. If you want to create intimacy, use the first person. Then it is clear that everything is seen and felt by the single protagonist, and the reader can share that character's viewpoint, thoughts and feelings. What Mantel has done is not to bring us close to Cromwell, but to inject herself, the author, between the reader and the prime character. She does this on practically every page and I find it jarring every time it happens.

Before my final negative notes, let me say that Mantel clearly has an exquisite command of the language. Even in the few chapters I read, her elegant choice of words often made me reflect and smile. She can paint a picture when describing a character or a setting that is truly wonderful. And, when she chooses to do so, she writes a vivid scene that has power and emotion.

Such continuity of story, however, is the exception rather than the rule. The constant switching of time and place, often without the merest hint of transition, made the reading much more difficult than it had to be. Just a word here or there would have made a huge difference.

Finally, the breezy style in which much of the book is written is entertaining, as many have noted and I agree, but it had the effect of making me wonder if Mantel was as true to the history as I think a historical fiction should be. Of course the dialogue and many of the personal incidents are made up, but does the author, when portraying actual events, present them accurately? I think such concern for the truth is an obligation of an author when writing about historical characters and events. Mantel left me unsure.

I think I've had enough of Wolf Hall, and perhaps other Goodreads readers have had enough of my criticism of what is surely a popular book. I don't usually write negative opinions, but this book just seemed to drag them out of me. I hope I have not offended anyone.
Profile Image for window.
503 reviews33 followers
February 23, 2011
Have you ever been with a group of people when someone tells a joke and the rest of the group thinks it's hilarious but you just don't get it? Wolf Hall was that way for me. So many people think it's brilliant while I couldn't maintain enough interest to finish it.

I love historical fiction, especially from this time period, so I expected to really like this one. I thought that telling the story of Henry VIII from the viewpoint of Cromwell was an interesting twist and I looked forward to learning more about him. So what was the problem?

Well, for starters, the writing style took turns irritating and confusing me. Quotation marks are apparently optional, making it hard to figure out that you're reading dialogue until you get to the "he said". Speaking of which, the author relies heavily on the pronoun "he" and since there were frequently at least 2 men in each scene, this reader was often unsure which he was the right he. As the men in scene multiplied, so did the confusion. It took so much effort to figure out who was who and who said what and what was going on that it stopped being entertaining or thought-provoking and just became work.

And did I mention the colon? The poor, lonesome, and oft-ignored colon finally has his time in the spotlight in this novel. Upgraded from lonely punctuation understudy, the colon has a lead role here. The author uses colons so frequently and somewhat oddly that I would recommend a complete colonectomy. Here's an example from one paragraph: (Aargh! A colon! It must be contagious.)

"But by the time he reaches Dover the big gash on his scalp has closed, and the tender parts inside, he trusts, have mended themselves: kidneys, lungs, and heart." "Morgan Williams will have done an inventory of him before he left: teeth (miraculously) still in his head, and two eyes, miraculously seeing. Two arms, two legs: what more do you want?"

Overall, the book felt like it was trying too hard to be literary. Some of the prose was lovely, but there were enough little stylistic choices that annoyed me to put me off. After reading numerous reviews, even from people who loved the book, that said that most of the characters remained distant throughout and that they didn't learn anything more about Cromwell after reading 500+ pages, that was enough for me. Sadly, life's too short and my TBR pile's too big. I had to abandon this one.
Profile Image for Teresa.
Author 8 books818 followers
June 9, 2020
The thing to remember when starting this book is that 99% percent of the time the pronoun 'he' refers to Cromwell, even at times when the sentence structure makes it seems like 'he' would be someone else. It took me a short while to realize this, but once I did, I was fine. You are in Cromwell's head; you see everything from his perspective. As he reacts to others' reactions of him (many times, he is bemused to see how he is thought of) another layer of characterization is added.

This novel is beautifully written with unique descriptions (I love when authors can pull that uniqueness off -- not easy to do!) sprinkled here and there; Cromwell is fascinating (and drawn sympathetically by Mantel) and even surprisingly charming in his interactions with family members and certain others. (Though that's not to say that he doesn't use some of these others either.) And he's funny! Though all of this is done, oh, so, subtly.

It's said that historical fiction is as much about the time during which it's written as it is about the time it's set in. And through Mantel's eyes, we see the similarities of the time periods' political intrigue, as messy and incestuous then as it is now. I thought I was done with Tudor historical fiction (I've read so much of it through the years) but this book is different.

You won't understand the novel's title until later in the book, and I won't explain it here, as I got excited (a rare emotion when reading) seeing the meanings unfold, and I wouldn't want to spoil that for anyone.

I also got very excited as I read this quote from page 394:
Suppose within each book there is another book, and within every letter on every page another volume constantly unfolding; but these volumes take no space on the desk. Suppose knowledge could be reduced to a quintessence, held within a picture, a sign, held within a place which is no place. Suppose the human skull were to become capacious, spaces opening inside it, humming chambers like beehives.

I felt as if I had found the 'key' to the whole book.

This is one of those long novels that I loved living with and hated to see end, one of those experiences which causes you not to want to rush off to read something else, because you're still soaking in the one you've just finished.
Profile Image for Jeffrey Keeten.
Author 3 books249k followers
October 27, 2019
“Suppose within each book there is another book, and within every letter on every page another volume constantly unfolding; but these volumes take no space on the desk. Suppose knowledge could be reduced to a quintessence, held within a picture, a sign, held within a place which is no place. Suppose the human skull were to become capacious, spaces opening inside it, humming chambers like beehives.”

 photo ThomasCromwell_zpsa093cc12.jpg
Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein. Cromwell was a great supporter of Holbein and personal gave him many commissions for paintings, but also recommended him to the powerful people he knew.

Thomas Cromwell was first and foremost a thinker. The myth that we only use about 10% of our brains has been debunked in recent years, but I do think we can accurately say that for some of us our brain works more efficiently. I think if we were to sit in a very quiet room with Thomas Cromwell we might actually be able to hear the humming of his mind like the circuitry of a super computer. Henry the Eighth

I'm 'Enery the Eighth, I am,
'Enery the Eighth I am, I am!
I got married to the widow next door,
She's been married seven times before
And every one was an 'Enery
She wouldn't have a Willie nor a Sam
I'm her eighth old man named 'Enery
'Enery the Eighth, I am!

Sorry I can’t ever seem to say or write his name without that song popping into my head. Let’s try this again.

Henry the Eighth was not supposed to be king. The 16th century was supposed to be the return of the Age of Camelot when his older brother, Arthur, claimed his birthright and became king of England. It was Arthur that had been tutored and trained to be king. Henry would have been destined for the church if not for the fickleness of fate that left his brother dead six months before his sixteenth birthday. Henry the Eighth rules like a second son that was always second best. He is impetuous, bombastic, corpulent, and prone to fits of fury. He is not a stupid man and always surrounded himself with intelligent men, disciplined men, who could provide him with wise counsel. He did not always take their advice, but he did always give them a chance to make a case.

 photo Henry_VIII_Belvoir_Castle_zpsc80c4f03.jpg
The most iconic image of Henry the Eighth painted by Holbein as a mural in Whitehall Palace. It was unfortunately destroyed by fire in 1698, but survives through the numerous copies that were made of it. Notice the bulging calves. Henry was always very proud of them.

Henry preferred advisers named Thomas.

Thomas Wolsey
Thomas More
Thomas Cromwell

Cromwell worked for Thomas Wolsey and when the cardinal fell out of favor it could have been the end for Cromwell’s hopes as well. Cromwell is a lot of things, a complicated man, a sometimes hard man, but ultimately he is a survivor. It is so interesting that Hilary Mantel decided to paint a more sympathetic picture of him than what I’d previously thought him to be. He understood money and that true power does not reside with the man on the throne.

”The world is not run from where he thinks. Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, from where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from castle walls, but from countinghouses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.”

 photo ThomasMore_zps1e8368c9.jpg
Thomas More by Hans Holbein.

I first met Thomas More through his book Utopia in a class in college. The Praise of Folly by Erasmus was also required reading for the same class. I thought both books were fantastic because to truly understand the writings of these two important writers one must explore the history behind the books. So I wanted to love More, but as I learned more about him the title of his book became more and more an inappropriate extension of the man. His view of how the real world should work was not the Utopia he persuaded me could exist. He was opposed to the Protestant Reformation. He, with great fervor, began to hunt down anyone connected to the Reformation and interrogate, torture and burn them. He didn’t keep his distance from it. He was frequently down in the stench and the squalor of the dungeons watching his prisoners being broken on the rack. The flames of burning heretics danced in his eyes. He may have taken too much pleasure in his work.

My theory is anyone who wears a hairshirt all the time and scourges themselves for evening entertainment is not someone I want making decisions about my life. More may have been brilliant, but those beautiful marbles in his head were scrambled.

 photo AnneBoleyn_zps8bf6166a.jpg
There have been many beautiful actresses to play the enchanting Anne Boleyn, but my favorite is Natalie Dormer from The Tudors simply because she has that saucy smirk that could be used as such a weapon quite capable of bringing down a King or a kingdom to achieve her ambitions.

When the King, in his pursuit of Anne Boleyn, decides that the only way he is going to free himself from the albatross from Aragon, Catherine, is to break with the Roman Catholic Church. This puts the King in direct conflict with one of his most trusted advisers the before mentioned Thomas More. Sir Thomas cannot break with his beliefs. When he is asked to sign an oath supporting the King he refuses. He certainly had a martyr complex. In fact Cromwell in a last ditch effort to try and save More’s life points out his hubris in thinking of himself as a Christ figure. It was to no avail.

I do believe that Cromwell feels an uneasiness about the fates of the powerful men who came before him. He is always trying to hedge his bets, loaning money at ridiculous low interests to the aristocrats, soothing the relationship between Anne and her sister Mary (Henry’s current favorite bed warmer as he waits for Anne to pop open her corset.), taking care of embarrassing circumstances for other people, forming alliances with the enemies of his friends, and being kind to Henry’s only surviving child (Mary) with Catherine. He is always trying to anticipate the future. He worked to soften the blows to his enemies believing that someday they would be potential allies. He took in orphans, not just from his family, but even from people unconnected to him. He assessed their best aspects and put them with tutors so they would be useful to him in the future. He understands people and knows how to manipulate them and encourage them at the same time.

“But it is no use to justify yourself. It is no good to explain. It is weak to be anecdotal. It is wise to conceal the past even if there is nothing to conceal. A man's power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face. It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires.”

He is but a man and there is no time when that is more evident than when his daughter Grace dies.

”Grace dies in his arms; she dies easily, as naturally as she was born. He eases her back against the damp sheet: a child of impossible perfection, her fingers uncurling like thin white leaves. I never knew her, he thinks; I never knew I had her. It has always seemed impossible to him that some act of his gave her life, some unthinking thing that he and Liz did, on some unmemorable night.”

The sweating sickness took his wife and both his daughters leaving only him and his son Gregory alive. Maybe those deaths is why he felt so compelled to fill his house with children. It didn’t have to be his children. He thought all children were salvageable, moldable, if encouraged to work at being better at what they were best at.

Cromwell grew up the son of a blacksmith. His father beat him so severely, in fact the book opens with a scene that showed the impassioned brutality that his father was capable of, that Cromwell leaves to join the army and seek his fortune abroad. He taught himself to read. He was always working his mind like a muscle making it stronger with every book he read. With every moment he spent studying the workings of economics, politics, and psychology (he didn’t know that was what it was called.) he was giving himself the means to make better decisions, to offer better advice, to hone his cunning.

He was truly a self made man who by sheer audacity and brilliance made it to the pinnacles of power. When he becomes sick though and is at his most vulnerable the fears of a child creep into his mind.

”On the stairs he can hear the efficient, deathly clip of his father’s steel-tipped boots.”

 photo Hilary-Mantel_zps3c13b602.jpg
Hilary Mantel, what big eyes you have.

Little is known about the early life of Thomas Cromwell. He would be pleased to know that. He was much more interested in knowing everything about everyone and careful about letting others know anything about him. He was a long game thinker. Something he does one day may not make sense to those around him until much later when the dominoes fall a new direction. Mantel will clothe him, put flesh on his bones, share his innermost thoughts, and show you a man capable of being ruthless, but just as likely to be compassionate. Though Henry was particularly fascinated with lopping off heads Cromwell knew that ultimately as you eliminate one enemy you only create more. If possible it is much smarter to blackmail, confuse, or convince an arch enemy, maybe not to be friends that would be expecting too much, but at least to become a passive challenger.

There are a lot of Thomas’s in this book and at times it can seem confusing, but the rule of thumb is if you are not clear about who is speaking or who is sharing their inner thoughts that would be Thomas Cromwell.

Winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2009 and highly recommended by this dedicated reader.

If you wish to see more of my most recent book and movie reviews, visit http://www.jeffreykeeten.com
I also have a Facebook blogger page at:https://www.facebook.com/JeffreyKeeten
Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,219 reviews9,925 followers
February 11, 2013
For the first 100 pages I was like a Monkees song, you know the one -

[Cue cute organ/guitar intro]

I thought great historical novels about the 16th century were only true in fairy tales
Meant for someone else but not for me
Mmm, historical novelists were out to get me
That's the way it seemed
Disappointment haunted all my dreams
Then I read Wolf Hall ! Now I'm a believer!
Not a trace of doubt in my mind!
Ooh I'm in love!
Ooh Hilary Mantel I couldn’t leave you if I tried

But then some strange things began to percolate through to my sluggish oily consciousness, beetling my brows and causing pushed out bottom lip expressions to become prominent. The style is great, all that detail, every surface covered, you never see the props manager or the mike boom, the brocades and all the grey velvet actually seem real (what budget did this novel get?) but.


I noticed that although we crawl along with Thomas Cromwell inch by inch, hour by hour, Hilary Mantel never, never, never mentions how her hero actually feels about anything, never mentions his thoughts, his worries, his concerns, his interior. It’s all surface. What he said, his gestures, the way he looked, what he knew, what he ate, how he knew how to cook it, who he yelled at, who he was kind to (children and animals, aah)- this is what we get ; what he thought he was up to or could or couldn’t achieve, his fears, who he hated, all that, has to be inferred; this is the poster novel for show don’t tell; this shows everything, almost, and tells nothing.

That that is a deliberately chosen technique is clear; and you must appreciate if you cannot celebrate or accept if you cannot appreciate. But if you can’t get on board with it this novel is going to drive you into the arms of a therapist.


Dr Rayner : So what’s been happening this week?
Reader of Wolf Hall : Well, it’s er er Thomas.
Dr Rayner (professionally covering up his increasing irritation) : Ah, Thomas. Again.
ROWH : He… he just never tells me anything. I have to guess, all the time.
Dr Rayner : Ah ha, um. Yes…
ROWH : I feel so close to him, and yet…
Dr Rayner : And yet so distant.
ROWH : Ah, you know, you know!
Dr Rayner’s eyes dart about, as if seeking a sympathetic face. But there is none.

There’s more. There’s a brilliant JG Ballard short story called The Garden of Time. A guy potters around in his beautiful garden and in the mid-distance he can see an enormous hostile army approaching across the landscape. It seems to be in slow motion. Every day it’s a little nearer. Neither he nor his wife has any thoughts of moving away. They look after the exquisite flowers, they repot plants, they discuss borders. It’s a great metaphor. Wolf Hall is in slow motion. There’s the painfully attenuated downfall of Cardinal Wolsey. Then there’s the even more excruciatingly drawn out overarching issue of the Great Matter of the King’s Divorce, or Annulment, whatever. Off with the Katherine and on with the Anne.
So here’s a funny thing. After the great Cardinal Wolsey (and he is a great character, I loved him) - after he’s dead and gone, (none of this is plot spoiler, this is history! – it’s quite a trick to write a long story which everyone knows and still have them queuing round the block) I was scratching my head and thinking that although I’d been hearing so much of and about Cardinal Wolsey (he is the Penn to Thomas Cromwell’s Teller) in the months days hours minutes seconds of his huge demise I still couldn’t figure out exactly why - why - why King Henry turned on him in such fury. A quick Wikipedia gave me this:

Wolsey had failed [to get the King’s marriage annulled] and was dismissed from public office in 1529. Wolsey then began a secret plot to have Anne Boleyn forced into exile and began communicating with the Pope to that end. When this was discovered, Henry ordered Wolsey's arrest

Whoah. Unless I fell asleep during the crucial bit, that is not in the book. Don’t you think it should be? Might help explain things a bit better? How strange of Hilary.

So if Hilary Mantel wrote a novel about the Kennedy assassination you would have got lots of detailed scenes of life at the court of the Kennedys, the domestic problems of the Oswalds, their life in Russia, what the crowds were saying on the Dealey Plaza, but when the motorcade appeared she would cut immediately to the autopsy and the comments of the surgeons and their family situations. We would get a few scenes with Jack Ruby and his pals, but next thing you know he’d be under arrest. Huh, what happened?

It’s like being on the inside, but the outside of the inside.

What are we taught about drama? Exposition, complication, resolution (comedy); exposition, conflict, catastrophe (tragedy). What does Hilary do? Throws the rules away. Hilary, and this goes double for A Place of Greater Safety, her vast novel about the French Revolution, goes for : exposition, complication, more exposition, more and more exposition, more complication. Where’s the conflict? Off stage. Is this a problem? It is going to be, for some people. Quentin Tarantino fans, players of Thrill Kill and Mortal Kombat, you know, impatient types.


But historical novelists, especially those like Hilary who embroider their worlds so lavishly, and set the right birds in each tree at the right angle, and the weeds underfoot, and the stench of the straw in the barn, and the wounds of a knife fight as well as each bauble, buckle, bead, biggins and bodice I think do us a grand service, re-plugging us back into the people who we were, making it possible to think that life did indeed go on in almost recognisable forms 500 years ago. It’s like claiming these lives back, scraping off the encrustings of ignorance and they don’t look like zombies or puppets.

Some literature fans tend to get their sneery faces on and call historical fiction middlebrow. They do! Although I know what they mean, there are brows (brows = class), there are three main classes and they each have a brow, it’s straightforward enough. What are Darconville’s Cat, Wittgenstein’s Mistress, The Pale King, Invisible Cities, Ulysses, Mrs Dalloway and Life : A User’s Guide? Highbrow – a clue is in the fact that none of them can tell a story worth a damn but the things they do with language constitute a legal high. So then, lowbrow must be the mindless genre churn you get in the lovely world of – er - Romance, for instance – they have titles like Come Away with Me, This Man, Dark Soul, Beautiful Disaster. Probably that sounds insulting to Romance fans but hey, come on, you know this stuff is popcorn and not haute cuisine, right? You ain’t kidding yourselves are you? And there’s all kinds of interesting authors who rescued formerly lowbrow genres and made them into middlebrow literature – Hammett and Chandler for detective stories, McMurtry for Westerns, Ballard and a zillion others for science fiction (which was originally considered to be as wretched as the other low genres)… but I am wandering from the subject which is – everything that’s not high or low is in the middle ( that’s in the Bible, Habbakuk 10:4). Therefore Hilary Mantel is middlebrow.

Okay, so what, we can’t dine on foi gras all the livelong day, but if this is middle it’s somewhere near the top of the middle bangin’ on the ceiling, and eventually, who cares about these distinctions.

The Great Matter of the King’s Divorce - a historical note

Yeah, you can think that this was some egotistical tyrannical English king thinking with his royal member and stamping on the floor until he got what he wanted even if that meant excommunication and the sundering of the Church, but actually - he wanted an heir – a son – because of the succession, because if the succession wasn’t clear and undisputed, there would be a certain return of the fratricidal civil war which had gone on for 50 years prior to Henry’s father’s victory – so it wasn’t, in fact, a trivial matter.

Two great quotes

Cromwell is faced with a recalcitrant noble who’s making a terrible fuss about his ancient rights and privileges.

How can he explain it to him? The world isn’t run from where he thinks. Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, from where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from castle walls but from counting houses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.


When have I ever forced anyone to do anything, he starts to say : but Richard cuts in, ‘No you don’t, I agree, it’s just that you are practised at persuading, and sometimes it’s quite difficult, sir, to distinguish being persuaded by you from being knocked down in the street and stamped on.’

This novel took me so many hours to read but you know I don’t want them back, Hilary Mantel can keep them.
Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,311 reviews120k followers
March 30, 2023
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 rose water; her hand pulling close the bed curtain, the discrete sigh of flesh against flesh.
Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown…but really, crown-wearers seem to have little difficulty with fabrication. Do they mean lie, as in lying down? I mean I would take it off before going to bed. It might get pretty uncomfortable trying to sleep with that thing still on. Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say uneasy “sits the head that wears the crown,” although that creates in my tiny mind an image of Mister Potato head, with legs and feet. You know you want to see that, so go ahead. I’ll wait. How about uneasy stands the head… , but, oh, see Mr Potato head referred above. So I guess we will leave that one alone, as, clearly, it could be worse. In any case, as uneasy as that head might be, it is clearly more dangerous to anyone who has anything at all to do with the head that has the crown on it. Chopped tops are practically bounding down the streets like bulls in Pamplona. Of course there is the attraction of the power that emanates from the golden circlet. It seems to radiate a glow and a hum that attract the dishonest, the rapacious, seducers, flatterers, scoundrels and hypocrites in far greater numbers than the sort of person Diogenes was looking for, and many of them make moth-like crackling noises as they drift in a bit too close.

Hilary Mantel - image from The Guardian

One struggles to come up with a contemporary point of reference to help us grasp who Cromwell was. I suppose one might consider Thomas Cromwell to be a royal bug-zapper. There are other ways to see him of course. He was one of the greatest political fixers of all time. Think Olivia Pope as, say, Chief of Staff to the President. But whereas the fictional Olivia occasionally manifests the odd scruple, the real-world Thomas appears to have manifested fewer. In a similar vein, I suppose we might see him a consigliere to H8’s Don Corleone, or maybe Tony Soprano. Maybe Kissinger or Pat Moynihan to Nixon?

Cromwell by Holbein and Mark Rylance as TC - from the Guardian

He is considered to be one of the most ruthless human beings of his time, in seeing that the king’s word was made flesh. Already married, but wifey does not pop out a male heir? What’s a king to do? Why, twist, turn, beg, borrow, steal, threaten, intimidate, and murder until you get your way. Spoiled children with their own states are fond of such behavior. Of course, to a large extent, one must engage in these forms of feces flinging and head-lopping at one remove, as kings are too proud to be seen with their hands so filled, whether with their own droppings or axe handles. Thus the presence of people like Thomas Cromwell. Thank you, your majesty, I’ll take that now.

Since the Catholic Church was all that stood in the way of Henry VIII getting what he wanted, H8 sought to remove it. Seizing the church’s real estate and other holdings would be a nice bonus. Selling off the stolen bits would help pay for the ever-popular urge to go to war with France. And setting up his non-ecclesiastical self as the head of his own sort-of Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, meant that, in addition to visiting horrors on the RC he would be claiming even more divine rights. And this lunatic convinces himself that God wanted this. A bit self-serving, no? Sheesh!

H8 by Holbein - from Wikimedia -- and Damian Lewis - BBC

So, you would expect that in Hilary Mantel’s rollicking tale of Tudor England, Cromwell would be painted in rather dark shades. The author offers something other. Hogwarts DA Masters notwithstanding, the darkest of the dark arts is the power of manipulation. The proper words tossed near the proper ear can wreak devastation no less awful than an armored division. Cromwell is portrayed as a practitioner of 16th century RealPolitik, someone who uses his rapier wit, his power, his capacity for manipulation, his wide knowledge of the world, and his deep intelligence to serve his king. Is he in it mostly for himself? Maybe. Probably, but he is shown in small bites, talking to this one, planting spies, chatting with that one, nuancing everyone within reach to see things his way, the king’s way, and he sees that more direct action is taken when words alone will not do.

Cromwell, both the real one and his fictitious doppelganger, is a pretty interesting guy, rising from modest (and, if Mantel does not mislead, abusive) origins, dashing off to soldier for hire, becoming expert in international trade of various sorts, making very useful friends and connections along the way, becoming a lawyer, and with his contact list and rep for discretion, rising as far as a low-born can rise in Tudor England. I am sure that, had he shown an inclination towards the culinary arts, he might have been considered a Man for All Seasonings. (sorry)

He is our window on the Tudor era. Regardless of the accuracy of the portrayal, as a literary device, Cromwell is ideally placed to allow us a look into many of the machinations of the era. Questionable prophetess, the Holy Maid of London, making life uncomfortable for a wandering king? Cromwell is there. Both to hear her speak and see her burned. Anne Boleyn plotting to get around the Church’s refusal to annul H8’s marriage? Yep, TC is right in the middle. The population being laid waste by a plague sweating disease? He loses family. Cromwell was a real-life Zelig of the era, with a hand in every historical pie.

What motivates Thomas Cromwell? He moves through the novel like an avatar of the author, a witness to the things the author wants us so know, but lacking much of a personality himself. The delightfully acerbic wit he manifests is hardly unique to him in this telling. One might point to his ambition, and there are certain decisions he makes or directions he takes that offer some guidance, but I never really got much of a feel for what really makes Thomas tick. Is Thomas Cromwell Horatio Alger, an exemplar of hard work, smarts and ambition paying off in the end? Is he a model for the notion that power corrupts? Does he really have morals, or merely goals? Is he a religious extremist or a technocrat? In a recent theatrical production, the writers took this problem in hand and decided to anchor their production on Cromwell’s quest for vengeance on all those who had seen to the toppling of his mentor and father figure, the larger-than-life Wolsey. (I absolutely see Sidney Greenstreet in my tiny mind as Wolsey) That makes a lot of sense, lending a core of cohesion to a sequence of loose scenes, a lot of this-happens-and-then-that.

Anne Boleyn by unknown and Claire Foy in the role

Well, Thomas is only one element here, albeit the largest. It is the era that Mantel brings to life. It was a time of big change. H8 may be established in our 21st century minds as a solidly placed monarch, but the security of his line was very much in question, thus the freaking out about producing a male heir. The Protestant Reformation was underway and the world was in flux. Plagues…um…plagued Europe and the enlightenment was far in the future.

While this look at the Tudor era is gruesome, enlightening and fun, it also shines a light, as good historical fiction does, on contemporary concerns. Torture? Check. Religious extremism? Check. TC is seen by at least one writer as a Tudor version of ISIS. Privacy concerns? Check. Government abuse of authority? Check. The one percent riding roughshod over the rest of us? Check. National wars for private purposes? Check. Issues of separation of church and state? Check. So, for those of you who have not yet taken on this large novel, and it’s younger siblings, one born, the other gestating, keep an eye out for how the Tudor era contains many of the same conflicts we endure today. Of course one might despair by doing this. Really? We have learned nothing in five hundred years? But one might also see some universality in the human condition, across time and space.

There are many, many characters in Wolf Hall. Mantel has included a nice list of them at the front of the book. I found I needed to refer to it frequently. It can be a bit daunting to keep track of what is going on, or to discern who is talking to whom, particularly when so many of the names are used by multiple characters. Most particularly, there are more Toms here than at a convention of male cats held in a turkey farm, enough Johns to construct a considerable public lavatory, as well as herds of Harries and Henries, Annes, Katherines and Marys, and probably a few more household names that repeat uncomfortably often. You will be needing that chart. That said, realizing that TC is the author’s and thus the readers’ eyes on pretty much everything helps.

There is a very different take here on Thomas More than the one we are accustomed to. A Man For All Seasons presented More as a moralist, one who stuck by his principles in opposing H8’s desire to be rid of wife #1 in favor of wife #2. In this version we are shown a Thomas More who is much more an Ayatollah than a serene wise man, as much a political player as a man of the cloth. He happily sends to the torturer and the executioner those who oppose his views. Mantel shows a bit of sympathy for H8 trying to dismantle an organization that includes such dark prigs.

Thomas More by Holbein and Anton Lesser in the role

The novel does not tie up neatly. There are two more volumes after all, and those who remember their history, or who, like me, are memory-challenged and need to look such things up, know how it ends, anyway. It is the journey through this often dark age that is the treat. The wit alone would have been enough for me. The feel for the time adds depth.

The novel and it’s younger sib have become the source material for both a BBC miniseries and stage productions in Britain and the USA, and seems to be gathering cultural strength and presence as more branches extend from the Wolf Hall tree. Can the graphic novel and the Barbie Anne Boleyn be far behind? The series from the Beeb has already aired on the east side of the pond, and is scheduled to begin on Easter, April 5, here in the states.

In short, for a book with a considerable page count, and covering thirty five years of English and European history, the results of most of which we already know, Wolf Hall is an engrossing read, rich with all-world-large personalities, bristling with sharply barbed wit and intelligence, richly appointed with intrigue and betrayal, red with blood, and great fun to read. There are sections that sag a bit, but keep on, there will be another scene just around the bend that will make you smile and sometimes even laugh out loud. And there are passages that will transport you with their beauty and insight.

BTW, the title, Wolf Hall refers to the residence of the Seymours (the family serving up one of theirs to be counted among the many wives) and is a takeoff on a Latin saying, homo homini lupus est, or ‘man is a wolf to man.’ He is indeed, and what big teeth he has.

Review first posted – 4/3/15

First Published – 4/30/2009

The third volume in the series, The Mirror and the Light, was released in 2020.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, and FB pages

My review of the next book in the Thomas Cromwell series, Bring Up the Bodies

A nice article from the Telegraph about the historical TC


Fab item by Mantel in the NY Review of Books on how her characters should be played

Interview with Mark Rylance, who plays TC in the BBC production.
He has no doubt there are parallels between Cromwell’s time and our own. “Although we’re not ruled by a sociopathic 14-year-old king, we seem to be ruled by a group of people who are completely in the service of corporations as much as the kings were in the service of the pope before Cromwell and Henry VIII changed the times.”
I included a link in the body of the review, but in case you missed it Dominic Selwood of the Telegraph has a dark view of TC - Thomas Cromwell was the Islamic State of his day

Martin Kettle of the Guardian has a more positive take - Cromwell, the fixers’ fixer: a role model for our times

An article from the NY Times about the upcoming mini-series

In his NY Times column, Timothy Egan looks at Steve Bannon as a modern day Thomas Cromwell - The Bombs of Steve Bannon - March 10, 2017
Profile Image for Bionic Jean.
1,258 reviews1,132 followers
September 29, 2023
Everyone knows about the Tudors. Even people not particularly interested in history know the bare bones of the story, and people world-wide all seem to have heard about Henry VIII. I suspect it is one of the most popular periods to study in English history with its cast of colourful characters, intrigues, passions, extremes, extravagances, important political and religious changes and mind-blowingly violent events. Why then was Wolf Hall such a slog to get through?

For a start Hilary Mantel writes unconventionally in the present tense. She also seems to have attempted a strange stylistic form where she disguises the characters. The reader is forever backtracking through the pages to check who is actually talking. "He", I discovered, usually refers to Thomas Cromwell. The action does revolve around his life, but he is rarely named unless it is "He, Cromwell" and even this appellation is rare.

Sometimes not specifying characters is just sloppy writing. Take the following sentence:

"The evening before Fisher is to die, he visits More."

Who is the subject in this sentence? (It comes at the start of a new section, so there are no preceding ones.) It is a simple sentence in which clearly "he" refers to "Fisher" doesn't it? Not by Mantel's rules it doesn't. "He", confusingly means "Cromwell".

The names used in this period were extremely restricted, compared with our present-day choices. There were so many Thomases and Marys, Henrys and Janes - and Mantel has a huge cast of characters. The list at the front of the book runs to nearly 5 pages (and then there are yet more pages of family trees….) Even so, many peripheral characters are not in the list, and when they are their names are not used in a helpful way. Richard Riche should be an easy name to remember shouldn't it? Except that for some unknown reason Mantel sometimes refers to him as "Purse". Another instance is the character Thomas Wriotheseley, who is sometimes called "Risley" or even, obscurely "Call-me" (a very early reference to his saying "Call me Risley" near the beginning of the book.)

An example running throughout the book is of a nun on the continent who makes prophecies against the king. She is referred to variously as "the Maid" or "the nun." Later on in the book she is referred to as "Eliza," and later again, "Barton." It is only near the end of the book when she is about to be put to death that she is given her name, "Elizabeth Barton" (and at this point I discovered her in the list of characters.) I have to assume that this was an attempt to reflect her diminishing status. When she may have been making what people believed to be legitimate holy prophecies, she had titles such as "the nun", and when she was discredited she was given back her simple lawful name. But it is the author who has done this! It is too obscure a point, if indeed it is deliberate, for a reader to easily pick up, especially when there are a plethora of other characters to sort out.

Add into the formula a Thomas, Tom or "he" - or instances where the character is simply called by their title, "Duke", and the reader is lost in clouds of deception. Indeed it is almost as if Mantel has used obfuscation as a deliberate way to misinform and disguise who is talking, who the action is about, much as the Tudor times were about misinformation, deception and disingenuousness. Hans (Holbein - the painter - I was inordinately pleased to work that one out for myself without referring to "the list"!) sums up the religious situation,

"Images, not images. Statues, not statues. It is the body of God, it is not the body of God, it is sort of the body of God. It is his blood, it is not his blood. Priests may marry, they may not…. The crucifix we creep to on our knees and reverence with our lips or the crucifix we chop it up and burn it in the public square…. Luther refers to "His Disgrace, the king of England.""

The book appears at a glance to be an easy read. Most of it is conversation, and in a reasonably modern style at that - not a "forsooth" in sight. But Mantel's use of punctuation leaves a lot to be desired. Her overuse of the colon and semi-colon is frankly irritating. Why not start a new sentence occasionally? Plus the inverted commas (or speech marks) seem to be used in a very ad hoc fashion. The convention is that if inverted commas are not used when a character speaks, then this is to convey internal dialogue - the character is thinking. There are many instances in Wolf Hall where this is not so. The use of inverted commas seems completely random, which slows down the pace of reading and only serves to confuse the reader even more.

The novel would have benefited from rigorous editing. The first half drags. Dozens of character are thrown into the mix and we get no sense of definition, or attempt at characterisation. Minor characters could easily be substituted for one another - they are so sketchily drawn. Women feature hardly at all, except in Cromwell's immediate family, and the many men drift in and out of the narrative in their wooden fashion as the reader desperately looks back to try and sort out who they all are. It does not help that the events are not chronological. Cromwell's memories frequently take on a life of their own and divert the "action".

There are indications of an editor's hand however. The "cast list" is an obvious example. An editor probably informed the author that nobody except a Tudor scholar would make head or tail of the characters without one. If it was not Mantel's idea, then that goes some way to explaining why it is not fully comprehensive. Maybe a glossary would have helped further.

Another anomaly which reeks to me of editorial suggestion, is the way the novel starts. The violence of Cromwell's father towards him is described in a gratuitously detailed and graphic way. Welcome to the novel. Is this what it will be like all the way through? Well no, actually. The only other instance of such an unpleasant descriptive account is the burning of a woman (a "Loller") accused of being a heretic. This is put in presumably to show the influence on a young Cromwell (as presumably the opening section was) - part of what made him the man he was. But this is an extremely long novel, and it is inappropriate to start a dry, lifeless tome with such an atypical style of writing. Unless, of course, the author has been told to "Start with something exciting. Get the reader interested!"

In these ways, and more, the mechanics of the novel are far too evident. The reader should be swept up in the events, not have to plod through dull prose and linguistic contrivances. I do wonder what other authors would have made of such promising material. Tracey Chevalier would have made you care about each and every one of the characters, however despicable or duplicitous they may have been. The "cast list" would have been considerably pruned. Maybe Peter Ackroyd would have included more characters, but he would not have obscured who he was actually talking about! Neither would Simon Winchester, who would play up the consciences and feelings of the main players. Hilary Mantel has not decided how to focus her novel, or to give it any sense of purpose. She merely chronicles events from 1500-1535. The early years, when Cromwell was a youngster, are sketchily drawn. Most of the narrative is concentrated on the last 3 or 4 years leading up to the "Act of Supremacy" in 1534, whereby Henry was stated to be the Supreme Head of the Church of England. (It was a carefully worded document not granting him the title but acknowledging an established fact. It thereby gave him the power - and enabled him him to justify the action to himself - to divorce Katherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn, in the hope that she would produce a male heir.) These were momentous times, set against a backdrop of similar riots and Reformations across Europe.

These latter stages of the novel are more gripping, but as a whole it does not really succeed on any level except to present facts, and that would be better done in a textbook. Thomas Cromwell was evidently a "soldier of fortune" who was able to succeed in his life by variously using his skills of diplomacy to turn to any tide. Henry calls him "as cunning as a bag of serpents" to his face. And as Cromwell himself says to his son at one point,

"It's all very well planning what you will do in six months what you will do in a year, but it's no good at all if you don't have a plan for tomorrow."

This is about tumultuous times; the days when beliefs were being turned on their head, when the religious views of England were a source of derision or bafflement to Europe, when the ever-changing will of the king could lead to wise and revered clerics and scholars being showered with wealth, or being denounced as heretics, burned at the stake and disembowelled. An heir to the throne could at the king's whim be redesignated a bastard. It should have been a rollicking read. And Thomas Cromwell - or should I term him, "He, Thomas" - should have come across as a mesmeric figure, not the ambiguous shadow the reader is left with. This is an ambitious novel about the era, which disappointingly turns out to be a bit of a damp squib.
Profile Image for Riku Sayuj.
656 reviews7,106 followers
February 15, 2014

I treat this novel as a qualified failure of an experiment (qualified since I am open to the possibility that the failure was mine) and I sincerely wish that Mantel does not win the Booker this year - I just cannot bring myself to spend anymore time with her lifeless narrator.

More than anything else Wolf Hall seemed to me to be a literary experiment - on how closely a woman can get into a man's mind, and as far as I am concerned, a qualified failure. I could never truly feel that the narration was being executed by a male voice, it was as if a woman narrator residing inside a captive male character was telling the story and every time a ‘he’ or 'his' comes along, it resulted in a string of confused stumblings over adjectives before I remembered again (many times) that it is of himself that the narrator is talking about. Eventually I came to understand the reason for this jarring feeling - it was not because I was not reading thoroughly enough, it was because I couldn't think of the narrator as a ‘he’ - it just didn't cut it, especially when he/she informed me with wonder of how men embrace other men.

I wish Mary Boleyn had been the narrator, she was the only 'real' person in this narrative peopled by artificial characters, only she had an authentic voice to me and I can't help but feel that she was the character that Mantel most identified with - the novel came alive and took such vibrancy every time Mary entered the narrator's field of vision, like a deprived woman lighting up at the sight of a beautiful mirror to finally examine herself!

As I said, I am open to the fact that my bad experience was due to a failure of imagination on my part, so I hope fans of this book will take pity on my deprived pleasure and be gentle in their recriminations.

Come to think of it I really cannot think of any book I have read in which a novelist tries to get so intimate with the mind of a narrator of the opposite sex. So maybe my problem was not a failure of imagination but a poverty of literary experience as I haven't encountered such an effort before; maybe I need to read some Hardy.

I also believe that if there were less 'Thomas's in the story, I could have still come out the better in this expedition. So there.

Profile Image for Sean Barrs .
1,119 reviews44.8k followers
May 2, 2020
Hilary Mantel sure knows how to write; her prose is eloquent and sophisticated. Stylistically speaking, she is very distinctive. Very few writers wield grammar the way she does; she uses every means of punctuation at her disposal to achieve real effectual writing. At some points her writing is simply beautiful, but there are also some real difficulties associated with it.

This is a hard novel to read. It chronicles the life of Thomas Cromwell, and the narrative is focalised through him. However, at times it did become incredibly confusing. Mantel uses the third person, and repeatedly uses the pronoun “he.” But, who is the “he” in question? During one long piece of dialogue it became difficult to realise who was speaking. Both the Duke of Norfolk and Thomas were having a pretty in depth discussion about politics and so forth, both were referred to as “he” frequently. This may sound unusual, but if you‘ve read this book you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

This meant that in order to understand this novel, and perhaps even enjoy it, it demands your full attention. This is no light reading. The narrative is rich in depth and complexity. I had a few problems with some passages, so I read them again and got the gist of things. But, I really do think this would put many readers off. This requires an attentive and patient person. Also, a solid grasp on the history is vital. Mantel does not hand you the facts; she tells you Cromwell’s life story, but the rest is up to you. If you can get over these obstacles, as I did, then what develops is a fantastic portrayal of Tudor England, and Thomas Cromwell’s life. Trust me; this book’s worth sticking with.

Cold, cold Cromwell


So, if you’ve made it this far into my review, you’ll want to hear about the positives. Cromwell is an incredibly interesting historical figure, and Mantel’s portrayal of him is superb. She has evoked the essence of a self-made man who gained the ear of the King, through nothing but his own personal merits, which eventually lead to his sovereign’s complete trust. However, Cromwell is also very emotionless. He’s driven with ambition, to fulfil all that he can with his intellect, but he shuts out the rest of his life in the process. He loses a lot of family, but he gets over it very, very quickly. What he experiences would have broken most people.

By portraying such a thing, Mantel demonstrates Cromwell’s resolve. This gives him the heartlessness to succeed in the backstabbing world of Tudor politics; it gives him the nonchalance to betray and to use people as he climbs the social ladder. But, what goes around comes around, if you know anything about history, you’ll know what fate the wheel has for Cromwell. Cromwell’s relationship with Wolsey is an apt foreshadowing. I’m digressing here, my point is that Cromwell isn’t a very nice man; he isn’t heroic or likable, only resourceful and cold. He had to be to survive and become more than he once was; he had to be to gain the ear of the King, and to point him in the direction of Wolf Hall.

"The trouble with England, he thinks, is that it's so poor in gesture. We shall have to develop a hand signal for ‘Back off, our prince is fucking this man's daughter.’ He is surprised that the Italians have not done it. Though perhaps they have, and he just never caught on."

>Final thoughts- This is a great read, but it does require a great deal of focus. I love Mantel’s style of writing, and having already read the second book, I know the problems are worked out of it a bit. But, for this book, my enjoyment was hindered by having to re-read certain passages where the writing was at its extremist. The wonder of this work resides in its historical detail, its characterisation and its creative way of making the mundane details of life seem marvellous.


You can connect with me on social media via My Linktree.
Profile Image for Emily  O.
99 reviews111 followers
May 20, 2011
Do you ever wonder about why people choose to read the books they do? Well, I can tell you, I read Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel because it won the Book Prize For Fiction in 2009. You see, The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt was nominated for the Booker in 2009, but did not win. Curious to see what book could beat one of my favorite books of all time, I looked up Wolf Hall. And what do you know, it's another piece of historical fiction set in England and written by a woman. This could be interesting! I was intrigued, so I picked it up from the bookstore, determined to see if it was really better than The Children's Book.

Well, dear readers, I am sorry to say that it was not. I had such hopes for this book. It is set during the time of King Henry VIII, whom we all know was an interesting character in English history. The main character and narrator of the book is Thomas Cromwell, about whom there has been much speculation. Other main characters include Anne Boleyn, Thomas More, and Queen Katherine. I went into this book expecting the best, but I was sorely let down on every front. Wolf Hall was an exercise in disappointment.

First of all, I have to say that the writing was of a fine literary quality. I have no doubts that Hilary Mantel has a strong grasp of the English language, which is not something I can say about some authors I've read. Her only stylistic flaw was the tendency to put little artsy cliffhangers at the end of each section. I got the feeling that she didn't want to end a section without putting something that sounded either meaningful, artistic, or foreboding. While that can be a good technique when used sparingly, it came off feeling very contrived to me, like she was trying a little too hard. By the time I got to the middle of the book, which is a good 600 pages long, I was over it.

The main problem with this book was its lack of both character development and plot. First, the plot. I got to the end of the book not really sure what the point was. Quite frankly, I was expecting there to be more pages, because I didn't feel like the book had gone anywhere or come to any kind of conclusion yet. That is not a feeling I like. There was no climax, no conclusive event, nothing that tied together all the disparate happenings throughout the book. I felt like I was reading a series of events rather than a novel.

That would have been fine with me, had the characters made up for it. I don't need a plot-driven book if there is enough character development to make it character-driven. Sadly, this book fails on all fronts when it comes to characters. Our narrator, Thomas Cromwell, is so nebulous that he almost doesn't have a character to develop. His defining traits consist of a willingness to please the people he works for, a gift for business and diplomacy, and a tendency to treat his underlings well. That's what we start with at the beginning of the book, and that's what we're left with at the end. I had trouble believing he had aged at all throughout the course of the novel simply because he changed so little. Sadly, all the characters in the book are relatively similar to him, if not in character traits, than in voice. Though they are described as being very different, I had trouble distinguishing between characters. While their political leanings may have been different, there was hardly a difference between the voices of Thomas More, Anne Boleyn, or any other character. Mantel should take note that dialogue without tags or quotation marks (which is a device I actually like when used correctly) only works if the characters are distinct enough not to need them. Sadly, this was not the case in Wolf Hall.

There were a few things I liked about this book. Like I said, the writing itself was not bad, which is always a positive thing. I enjoyed that Mantel gave a fresh perspective on some very tired historical figures. I can't tell you how many saintly depictions of Thomas More I've read in my day, so it was nice to see him in a different (read: heartless and heretic-burning) light. Still, this book was mostly a let-down. It wasn't terrible enough for me to hate it, but rather squarely mediocre in every category. In my opinion, Wolf Hall should not have beat The Children's Book for the Booker prize, and I do not recommend it.

Rating: 3

No character development, very little plot, mediocre overall. Not recommended.
Profile Image for Annet.
570 reviews737 followers
February 8, 2020
‘Henry stirs into life. ‘Do I retain you for what is easy? Jesus pity my simplicity. I have promoted you to a place in this kingdom that no one, no one of your breeding has ever held in the whole of the history of this realm.’ He drops his voice. ‘Do you think it is for your personal beauty? The charm of your presence? I keep you, Master Cromwell, because you are as cunning as a bag of serpents…..’’

'Someone asks him if he wants to confess.
‘Must I’?
‘Yes, sir, or you will be thought a sectary.’
But my sins are my strength, he thinks; the sins I have done, that others have not even found the opportunity of committing. I hug them close; they’re mine. Besides, when I come to judgement I mean to come with a memorandum in my hand: I shall say to my Maker, I have fifty items here; possibly more.‘'

I love historical fiction and without a doubt this is one of the best, if not the best, history book I’ve read so far. I saved the last thirty or so pages for this weekend, just to read them slowly. This is a book to read slowly, to take it all in, the story, the love and the tragedy, the cruelty of the happenings, the poetry of the words….So I took my time with this book, but also because it’s not an easy to read story. Challenging in many ways. Like many readers probably I had to look back constantly to the Cast of Characters at the start of the book, who is who… and in the beginning you keep wondering who is telling the story. Who is he? Several possibilities but in the end, often the he is Cromwell himself. And the story goes to and fro with substories, locations, anecdotes, in time. So it’s a story that needs full attention 24/7.

It’s like getting inside the head of Thomas Cromwell, witnessing his thoughts, views, feelings, and we witness the rise of Cromwell, as a son of a blacksmith to one of Henry VIII’s most influential advisors in times of turmoil, dealing with colourful characters such as Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas More, Anna Boleyn and many more. Fascinating. Cromwell the politician, the schemer, the emotional man, the compromiser, the protector, the cunning man, the vulnerable man, the executor, the business man, the family man… A lot of books have been written around Cromwell, but never one like this, such an up close personal portrait. This is what Hilary Mantel says: ‘I admire him for his tenacity, his endurance and his brilliant politician’s brain. He was a visionary, but a practical one. One of those rare people who can grasp the big picture and down the details.’
A grand book, loved it.

Note: Last night I stayed up late to watch all of disk one of Wolf Hall the TV series and I loved it too on screen. Had to get used to the actor who plays Cromwell, but he is growing on me. I got so inspired I started reading Bring up the Bodies today. And again... the first pages... beautiful writing, I'll take my time and read it slowly...
Profile Image for karen.
3,988 reviews170k followers
July 26, 2018
hilary mantel is such a tease. she calls her book wolf hall because she knows i have a crush on jane seymour, and then she just blah blah blahs about thomas cromwell for 500 pages, feeding me only tiny bites of jane. sigh. me and hil have always had a rocky history.i have read four of her books now, and have only really liked one; beyond black. but i keep trying. this one was for class, but i probably would have read it anyway, because this summer i read a nice fat bio of henry VIII and really enjoyed a lot of "characters" in his court. but it is so frustrating, reading historical fiction or biographies. this is only my third tudor book (because, yes, i totally read the other boleyn girl), and the malleability of history and the filters through which authors present these people is terribly inconsistent, depending on their own prejudices. i loved chupuys in the weir book, but here he is so foppish and weird - like a less fuckable david bowie in labyrinth. sometimes mary boleyn is a victim, sometimes she is cold and calculating, sometimes she is just a party girl depending on who is telling me the story. damn apologists. there were sections of writing i loved here, but most of it was flat, to me.i thought the opening was great, and the last 60 pages or so were fairly rollicking, but for some reason much of the middle seemed arid, but peppered with episodes i loved. i am glad that i read it, and a lot of my resistance may have just been my poor fever-riddled brain's inability to concentrate for any reasonable period of time, but i'm not swayed to mantelmania just yet. try try again.

addition: can someone help me with this, because i am getting conflicting opinions from people i trust equally. please tell me how to pronounce "chupuys". one smart person said it was pronounced "cha-pwah", and another smart person made it rhyme with "pepys". fix this rift for me please.

come to my blog!
Profile Image for Ahmad Sharabiani.
9,564 reviews46 followers
October 23, 2021
Wolf Hall (Thomas Cromwell, #1), Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall (2009) is a historical novel by English author Hilary Mantel.

Wolf Hall is a sympathetic fictionalized biography documenting the rapid rise to power of Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII through to the death of Sir Thomas More.

The novel won both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 2012, The Observer named it as one of "The 10 best historical novels".

Wolf Hall (Thomas Cromwell, #1)
Bring Up the Bodies (Thomas Cromwell, #2)
The Mirror and the Light (Thomas Cromwell, #3)

تاریخ نخستین خوانش: روز بیست و دوم ماه آگوست سال 2011میلادی

عنوان: تالار گرگ - کتاب اول؛ نویسنده: هیلاری منتل؛ مترجم: کیومرث پارسای؛ تهران، روزگار، سال1388؛ چاپ دیگر سال1391؛ در528ص؛ شابک9789643742287؛ موضوع داستانهای نویسندگان بریتانیا - سده 21م

مترجم: علی اکبر قاضی زاده؛ تهران، تندیس، سال1390؛ در864ص؛ شابک9786001820380؛

تالار گرگ، داستانی تاریخی، اثر نویسنده ی «انگلیسی»، «هیلاری منتل» است، که در سال2009میلادی منتشر شد؛ رخدادهای این داستان در فاصله سال‌1500میلادی، تا سال1535میلادی، رخ می‌دهند، روایتی داستانی از زندگی «تامس کرامول» و صعود ایشان به قدرت، در دربار «هنری هشتم» است؛ «هیلاری منتل» برای نوشتن این کتاب در سال2009میلادی، برنده ی جایزه ادبی «من بوکر» شدند؛ این کتاب بخشی از یک سه‌ گانه است که کتاب دوم آن در سال2012میلادی منتشر شده، و کتاب سوم در سال2020میلادی منتشر خواهد شد؛ کتاب دوم با عنوان «مجرمان را بیاورید» با ترجمه جناب آقای «علی اکبر قاضی زاده»، تهران، کتابسرای تندیس؛ در543ص؛ در سال1392هجری خورشیدی منتشر شده است

تاریخ بهنگام رسانی 15/09/1399هجری خورشیدی؛ 30/07/1400هجری خورشیدی؛ ا. شربیانی
Profile Image for Adina .
891 reviews3,551 followers
December 11, 2017
You don’t know much about Henry VIII except that he was an English king, had a lot of wives and changed the official Church of England so he could bang another woman? You heard of Thomas Cromwell but you don’t know exactly why he is so important? You want to learn more about this period in England’s history and you think Wolf Hall is the place to start? Well, let me tell you, IT ISN’T. You already know everything there is to know about the life and deeds of the 2 men and are interested in a beautiful, literary take on the subject? Then Hillary Mantell’s novel might be exactly why you are looking for.

As you might have guessed from the title, Wolf Hall is the story of Thomas Cromwell in the 1520’s when he was England cardinal’s right hand. During this period, Henry the VIII becomes obsessed with having a male heir and wants to annul his 20 year marriage in order to have Anne Boleyn as his 2nd wife.

My prior knowledge about Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell was more extensive than what I wrote above but not much more. As a result, I had difficulties following the plot and entering the atmosphere of the time. The use of 3rd person and the extremely confusing use of pronoun He (tip: it almost always refers to Cromwell) did not help to create more intimacy.

The writing is beautiful, I found myself many times mesmerized by the author’s talent only to remain dumbfounded 10 pages later because I could not understand what she was talking about. The 3 stars are due to this mix of feelings. I both felt enticed and annoyed, excited and bored, sometimes all in the same time.

I strongly believe that I would have benefited a lot more from this story if I had read other books about this period beforehand. I researched a lot while reading but that took away from the flow of the reading experience and left me feeling frustrated and dumb.
Profile Image for ♡ ⊱ Sonja ⊰ ♡.
2,749 reviews451 followers
October 19, 2022
Dieses Buch zu bewerten, fällt mir nicht ganz leicht. Ich habe mich so auf diesen Roman gefreut, denn eigentlich ist das Thema genau meins. Ich interessiere mich sehr für König Heinrich VIII und sein Umfeld. Daher würde ich dem Buch inhaltlich auch fünf Sterne geben.
Ich mag Historische Romane am liebsten, wenn sie mich mitnehmen in die Zeit. Wenn ich mich zurückversetzt fühlen kann in die Vergangenheit. Wenn ich mit den Charakteren mitfühlen kann.
Das war hier leider nicht so. Das Problem ist der Schreibstil. Sehr anspruchsvoll, sehr sachlich irgendwie. Das ist eigentlich kein Kritikpunkt, aber ich persönlich mag es lieber, wenn der Schreibstil ein bisschen flüssiger ist, ein bisschen "umgänglicher".
Trotzdem ist es ein sehr gutes Buch, und irgendwann werde ich mich wohl auch an den zweiten Band wagen, da das Thema mich einfach viel zu sehr reizt!
November 1, 2022
4 'Treacherous' stars for the rise and rise and rise of Thomas Cromwell.

A fascinating character study of Thomas Cromwell, the man behind the notorious Henry VIII who was to mastermind the divorce of Catherine of Aragon, the dissolution of the monasteries and the schemes to furnish the kings purse with revenue from the lands of earls. And the man who was then to conspire against Anne Boleyn and orchestrate her downfall after failing to produce Henry his long desired male heir.

A sometimes shy and retiring person but Cromwell was a man that was as ruthless as he was brilliant, a man fierce in his treatment of people at court yet a loving father. A man that Henry himself describes as “… cunning as a bag of serpents”. A man that came across unassuming, quiet, and harmless, yet the truth was very different. Cromwell was highly manipulative, savage and ruthless but extremely intelligent, which makes him a fascinating character in history and to read about.

The Plot

There is not much to add to the plot if you already know of Henry VIII’s reign and the role Thomas Cromwell played in that. However, this story is not a retelling of this historical period and Henry’s reign but instead is a superb reimagining of Cromwell himself, as we get inside the head and the mind of this prominent but dangerous figure.

A brief summary of the period then. Henry VIII seeks a divorce from his wife Catherine of Aragon who has failed to produce a male heir which also gives him the freedom to marry the beautiful but shrewd Anne Boleyn. And with a belief sold to Henry by Cromwell that no man should stand between God and King, Henry pulls away from the Catholic church and creates a protestant England and Church, with him at the helm.

Anne’s demise is decided by Cromwell who creates a case of adultery against her, so the king can then move onto wife number three. Jane Seymour.

Review and comments

My recommendation before reading this book is to familiarise yourself with Henry VIII and this historical period, because it is an important backdrop that Mantel does not attempt to recount. The reader is assumed to know these details. Instead, this is a fabulous insight into the man that was behind many of the decisions that the king was to make in court. Thomas Cromwell.

A man that was to win favour with Henry whilst Henry’s previous allies were exiled or executed, with Cromwell lurking behind the scenes and with a hand in many of the decisions taken. Very telling with a conversation between Sir Thomas More, a close confidant of the kings.

“He thinks, I remembered you, Thomas More, but you didn't remember me. You never even saw me coming.”

This is a creatively imagined but solidly written story with such historical accuracy. A very compelling insight into the character and mind of Thomas Cromwell. A man that seemed to shy away from all the court trappings but underneath a ruthless, ambitious figure whose power was to rise to dizzying heights while he amassed enemies from within the court and further afield.

Two negatives!!! The story was very slow in places and the author didn’t always make it clear who was speaking, when using words like ‘he says’ a lot. So, you have to keep track which characters were in conversation all the time. Other readers noted that many people were known by the same name, like Thomas, however this is not something Hilary Mantel could control, as all the characters were real during this period.

Personally, I think there was scope for including more historical detail, although I understand why Mantel took this approach to focus on Cromwell. However, on the whole, this was beautifully written story, a superb reimagining particularly with the conversations between the characters at court. The writing style was perfect with its intensity, subtly and symbolic references peppered throughout. In all a phenomenal character study, which combined all the events and complexities of the political landscape at the time with the lens on Cromwell, which I loved.

The portrayal of Thomas Cromwell was stunning. The mastermind; the revolutionary; the negotiator; the Politician; the executioner; the serpent; and the father.

“But my sins are my strength, he thinks; the sins I have done, that others have not even found the opportunity of committing. I hug them close; they're mine.”
Profile Image for KJ.
90 reviews12 followers
July 12, 2015
Unfortunately I gave up on this book at page 84. I'm really disappointed that I was unable to get into this book as so many have raved about it. I just found the prose exceptionally dense and confusing. At times I was confused as to who was 'speaking' and couldn't follow it.

Oh well.....next!
Profile Image for Richard (on hiatus).
160 reviews187 followers
April 15, 2020
I admit to approaching Wolf Hall with a embarrassing lack of knowledge about Thomas Cromwell and the dysfunctional marriages of Henry Vlll, so, with some time on my hands I thought it a good project to finally read this long novel and gain a little historical insight.
The novel principally follows the life of Thomas Cromwell, from his rough and ready youth living with his sisters and abusive blacksmith father, to his eventually becoming, arguably, the most powerful man in England.
Thomas Cromwell was the ultimate jack of all trades - sometime merchant, lawyer, money market speculator, statesman and chief advisor to the king.
Much of the political intrigue in Wolf Hall concerns the attempts to annul the marriage of Henry to Katherine of Aragon, his first wife, leaving the way open for him to marry Anne Boleyn and in turn facilitating the hope of a male heir.
This complicated manoeuvring, in which Thomas Cromwell is central, is set against the background of the theological battle between Catholicism and Protestantism (very real and very violent) and the tension between the overriding authority of the Roman Catholic Church in Europe and the growing desire of Henry, for Britain to go its own way i.e. removing the Church of England from the authority of Rome.
I found Wolf Hall to be beautifully written with some lovely flashes of lyricism, a quiet, wry humour and surprisingly, to have a strong emotion punch.
The descriptions of 16th Century England are colourful and persuasive but the biggest achievement of the novel is the character studies - famous names come to life:
The shambling, irritating and obstinate Thomas More - made sadistic by his religion. The fickle, vain and unstable ways of King Henry as he becomes ever more unpredictable. Anne Boleyn with her calculating and cruel ambition. The comedic but nasty bluster of the Duke of Norfolk. Cardinal Wolsey - wise, caring and pompous. All those of Cromwell’s makeshift and disparate ‘family’ living their boisterous, warm and affectionate life at Austin Friars and of course Cromwell himself - our hero, the novel’s centre.
Quiet, calm, persuasive, tactical, manipulative, likeable, reasonable and inscrutable. A man relied upon to make things happen but also a details man, a logistical and accounting expert. Once Thomas Cromwell enters your employ it’s not long before you depend on him, totally - hence his rise to power.
As much as I enjoyed Wolf Hall it wasn’t an easy or fast read. I found I was constantly looking up historical detail, kindle in one hand iPad in the other (must admit I enjoyed this). Also, keeping in touch with the massive list of characters wasn’t always easy, although a list at the beginning of the book helped. Finally, the difficulty that is most discussed about this book is the idiosyncratic use of ‘he’.
The novel is written from Cromwells POV in the present tense, but it’s written in third person. Instead of continually writing Cromwell did this, Cromwell did that, Mantel uses the pronoun ‘he’. He wonders, he thinks, he says etc. This, Mantel argues, makes you feel closer to Cromwell, seeing with his eyes, like a camera on his shoulder. The problem is, of course, when there’s a few characters in a scene, it’s not always easy to see who the ‘he’ is referring to. To be honest, the best bet is to simply assume every ‘he’ refers to Cromwell, you won’t often be wrong :)
This novel took me a long time to read but was very much worth it.

Note: I thought the political, religious and royal intrigues of Britain in the 1500’s would be a good escape from our current, unsettling times ......... until I read the chapters concerning the ‘sweating sickness’ a mysterious epidemic of unknown origin that sweeps across London and the rest of the country, claiming thousands of lives.
Oh well - I tried!
Profile Image for Jennifer (formerly Eccentric Muse).
468 reviews1,000 followers
February 4, 2018
First off, I find the whole notion of the monarchy - any monarchy - absurd. And also, despite being a citizen of a Commonwealth nation with Her Royal Majesty's mug plastered all over my bills and coins, the Union Jack incorporated into my provincial flag, and a mom who dragged me out of bed at 4 a.m. to watch Lady Diana, Princess of Wales walk to her doom - err, groom - I am not, nor have I ever been, a monarchist.

I honestly don't remember what kind of history I was taught in school, but the Royal Lineage (aren't you supposed to capitalize everything to do with Them? or is that just God?) wasn't, as I recall, on the curriculum or more likely, I wasn't paying attention if it was.

So - entering this book - tea-soaked brain and lover of the superfluous 'u' in labour, favour, rigour, honour aside - I was a blank slate. All I know of Henry VIII is that he had and had killed a lot of wives and you need a big ole' turkey leg as a prop if you're planning a Hallowe'en costume.

I loved Wolf Hall. And, I'm going to talk about why, but let me start with the caveat that Simon E's review (which convinced me to read this) and also Clif H's and David G's will give you more and better insights into a lot of what makes this book so fabulous, i.e., the nuance and energy of the writing, the detail and precision of it, and - in short - what it's about.

'Coz all that is important, but while I cared about it (and especially, the knotty problem of the non-specific third-person, which I *will* comment on shortly), that's not what mattered to me.

Thomas Cromwell mattered (matters) to me.

So I'm going to talk about character - and specifically Thomas Cromwell - and that's pretty much all I'm going to talk about because for me: he was the book; the book was him. It's as though Mantel had to wrestle him onto the page, he's so big. I totally understand - as pointed out in The Atlantic's recent blurb about Bring Up The Bodies - why she decided to extend this book into a series - and ended up needing three books to get through his life.

She can't leave the guy. And I didn't want to, either.

Now - here's where my lack of English history comes in: I have no idea who he is, who he really is (does anyone?) nor have I read anything else about him, biographical or fictional. Although I was provoked to learn more about him at about the point where Mantel started to hint around at him getting remarried and I wondered, to whom? among the lucky dames swirling about him, all of whom seemed eager to get a piece of the mighty fine Mr. Cromwell, even though he "looks like a murderer."

Mantel portrays him as a man of massive charisma, a 16th-century James Bond, smooth, suave, eminently capable and a little dangerous, his vast knowledge stemming from sources unknown but slightly shady. Cromwell can judge the quality of a Turkish rug, spatchcock a songbird, and kill a man with a single knife twist all before cocktail hour and without breaking a sweat.

In terms of seeking more in the way of biography (with some need to reconcile Mantel's portrayal with reality - but, I now think, why?) I only went as far as wikipedia. There, I learned with some sadness what eventually became of him. Ceridwen said somewhere about reading books about The Plague that it's always so horrible because you know how it's going to end, that everyone is going to die, but it still hits you like a ton of bricks when they do.

But Cromwell doesn’t die here, nor does Boleyn, although a lot of other people do – and in some pretty horrifying ways. Burning, disembowelling – Mantel doesn’t flinch when presenting the many and gruesome deaths – and more to the point, she has her readers contemplate them in the same way that the condemned are: showing us scenes of anticipation and preparation that are gut-wrenching (e.g., the fellow - I forget his name, starts with a B - and the candle in the Tower), but which are also necessary to put us in the middle of this world, and feel for these characters deeply; to understand how a thoughtless word, a loyalty held too long, a momentary lapse in correctly sensing the shift in weather and whim can lead to ruin.

And, in the process, making Cromwell’s accomplishments all the more stunning.

With the single exception, perhaps, of Cromwell (who sticks out like a sore thumb; he's somehow different than the rest of these people; more 'modern'), it doesn't matter who you are, how hard you work, or what natural abilities you possess. None of these bears a direct correlation to fame, fortunes or outcome. It only matters who you are born to, whose favour you curry or attract, and what role the powerful want you to play in their chess game.

What Mantel is showing us is the rise and fall from power of each of the most significant characters during this volatile time. The opportunities seized, alliances forged, compromises made on the way up – and how they unravel on the way down.

Politics. Whether power is obtained by divine right or democracy, the humans at the heart of it – across time – are the same creatures, with lusts, greed, principles and passions for money, for sex, for respect, for domination.

This is politics and history lifting off the page through the most extraordinary characterization – humanization, really. This is absolutely the best that historical fiction can be.

Let me also talk about dialogue just a bit: it, too, is almost anachronistically modern. It’s especially so when it comes out of Cromwell's mouth. It's modern in the sense that it is dry, ironic, sarcastic, humorous and most of all egalitarian. When Thomas has a conversation with someone – but especially his wife and children – he is listening. He is listening with his heart and head wide open to other people’s feelings and desires, and with an empathy born out of his own abusive past. That is if not the key, certainly a key to understanding his personality.

He has a psychotherapist’s ability to understand motivation: what people want, why they want it, how far they’ll go to get it. And then, he has an opportunist’s ability to insert himself in exactly the place he needs to be to help them do it.

This dual- (tri, quadri-?) sided, chameleon-like personality – will the real Thomas Cromwell please stand up? – is Mantel’s incredible, extraordinary accomplishment here.

He made me nervous. I had my sociopath-sniffer on full alert. He reminded me, at times, of personalities I’ve encountered in the corporate world: snakes in suits. All charm and manipulation and laser-like, greed-headed, power-seeking opportunism. They disguise their lust for power behind facile arguments about “win-win-win” and “trickle-down” scenarios and "their employees being their greatest assets," when really, they'd sell their own mothers for a shot at a C-level title and all the accoutrements that come with. They manage up and abuse down.

But Cromwell – largely by virtue of the brain-busting non-specific third person POV that Mantel uses to bring us inside his head – is not a sociopath. Yep – he’s an opportunist. Yep – he’s a manipulator. But he’s not cruel. He does not use his extrasensory perception about people without compassion or kindness. Mantel shows us a Cromwell trying to get everyone what they need, help them position themselves appropriately - but some can't be saved. Some are going to be casualties of the bigger shift he sees coming.

Also: he loves - really loves - children and animals (showing him with all those little dogs named Bella is not accidental).

When Cromwell wins, it actually is true that a whole bunch of other people win – and those who don’t (Thomas More, e.g.), are not just on the wrong side of the power elite, but on the wrong side of the wave that is about to swamp this society: a reformation of manners, morality and social structure that will, eventually, triumph. As Cromwell envisions.

There is a clear, strong sense here that Cromwell does not do what he does for personal gain (or at least, not primarily for that – that’s a happy artifact), but because he’s pursuing that vision of a meritocratic democracy in which beat-up little boys and used-and-abused little girls can grow up and get a share of the nation’s massive wealth (throughout much of his own lifetime, held by the Church).

Ok, maybe that’s overstating it. His own vision, while expansive, while prescient, may not have been that progressive. But ... then again ... in both subtle and overt ways, we see Cromwell who is a man out of his own time, a notion that Mantel deliberately heightens through his style of dialogue, and his very thoughts which we are privy to via that third-person POV.

He wanted to wrest the wealth away from the Church so the King could have it – but he ALSO realized that transferring the full weight of power previously held by the Church onto the King would be like cutting off your nose to spite your face. Instead, he wanted the power of the King to be supported by the will of the people. He foresaw not only the religious reformation that had to occur, but the political one: that together, these were the seeds of a constitutional monarchy that would rule only through the political will of the people.

It is as though Mantel reverse-engineered the guy. I feel she must have said to herself: what kind of man would be able to engineer a precedent-shattering divorce for Henry VIII, the English Reformation – oh, and while we’re at it, the beginning of the English Parliamentary system? She knew it wasn’t Henry VIII himself – that someone else must have been the man behind the curtain, and that someone was Thomas Cromwell.

So she built him – layer by layer, scene by scene. Starting on the first page, where the first paragraph shows him being beaten viciously by his father.

We start with Thomas Cromwell as an abused child.

I cannot emphasize this enough. He is an abused child who grows up to have deep compassion and exhibit remarkable kindness in a world that is, to our modern eyes, inconceivably cruel. The psychology of that can play out in any number of ways, but the horrific abuse and abandonment that Cromwell experienced is the crucible out of which his personality and all his later acts were forged.

He is a man deeply in love with his first (and only?) wife, whom he treats as an equal.

He is a tradesman, a businessman and a believer that, like him, all men have within them the same abilities. And so he is also a mentor and a teacher to them. (There is an extraordinary scene of him with a young boy that Thomas More had horrifically abused, breaking down with Cromwell. It is brilliant. I forget the character’s name now, maybe he was someone who went on to do something great in history. Or maybe he wasn’t; doesn't matter. It is Cromwell's connection with him that matters.) How many young men, pseudo-sons, does he take under his wing - orphans, ruffians, of low birth just like him?

He’s a self-made man whose lack of rank in this society presents a constant hurdle but also offers him the ability to see an alternate reality.

He’s an accountant, a lawyer, a biblical scholar. He follows the money, he makes the laws and he outreasons the priests and bishops with superior knowledge not only of scripture, but of how to use it to galvanize the masses. Calling him a ‘renaissance man’ – a descriptor Henry VIII claimed for himself – would be underselling him.

What he is not: a liar, a bully, a thief, or a sociopath.

And also what he is not is principled: he really doesn’t have any of his own. Loyalty, maybe; but not at the cost of his own skin or fortunes. He was absolutely tortured by the downfall of his mentor Cardinal Wolsley, but he also cold-bloodedly extricated himself from going down with him despite the personal trauma it caused him.

And that is where Thomas Cromwell differs from most of us: he serves whichever master will enable him to execute his own vision, almost entirely BECAUSE he has no dogma of his own (Groucho Marx: “Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others.”) He is surprised when, twice, he offers condemned traitors (including Thomas More) a way out, and they don’t take it – standing firm on their own dogmatic allegiance to principle. This is Cromwell’s biggest blindspot – also, the thing that enables him to survive.

I have Bring Up The Bodies sitting right in front of me. I don’t know how long I’m going to be able to delight in the anticipation and delay my gratification.
Profile Image for Lena.
200 reviews93 followers
February 18, 2023
I have a really mixed impression about this highly-praised awarded book. It has a lot of both: negative and positive reviews and I agree with all of them. I can see why some people loved it: reach historical context, attention to details and very well written intrigues. But it was sooo boring. I had to read through dozens of pages and names and endless dinners and interrogations just to come across of a few witty conversations and clever quotes. It's quite hard for me to comprehend how a novel about such a bloody historical period could be so dull. And although it's about Cromwell, I don't feel like his character was well written.
Profile Image for Melindam.
666 reviews293 followers
July 7, 2023
ETA on 2 June 2023: Still love this book to pieces! ♡♡♡

R.I.P., Hilary Mantel 😞


Nothing short of amazing!

”The world is not run from where he thinks. Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, from where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from castle walls, but from countinghouses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.”

I listened to the audiobook and after finishing Book 2 in the audio format as well, I started reading the physical copies right away. I don't want to get away from the world Mantel created and the persons she populated it with.

I was a bit worried first, because the reviews were all over the place for this novel: either they were all love or hate.
But I am firmly in the former camp.
In Hilary Mantel's interpretation I find Thomas Cromwell one of the most fascinating literary & historical characters. He was a truly self-made man & and -I venture to say- a true Renaissance man!

I did not really form any solid views of him before. He was a puppet-master behind Henry VIII, he was evil. Period. I also remember reading and liking A man for all seasons : a play of Sir Thomas More by Robert Bolt which hailed Thomas More as a morally righteous hero, setting him against Thomas Cromwell as a calculating villain.
So I was surprised, but totally admired how adroitly Mantel turned the tables on them without actually vilifying More or venerating Cromwell.

The way Cromwell is fleshed out, the whole process is astounding. He is being created in front of our eyes, more and more intriguing details and layers are added like Mantel was using a computer progamme, updating him from 2-dimensional to 3D. It's not a linear process and appears to be random sometimes, like stringing beads of different colour and size, but it just makes him all the more interesting. Mantel also endows him with wit and a dry sense of humour which is very appealing.
It's also amazing to be inside Thomas Cromwell's head and view all those "celebrities" of history (Henry VIII, Catherine of Aragon, Anne Bolyen, Thomas More, Cardinal Wolsey...) through his eyes. He is a very interesting filter that allows you to form your own judgement and keep your distance from them as well as from Cromwell himself or you can identify yourself with him... just as you choose.

I can understand those readers who were frustrated with the writing style, but the audiobook really helped getting over that and it took me some 30 minutes to get into the rhythm of it.
On the other hand, the use of the present tense and indirect speech somehow enhanced the atmosphere for me - like it was more of a novel of magical realism than historical fiction.
Profile Image for Henk.
875 reviews
September 23, 2022
Super shocking that Hilary Mantel died 😢
Rich and engaging. Cutthroat and brutal.
Sucking you into Tudor England but requiring a lot of concentration- 4 stars

A man's power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face. It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires.

I am not a huge fan of historical fiction. Not sure why, but if a blurb on a book starts with "1876, Wyoming" than the lights just go off for me.
Wolf Hall is however exceptionally good and surpasses the bounds and innate dislike I have for the genre. Still I found the reading experience not really smooth and noted that I didn't progress easily in this book without really blocking time for it and giving it my full attention.

The style Hilary Mantel uses to bring the rise of Thomas Cromwell to live, as if the reader is watching over his shoulder, is part of the reason for this. Cromwell is often referred to by he in meetings or conversations and the number of people with first name Thomas is just enormous and adds to the confusion.

The story itself is high octane, Greek drama like. We have beheadings, heresy burnings, deadly fevers and incestuous (or at least unsavoury) relations around the court.
Despite Cromwell thinking The trouble with England, he thinks, is that it's so poor in gesture. We shall have to develop a hand signal for ‘Back off, our prince is fucking this man's daughter.’ He is surprised that the Italians have not done it. Though perhaps they have, and he just never caught on. a lot is left unsaid as puzzles to figure out by the reader.
At times the meetings Cromwell needs to discuss something with Henry strangely enough reminded me of conference calls of the modern day age. I think a take over battle around a major multinational would not be a strange approach to adopting this books setting to the modern world.

Wolf Hall in my view is not an accessible read in that sense. The pay off is however impressive.

Characters: Thomas Cromwell, Anne Boleyn and Thomas More
How does Cromwell transform from a low life to the mightiest cardinal secretary and a lawyer? I miss some kind of background on this upward social mobility, even though his talents as someone who always gets his way, one way or the other, are made clear by Mantel.

I feel we get little glimpses in what motivates him and how he feels. We have tragedy, caused by rampant illnesses and death, recurring every summer, and a touching scene where the clothes of his wife are cut up and recycled in new garments. We start the book of with a visceral scene of him being beaten half to death by his father (leading him to think later: I shall be as tender to you as my father was not to me. For what's the point of breeding children, if each generation does not improve on who went before).
We see some glimpses of religious conviction, the story of the granny burned at the stake when he was young is one of the few times we get to see something of the inner world and the thoughts that shaped Cromwell.
And we have glints of family life but I still had a hard time understanding what made him tick and what prompted the move from the Cardinal to the King, besides power.
Him being a family man and gathering an entourage of doting, meritocratically picked youngsters is an interesting contrast, however this could also be seen from a lense of power as pointed out by one of his protegees:
When have I, when have I ever forced anyone to do anything, he starts to say: but Richard cuts in, No, you don't, I agree, it's just that you are practiced at persuading, and sometimes it's quite difficult, sir, to distinguish being persuaded by you from being knocked down in the street and stamped on.

Anne Boleyn as an character I did enjoy quite a lot, from the initial introductions (My lord, what do you call a whore when she is a knight’s daughter?” “Ah,” the cardinal says, entering into the problem. “To her face, my lady.) to her fiery vengeance to anyone opposing her (At New Year's he had given Anne a present of silver forks with handles of rock crystal. He hopes she will use them to eat with, not to stick in people.).
Her reflection on finally being queen is quite touching when we think of how she ends up at the end of Bring Up the Bodies: I was always desired. But now i am valued. And that is a different thing, i find. All this is balanced out by her abuse of her sister Mary as just a pawn to get full grip on Henry.

And then we have stringent Thomas More, who already quite early says that he is unsure if one can be friends with a sovereign and falls out of the favour of Henry spectacularly due to his principles: I have written books and I cannot unwrite them. I cannot unbelieve what I believe. I cannot unlive my life.

Themes: Church versus State, Merchants versus Nobility, Laws versus the Individual, Men and Women
On a more intellectual level I only late in the book picked up on what broader themes the story is revolving around. I think it is testament to the power of the characterisation of Mantel, because the themes are major and still relevant today.

Center stage is the battle between worldly versus spiritual power and the ascending merchant class versus the established nobility. This is symbolized best by a terrifying speech of Cromwell on the power of money: Let's say I will rip your life apart. Me and my banker friends.
How can he explain that to him? The world is not run from where he thinks. Not from border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, from where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from the castle walls, but from counting houses, not be the call of the bugle, but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.

The extent and limit of power in the hands of one mortal, legitimised by worldly people, versus the individual's conscience and personal religious beliefs is also prominently brought into question.
Through laws (When you are writing laws you are testing words to find their utmost power. Like spells, they have to make things happen in the real world, and like spells, they only work if people believe in them.) Cromwell tries to bring about a repression of mind at the end of the book that felt 1984 like. This made me think about what a just law means and if repression by the church is really worse than repression by a monarch.

Then we have the position of women, with even the wife of Cromwell saying to him that the divorce of Henry would lead to: All women everywhere in England. All women who have a daughter but not a son. All women who have lost a child. All women who have lost any hope of having a child. All women who are forty. turning against him.

And what struck me was also that what Henry as one of the mightiest of his time wants, a divorce, is so simple and available to everyone nowadays. Showing just how much our power of self determination has grown during the centuries.
Profile Image for Paula K .
435 reviews417 followers
June 5, 2020
Booker Prize 2009
Women’s Prize Nominee for Fiction 2010
Costa Book Nominee 2009
National Book Critics Circle Award 2009

If you like literary historical fiction, Wolf Hall is a must. This Tutor era piece is exceptional. The dialogue is so outstanding. Seen from the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, this novel brings to light such a different perspective than your typical Tutor piece. Everything I have read previously has shown Cromwell as a total villain. This shows the man as a husband, loving father, and shrewd businessman. Anne Boleyn is spectacularly presented.

I am late to the show with the book series. I watched the BBC production of Wolf Hall not too long ago and loved it. Reading the book was so satisfying. I am now about to move on to Bring Up the Bodies via audiobook from the Boston Public Library and can’t wait. With all going virtual lately, we were given the opportunity of joining the Boston e Library recently if you are a Massachusetts resident. How lovely to be able to choose from other sites for ebooks and audiobooks. So wonderful...

5 out of 5 stars
Profile Image for  ~Geektastic~.
234 reviews148 followers
August 15, 2014
I have always been fascinated by the history of England under the Tudors, particularly Henry VIII. I chalk this up partly to a morbid fascination, and partly to a genuine desire to understand the circumstances leading up to the Golden Age of Elizabeth I. (Her family’s Whig hatred of Elizabeth I is one of the few things I hold against Jane Austen.) This being said, I have hidden plot spoilers, but I will not be held accountable for the “spoilers” of history.

Well, to understand the circumstances of Henry’s rule, there are about half a dozen Thomases that warrant examination, and Hilary Mantel chose Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell has not been particularly well-favored by history; he is most often seen as a shadowy, grasping commoner who rightly sealed his own fate by reaching too high above his station. Not so in Wolf Hall, thankfully. To those around him, Cromwell retains much of the shadowy, unreadable nature he has been granted by historians (or a lack of historical fact), but since we are granted a sort of over-the-shoulder look into his life, he soon becomes the calm center at the eye of Henry’s storm during the king’s “Great Matter”-- the divorce from his first wife Katherine of Aragon and the beginning of his separation from the church of Rome. Practicality, drive and natural talent are Cromwell’s greatest features, in history as in Mantel’s narrative, but what also emerges is his humanity.

At the height of his prominence at court, Cromwell was painted by the famous portraitist Hans Holbein (the same painter that allegedly painted the ill-fated Anne Boleyn), and in his portrait, Cromwell appears fat, shifty-eyed and unappealing. This image is not the one I maintained while reading Wolf Hall. Cromwell is first introduced as a teenager (Cromwell doesn’t have a recorded birth date, so his age is always a guessing game), lying on the cobblestones of his childhood home of Putney in a pool of his own blood. Thankfully, things look up from there; Thomas is nothing if not resourceful, and he is soon on his feet and making his way through the world. His gift for languages, quick wit and a rather imposing physique (he is frequently said, even by those closest to him, to “look like a murderer”) all give Cromwell an edge in his dealings with the world at large, and when we next see him, he has risen from the gutter into the service of the (in)famous Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. When Wolsey meets his end, Cromwell sticks faithfully by him, but fortunately does not share his fate. Through a series of fortuitous circumstances and simple business savvy, Cromwell becomes a secretary and advisor to the king, becoming enough of a favorite to drag Henry out of his cloistered court to visit Cromwell during a serious illness, a favor the disease-fearing king didn’t even grant to his queens.

As fascinating as it is to see Mantel’s imagining of Cromwell’s life at court, it is his home life that gives the most insight and makes him such a compelling character. Tudor England is not a time or place famous for marital fidelity (Henry VIII did have six wives, after all), but Cromwell is a faithful, loving family man. When fate robs him of much of his “true” family, he cobbles one together from distant relatives, wards and even his employees. In Mantel’s version of events, it is not pure, unadulterated ambition that drives Cromwell to the heights of courtly success, but his desire to maintain his family and raise them to a life of comfort and security, two things very hard to come by in a world of shifting alliances and constant intrigue. Essentially, Cromwell’s loyalty and assiduous attention to the king’s business is directly correlated to his love for his family, sometimes to the detriment of his conscience (Cromwell sided, though only in thought, with the rights of Queen Katherine).

I was afraid at the start of this novel, seeing that it is so long, that Mantel would carry us all the way from the bloody stones of Putney to The (even bloodier) Tower. Cromwell is a historical figure, after all, and anyone familiar with the rule of Henry VIII knows that Thomas Cromwell does not outlive his king. Fortunately (for me, anyway) the novel runs its course through the fall, not of Cromwell, but

Thomas More is a figure much like Cromwell, in that history is not quite sure what to do with him. Was he the pure-hearted, conscience-driven martyr that many have asserted? Or, as Mantel portrays him, a vain, calculating religious fanatic with his eyes turned to heaven but his hands lighting the heretic pyre? No one can say for sure, but the relationship between Cromwell and More was notoriously difficult, with one aiding the rise of Anne Boleyn and the other refusing to acknowledge her, so Mantel had much to work with.

Henry VIII, Cromwell and More are not the only historical figures we meet, of course. We see the fall of the haughty but faithful Katherine of Aragon and the bastardization of her daughter Mary; the rise of a vengeful, self-centered Anne Boleyn and the birth of her daughter Elizabeth (the “red-headed pig”); the unfortunate but eventually cheerful life of Anne's sister Mary ("the great whore") amidst the scheming of the other Boleyns/Howards; the emergence of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (I told you there were a lot of Thomases) and the comings and goings of many lesser-known nobles. We only get a few brief glimpses of Anne’s successor, Jane Seymour, which seems at first odd and then prescient, as Wolf Hall is the name of her family’s estate. If Henry’s court was a tapestry, Mantel’s novel is much like the back of the weaving, where all of the threads reveal themselves to be convoluted knots, the ends indiscernible from the beginnings.

In my limited experience, many writers of historical fiction seem concerned only with extremes; characters are either cardboard cutouts made from the remnants of third-rate high school textbooks, or anachronistic insertions that feel, at best out of place, and at worst positively irreconcilable to the times into which they have been unceremoniously thrust. Mantel doesn’t fall into these categories, thankfully. Her characters are fully realized, from queens to back alley mercenaries-turned errand boys and everyone in between. Thomas Cromwell is, of course, both the star of the show and her masterpiece-- the Cromwell she gave me was not the man I was expecting and I am so glad to be surprised.

Aside from historical accuracy or the nuts and bolts of characters and place names, Mantel’s skill in the mundane is truly exceptional. I never expected to find so much humor in a novel concerned with what was an increasingly terrifying time in history. The everyday people that populate Mantel’s vision of Henry VIII’s court and kingdom are just that; they face reality with a combination of determination, humor and acceptance that I think many of us would see as nearly impossible, looking back as we do from an age of 80-year life expectancy and flushing toilets. I won’t give in and praise the “indomitable human spirit” of her creations, or create parallels between the political situation of the time with current events, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t thought about it.

One of the most frequent complaints I have encountered in other reviews is the narrative choice of present tense. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t slightly thrown off by it at first, seeing as Mantel also has a tendency to forgo the use of Cromwell’s name in favor of pronouns, but I think it ultimately enhances Cromwell’s story. History has proven to be unreliable in his case, so why should fiction be any different? The story of Cromwell’s past is never totally clear, even to himself, and we see him slowly construct himself before our eyes and before the eyes of the world. Even his beloved Cardinal Wolsey never knew the specifics of Cromwell’s early life, and took liberties with the stories he told. The use of the past tense would make the story seem more solid, which is not so conducive to understanding as people would like to believe. Here, there is a sensation akin to watching over Cromwell’s shoulder that makes him both lovable and inscrutable; just as his past resides half in shadow, so his thoughts are partially obscured by the immediacy of the present. I think, ultimately, the use of the present tense in telling Cromwell’s story is a method by which to rob him of the unpleasant reputation he has carried through history as a calculating schemer and show him to be a much more impulsive and ethical man than is generally believed.

After all of this, I can assuredly say that it was never the witch Anne Boleyn that held me in thrall, but rather “that devil” Thomas Cromwell.

(On format: highly recommended as an audio book. The narrator of this edition was fantastic).
February 21, 2022
Wolf Hall was a profound disappointment for me, and quite frankly, I'm glad this torturous journey is over. I'm fully aware that people rave about Wolf Hall, and claim it is the best historical fiction series ever, but for me, I just don't understand the hype, and I'm positively baffled, as to how this won the 2009 Man Booker Prize!

Oh, and if I hadn't mentioned before, I rather like being in the minority.

Initially, it was my beloved parents that encouraged me to read this, constantly telling me how marvellous it is, usually every other time I visited them. I'm sure they've read the series two or three times now, so one can imagine how terribly painful it was to inform my Mum that this book just didn't do it for me. It actually didn't even touch the sides.

I feel I must state, that I consider myself a lover of historical fiction, and with this era being of a particular interest of mine, I assumed that I just couldn't go wrong, but unfortunately, it became boldly apparent around fifteen pages in, that I knew me and Mantel were not going to gel. The writing style was confusing, and somewhat irritating. I mean, where were the quotation marks for a start? It was difficult to establish who was saying what. I disliked that there were so many "he's" in one scene, as I struggled to clarify which "he" Mantel was referring to. Seriously, the fun was entirely drained out of the book, and a migraine did prevail.

I just found the majority of this book mind-numbingly boring. It simply dragged in many, many parts, therefore forming a solid concrete style barrier between me and the story, forcing me to not care about the characters, or their lives. I read books to relax, and take me away from day-to-day stresses, not to create more of them.
Profile Image for Matt.
937 reviews28.6k followers
April 26, 2016
Frankly, most of what I know about the Tudors comes from watching Showtime’s The Tudors via my Amazon Prime account. So far, what I’ve learned from the Tudors by watching The Tudors is this: Boobs!!

That said, it is very well likely that the problem with Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is me. After all, it is a hugely popular, elegantly written, Man Booker Prize winning novel. Far be it from me to criticize it.

But I will, since I’m here.

Wolf Hall tells the story of King Henry VIII, his dalliance with Anne Boleyn, his divorce from Catherine of Aragorn, and his rupture with the Catholic Church. It is told from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell, an up-from-his-bootstraps kind of guy, a protégé of the powerful Cardinal Wolsey who becomes a fixer for the King following Wolsey’s fall.

The saga is vaguely familiar, even to an ignoramus such as myself. At least, I remembered that Henry married Anne and eventually chopped her head off. Herman’s Hermits later covered the song. I also recall Thomas More, from half-watching while half-drunk A Man For All Seasons one night on Turner Classic Movies.

Mantel’s twist on this story is to reverse our expectations of some of the major players. If you, like me, watched A Man For All Seasons (or half-watched while half-drunk), you’re expecting Thomas More (played by Paul Schofield in the film) to be the hero. Generally, he has been portrayed as a man of integrity and principal, who stuck faith even when it was no longer expedient to do so. The Catholic Church even canonized him after his execution.

However, as portrayed by Mantel, More is far less likeable. To be sure, he still has courage on his lonely path to the chopping block. But he is also a bit of a jerk to his family, an extremist in his beliefs, and a torturer in his own right, putting heretics on the rack. (Heretics being people who read translated versions of the Bible).

One of the joys of Wolf Hall is this historical tweaking. Mantel does not tear up the historical record and make things out of whole cloth. She just interprets the record differently, with a keenly perceptive eye. It is studied revisionism. I probably would have enjoyed the book a lot more if I had a better grasp of history. Then again, maybe I’d hate the book a whole lot more.

The difficulty with Wolf Hall is its density. Mantel’s take on this story is micro in the extreme. It is a pointillist history, made up of a thousand tiny moments. Being so close to the story as it unfolds makes it difficult to follow the broader sweep of things. The plot moves forward by inches, through the dialogue of the characters. There is so much talking, so little doing, this could have been presented as a play.

The density is compounded by the fact that merry old England apparently had only four names to choose from. The book abounds with a number of people all named Thomas or Anne or Mary. If you can keep them all straight, you’ve probably been able to watch more episodes of The Tudors than me. An early annoyance for me was Mantel’s use of the personal pronoun “he” instead of a proper noun. Often, I’d get halfway through a page and forget who was talking. Things got a lot better when I realized that “he” referred to “Thomas Cromwell,” through whom the story is told in third-person limited.

Usually, I prefer nonfiction: biographies and histories and the like. From time to time, I try to keep trendy by reading popular fiction. And by “trendy” I mean reading a book that was published and lauded 4 years ago, and which already has a sequel. Typically, I like to read novels before I go to bed.

Big mistake in this case. This is fiction that requires all of your attention. I soon switched my routine, so that I was reading about World War I and Gettysburg in the evening, and focusing my wits on Wolf Hall during daylight hours. (As a special bonus, I soon began having horrific dreams).

I’ve made my own failings clear. I could have given a better effort to Wolf Hall. It’s just as true, however, that you are unlikely to read a book this long (530 pages in hardcover) in which so few things happen. It is talk, talk, talk. All dialogue all the time. There is not a single scene of action, sweep, or movement. There is paucity of dirty details regarding life in the 1500s (with the exception of the yearly fevers that culled the herd). The dialogue is good, I’ll grant you that. It is sharp, evocative, understandable, and yet never anachronistic. In this way, Wolf Hall is the inverse of Ken Follet’s monstrous medieval doorstops, with their prodigious research but milk-curdling dialogue.

Still, in a book filled with back-stabbing, there isn’t the sight of a single dagger. In a book filled with the lure of sex, there isn’t any sex.

The result is an artifact that I respected but could not love. Love requires passion, and the mannered conversations of Mantel’s fictionally-realized historical characters do not engender such. We all know where the story is going. Mantel shows us how we got there, step by step. She never bothers to wonder how it felt.

Profile Image for Roman Clodia.
2,492 reviews2,736 followers
January 1, 2020
He thinks, I remember you, Thomas More, but you didn't remember me. You never even saw me coming.

My third reading (actually this time I listened to the wonderful audiobook) and finally this has turned into a 5-star book for me. Perhaps because this time I really got behind Cromwell's voice (surely that 'he' that so many complain about is representing Cromwell's inner voice, not a 3rd person narrator talking of Cromwell?) and was ready to pick up on all the subtle hints that this depicts one of the most intricate, patient and long-planned acts of revenge ever depicted in fiction.

The final battles of wits between More and Cromwell are masterly and drip with tension, and Mantel's superb imagination comes to the fore when we see More's physical response to imagining his execution and Cromwell's own struggle, an assertion of his better nature, to prevent it.

For me, the highlight of the writing is how fine and restrained it is, refusing exposition and replacing it with performative scenes of intricate dialogue and Cromwell's inner commentary - for this is Cromwell's view of such well-known, even over-represented, events at and around the Henrician court in the early 1530s. The humour is sly, often insinuating, and the characterisation intricate, perhaps gaining both depth and surprising nuances the more you already know about these personages.

There are times where Mantel perhaps overmilks the sources: Henry Wyatt's rambling recounting of the legendary cat and lion stories, and she certainly adopts the most hostile readings of Anne and Mary Boleyn (many of the Tudor sources are Catholic and/or emanating from ambassadors from Imperial Spain, Venice, the papal states and similar) - but that's her choice and she makes it work within the story.

More intriguing are Cromwell's own relationships with women, not least his dead wife's sister and Helen to whom he gives refuge.

Overall, then, a dense, rich read that manages to both offer up a sumptuous though never romanticised view of Tudor politics in an around the early Henrician court, and keep one eye firmly on our present where political expediency, the subtle but undoubted wielding of power, is the order of the day.

I'll be re-reading (well, listening to the audiobook) of Bring Up the Bodies soon as a prelude to the final part of this trilogy, The Mirror & the Light The Mirror & the Light (Thomas Cromwell, #3) by Hilary Mantel , due out in March 2020.

It is the living that turn and chase the dead. The long bones are tumbled from their shrouds, and words like stones thrust into their rattling mouths: we edit their writings, we rewrite their lives, p.649

This is a hard book for me to review: I disliked it when it first came out, finding it cold and arch and overly familiar - but I have been persuaded to try it again by various friends, partly as a segue into Bring Up the Bodies. I certainly enjoyed it far more this second time around, perhaps because I now know what to expect from Mantel.

I like the wry, sly humour ('he waits to see if the king will draw a heart. But the frivolities of courtship are over. Marriage is a serious business'), even while recognising it as being Mantel's own slightly arch sense of fun (and it's noticeable that far too many characters than is likely share this tongue-in-cheek way of speaking from Cromwell himself to mousy Jane Seymour). And I like the detailed attention to the sources - even if that does make the story eminently predictable.

I don't share Mantel's reading of Cromwell's character at all, and giggled to myself at places where her enthusiasm leads to fangirl writing: '"I meant only,' Hans says soothingly, 'there is the matter of all the other women who want to marry you. The wives of England, they all keep secret books of whom they are going to have next when they have poisoned their husbands. And you are the top of everyone's list.'" Even in the voice of Hans Holbein this is outrageously funny, that grey, bureaucratic, civil servant Cromwell should be the stuff of housewives' erotic daydreams! But that's ok, it's Mantel's book, she can do what she likes.

More believable is Cromwell's dark harbouring of grudges ('he thinks, I remembered you, Thomas More, but you didn't remember me. You never even saw me coming'), something that will come to the fore in the second volume. I can accept him playing a long vengeful game.

So I enjoyed this for its cleverness, for its reconstruction of a Tudor world that is deeply inflected by our world, and for the tight literary control that Mantel exerts. All the same, I still find this a cold book: all the pleasures were in my mind, I didn't feel anything for the characters. I will go on to read the next book but need a break first from Mantel's erudite, self-conscious, historically-aware but rather chilly universe.
Profile Image for A.J. Howard.
98 reviews130 followers
April 9, 2010
One of the most interesting things about history is thinking about perspective. Very few people lived their lives with an intention of being known as a villain of history. Yet I think all of us fall into the trap of thinking of the past in moralistic terms sometimes. This is a function of generations of storytelling and cultural indoctrination. There are facts that we don't ever necessarily learn, or at least can remember learning, that we don't pause to consider.

My favorite thing about Wolf Hall is how it turns previous conception of a much discussed period of history on its head, while maintaining complete plausibility. Maybe it was my Catholic upbringing, but I always thought of Thomas More as a great man of learning and advocate of free speech, while Thomas Cromwell was a ruthless, unprincipled yes-man. Mantel effectively exploits facts to make you completely reverse your feelings about the two characters. In truth, More was a religious fundamentalist, the man tortured and executed people who strayed from the Church's dogmatic beliefs, hardly a free speech advocate. Cromwell's rise to power would be inspiring if it occurred today, all the more so that he did it almost 500 years ago. Mantel almost does too good of a job of making Cromwell likable, but you are completely ready to buy it. I didn't realize this until I watched the film A Man For All Seasons and found myself becoming upset with its portrayal of Thomas Cromwell. I think this is Mantel's greatest accomplishment, she reverses 500 years of preconceived notions.

The book isn't a necessarily easy read. Mantel throws you into the world and she doesn't give you a ton of exposition or remind you who characters are and how they relate to each other. I frequently had to consult the character list and the genealogical charts at the beginning of the book for a reminder. One night, I stayed up until 4 reading the wikipedia entry on the War of the Roses to refresh myself on that subject. (I actually highly recommend potential readers doing this. Mantel frequently references the events and it also gives you good context of why the production of a legitimate male heir was deemed such an immediate necessity.)

The title Wolf Hall is taken from the estate of the Seymour family, minor characters in the novel. But the title accentuates what I would consider the theme of the novel, which Cromwell repeats to himself several times over the course. Homono homini lupus, man is wolf to man. Mantel's Cromwell is presented as a precursor to the modern politician. This is a hazardous occupation in a time where political missteps had much graver consequences than potential resignation accompanied by a lobbying gig as a fall back plan. In this way Wolf Hall could be labelled a political thriller. One of the thrills in the novel is how Cromwell manges to, excuse the bad joke, keep his head on his shoulders. Watch Cromwell survive the political crushing of his patron and political mentor. See him hazard the stormy rapids that was the Boleyn family. Marvel as he clashes wits with the great Thomas More.

What makes this even more effective is the novel is very well written. Mantel does a great job inhabiting familiar characters and making them come to life. Unlike other fictional works that have dealt with the same period, none of the characters are cliched or one dimensional. Her Henry VIII is my favorite depiction of the much depicted monarch since Robert Shaw's. Here, he is temperamental and often child-like, but also as intelligent and goodhearted. And as a rule, any confrontation with the Boleyn sisters will likely be very entertaining. As it was for Henry, though in a rather different way.

The plot tends to revolve heavily around such such confrontations. There will be plot movement, but most of the time it sets the scene for another meeting between Thomas and Anne, or Cardinal Wolsey, or Thomas More, or the Earl of Norfolk. Nevertheless, my favorite chapter of the book was one of the first, "An Occult History of England." This chapter is mostly exposition, but it works brilliantly as a kind of "how we got here."Combining politics, history, and legend, it reads like something Rushdie could have written.

I enjoyed Wolf Hall much more than I expected to. Although I know how the story ends for all the characters, the novel kept me entertained until the end. Now that I think about it, the novel really reminds me of Robert Caro's first two LBJ biographies which detailed Johnson's rise to power. While they don't retell the traditional hero's journey, a non-mythical path to power can be more worthwhile and just as entertaining epic.
Profile Image for Lea.
119 reviews451 followers
September 11, 2021
“But it is no use to justify yourself. It is no good to explain. It is weak to be anecdotal. It is wise to conceal the past even if there is nothing to conceal. A man's power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face. It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires.”

Wolf Hall is the survey the greatest work of historical fiction I've ever read, and Mantel certainly has a creative, unique and innovative way of conveying narrative. One of the rare Booker Prize Winners that was an absolute win for me. That being said having finished this book I got into the biggest reading slump that lasted a month. Something about this book is dark, bleak and wearying. Mantel exhibits astonishing virtuosity in creating an atmosphere of the world of Thomas Cromwell, a poor boy from Putney and that rose to be a counselor of the king and most important figure of Reformation by his own wits and exertions. The prose of this book builds him before your eyes. Mantel's superb writing places you in the cold greyness of Tudor England, which is not necessarily a pleasant thing and can be stressful and draining at times, and I would say it a not an easy book to read but once you find the book's rhythm you become gripped. The story is made up of scenes, almost fragmented, often set in dark, small rooms with bold and clever dialogue, a private conversation where machinations of power occur and the fate of the world is being decided.
Death is a prominent theme of the book in my opinion, as life in Tudor Englads is fragile, at the mercy of the king, that does not tolerate disagreement. Not one is safe, not even the noble, powerful and influential figures such as Thomas More. In these fast-changing, tumultuous times, you are always one sentence, one action, one thought away from being sentenced to torture and death which makes the atmosphere agonizing. And if death does not come from another man's hand, there is always a sweating plague waiting somewhere around the corner to sweep the life of your loved ones in just a few hours. There are more than one realistic scenes of execution and torture written in detail that add up to the bleakness of the book, as the prevalent feeling of reading it is almost as waiting for own death, there is almost always present anticipation of suffering.

““Between one dip of the pen, Petrarch writes, ‘between one dip of the pen and the next, the time passes: and I hurry, I drive myself, and I speed towards death. We are always dying – I while I write, you while you read, and others while they listen or block their ears; they are all dying.”

Cromwell himself is a but somewhat a mystical character, as his motives wold-view and are never entirely clear. At times it seems he wants to make a best out of convoluted circumstances, with signs of caring and empathic heart, and at times he is a hard and manipulative man in the quest for more power, not a stranger to machiavellian principles. His life philosophy is not clear, nor flashed out, and he remains a morally grey character, almost more prone to exhibit his faults over virtues.

““But my sins are my strength, he thinks; the sins I have done, that others have not even found the opportunity of committing. I hug them close; they're mine. Besides, when I come to judgment I mean to come with a memorandum in my hand: I shall say to my Maker, I have fifty items here, possibly more.”

Gripping and dark, a must-read for fans of historical fiction, but be prepared for the grim and barren place this book transports you to.
Profile Image for Brian.
709 reviews352 followers
January 23, 2016
Reading this novel was unlike many of my previous reading experiences. For the first 50 pages or so I was irritated at the vague pronoun usages (mentioned in nearly every review I have read on Amazon) and the dizzying cast of characters. And then something happened; I got use to Ms. Mantel's writing style, and my knowledge of history kicked in and I was swept up in the story. In that sense, "Wolf Hall" is a lot like reading Shakespeare. It takes a minute to get use to the style and language, and previous knowledge of the characters and their relationships is a plus, and then it is a very enjoyable experience.
I would not read this novel if...
-you don't enjoy history, specifically the Tudor period in England.
-you don't want to devote some serious reading time to this text. It is not a novel you can put down and come back to a week later. It is too intricately plotted and populated for that.
If the above does not describe you I would encourage your picking up this 604 page tome. Despite its length, it is a quick and engaging read and I found myself immersed in it for a long time at each sitting. Another pleasure of the novel was in how Mantel slowly unravels the intricacies of the history of the period for the close reader. About 200 pages in I suddenly had a eureka moment and understood the title. Such little pleasures make the text even more enjoyable. There are many such moments in the book, where the reader suddenly sees what later event Mantel is setting up in the plot. A clever and subtle genius, that adds greatly to her novel. Often I found myself going to the web to read further about some topic Mantel brings up the text. A great site for such info is tudorhistory.org. Checking those references made the immersion in the novel all the more fuller for me.
The novel's protagonist is the much maligned in history Thomas Cromwell, who was one of the most influential men in English history. He is usually forgotten in the miasma of Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas More, etc. But historically Cromwell was the center of the storm that these folks swirled around. Most of the novel is told from his perspective and we often find ourselves inside his head, privy to his observations and thoughts. As has been mentioned numerous times, this is the source of confusion for some readers, as Mantel is vague with pronoun usage, but it is deliberate on her part. She is recreating the speech patterns and writing style of the period.
Another bonus of the text is that surprisingly, the novel is often very funny, as Mantel endows Cromwell with a very dry and bitter wit.
This is an episodic novel, and not an easy read. But if you enjoy the pleasures of a unique style and a close read, then pick this one up. There is already a sequel in the works, and I for one will be reading it.
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