Book Review: ‘Wolf Hall’ by Hilary Mantel – The Machiavellian’s ‘How To’ Guide

Few books have been so fervently recommended to me as Wolf Hall – and considering it’s about Tudor history (which I am shamefully ignorant of) and stands at almost 650 pages, a few decent write-ups don’t go amiss.

Fortunately, Wolf Hall was every bit as good as its many admirers promise.

Written as part of a trilogy, it follows the path of Thomas Cromwell. Now a well-known historical figure in his own right, Hilary Mantel charts his history as the low-born London boy rises through the ranks of the aristocracy to become one of King Henry VIII’s most trusted courtiers.

At times gentle and caring, while ruthless and calculating in others, Cromwell is the subject of an epic character study in Wolf Hall. Taking in a sweeping view of 16th century English history and bringing familiar characters to life, Hilary Mantel sees her Thomas Cromwell cross paths with Cardinal Wolsey, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour and the royal family itself.

The Method Author

In the inside cover of Wolf Hall there are several pages of rapturous praise for the novel, among which is this one:

‘I believe that Hilary Mantel actually is Thomas Cromwell.’

Hilary Mantel is so convincing in donning Thomas Cromwell’s garb that you could be forgiven for agreeing.

The style is sparse and unemotional but also craftily written; the overall effect is like standing in the court of Henry VIII while some very knowledgeable person whispers in your ear: ‘that person there, that’s so-and-so; they have just had a falling out with that man over there. Look how this displeases the King – you can always tell by that twitch of his eyebrow.’

The book is completely enveloping and has that mysterious gift of being able to completely absorb the reader whilst seemingly focusing more on character than plot.

I suppose a reader better educated than myself would already know the history behind the story and so there wouldn’t be much point dwelling on it; for myself I found that it was well-explained and easy to follow, but the reason you are anxious to return to the book is to see what Cromwell has up his sleeve next.

For Those Afraid of Historical Fiction

If I hadn’t heard the aforementioned recommendations, I probably would have run a mile from a book set in Tudor England. But if you are not naturally inclined towards historical fiction, take heart from the fact that Wolf Hall is not your typical historical read.

Hilary Mantel seems to be happy to eschew any of the usual guff that historical authors stuff their novels with to create an air of ‘authenticity’: pleasingly, the word ‘thee’ is not used even once, and we are spared any awkward anachronistic metaphors. Instead, the dialogue is simple and stays close to today’s use of language. The story is easier to follow thanks to this choice.

As mentioned above, this novel’s real success lies in character. Not only is Thomas Cromwell meticulously depicted, we almost live inside his head. Mantel has chosen to use a third person narrative, but you become so used to thinking his thoughts and judging situations from his perspective that you also seem to inhabit his consciousness.

That means that his less noble qualities are played down. It’s an effective choice; we judge him from our moral high ground while also understanding why he has taken a particular course. And usually, we end up rooting for it to succeed.

Fact and Fiction

Not having known much about Cromwell before I started reading Wolf Hall, I wasn’t aware quite what a maligned character he is in real life.

Image of Thomas Cromwell
In ‘Wolf Hall’, Thomas Cromwell is frequently surprised that everyone thinks he looks like a murderer. This image used with the kind permission of the National Portrait Gallery.

He’s usually portrayed as ‘having the king’s ear’ and being a master manipulator. It’s also true of the fictional Cromwell, but his reasoning is elucidated. In Mantel’s hands, all of his choices seem to make sense and all of his follies serve to make him more human.

If you haven’t yet got to Wolf Hall I would highly recommend it. What’s more, it’s the perfect novel to read as the nights draw in. It’s the kind of book you can snuggle up with under a blanket and get so immersed you believe you’re sitting at a Tudor fireside with Thomas Cromwell himself. And you’d probably like him.

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