Book review: Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

This is one of the best historical novels of the last decade, the winner of the Booker prize; a bestseller adapted by the BBC. This is also the greatest panorama of the often-depicted Tudor age I’ve ever seen.

Of course, when it comes to praising Wolf Hall, I am horribly late to the party. I want to say in my defense, though, that when it first came out in 2009 I was still busy with my GCSEs. The writing is mesmerizingly beautiful and poetic, and the scale of historical detail is astounding. I’m not only talking about the standard historical fiction fare of Tudor feasting and court protocol, but also about the kind of supplies you would need for an Irish war, the kind of bags the messengers of German bankers would carry, and the kind of Italian treatises on accounting an ailing merchant might read in bed.This is one of the best historical novels of the last decade, the winner of the Booker prize; a bestseller adapted by the BBC. This is also the greatest panorama of the often-depicted Tudor age I’ve ever seen.

I confess, I was especially impressed by the emphasis on the economic and logistical part of the whole Reformation thing (as opposed to the more usual focus on the romantic part of Henry the 8th’s turbulent private life).

I know, a lot of people are angry about the book’s portrayal of Thomas More, as it is focusing on his persecution of heretics (harsh even by the standards of the time), rather than on his humanistic ideas. I’d argue, though, that, while Mantel’s depiction of the man might have been unusually harsh, it wasn’t by any stretch a one-dimensional one. Her More is sometimes repulsive, sometimes sympathetic, and, overall, incredibly human. I think, we would be hard-pressed to find a reader who didn’t cry at the scene of his trial. It’s not an accident that More’s execution in the end of the novel (it’s not much of a spoiler, is it?) comes to symbolize everything that’s wrong about the new regime.

Mantel’s version of Anne Boleyn has caused even more conflicts, and for the same reason – here, this usually romanticized figure is, at best, an anti-heroine. I loved her, though. Yes, the Anne of Wolf Hall is a calculating schemer, who shows very little sympathy for others (including her own sister). But, at the same time, she genuinely loves her daughter, she is enthusiastic about the reform, she is distressed about Henry’s ‘gallantry’ with other ladies (including the aforesaid sister); in short, she is a fallible human being, who certainly didn’t deserve a cruel death.

“They compete to tell stories of how she is not worthy. Or not human. How she is a snake. Or a swan. Una candida cerva. One single white doe, concealed in leaves of silver-grey; shivering, she hides in the trees, waiting for the lover who will turn her back from animal to goddess.”

When it comes to Cromwell himself – I know this is going to sound incredibly bizarre, but his story here reminded me of Hamilton. An under-explored historical figure became a compelling anti-hero who rose from humble origins thanks to hard work, enjoyed political success despite being resented for his lack of pedigree, shaped momentous historical events (including some morally questionable ones), and eventually fell spectacularly to his death. Plenty of Cromwell’s enemies here throw around accusations of a “bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman” variety, while his propensity to write (laws) like tomorrow won’t arrive is commented upon by virtually everyone.

“‘Cromwell,’ Butts says, ‘I couldn’t kill you if I shot you through with cannon. The sea would refuse you. A shipwreck would wash you up.’”

If you’ve already read it and liked it, I’ll recommend you to try the Borgia duology by Sarah Dunant next.

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