I was a bit hesitant to read Wolf Hall at first. The hardbound edition is 523 pages long, and the story, set in the 1500’s is mainly about Henry VIII of England, and the English Reformation, seen from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, so you can see why I wasn’t exactly jumping up and down with excitement.
To my surprise, the story was fast-paced, casual, witty, and oftentimes very funny.
The main protagonist of Wolf Hall is Thomas Cromwell, the runaway son of a Putney blacksmith, who travelled extensively throughout Europe, acquiring many useful skills in his youth.
By virtue of hard-work, shrewdness, and street smarts, Thomas Cromwell worked his way up the ranks, from a virtual nobody, to Cardinal Wolsey’s right-hand man, to one of Henry VIII’s closest friends and councilors.
After the fall of Cardinal Wolsey, Cromwell found himself a seat in Parliament, and eventually a place in the King’s council, at first as Master of Jewels, then Chancellor of the Exechequer, and later as the King’s Master Secretary.
Unlike the many negative portrayals of Thomas Cromwell throughout history, Hilary Mantel shows him as a man of immense intelligence, talents, and perseverance; a man loyal to his masters and friends almost to a fault; a man kind and considerate to his household servants and assistants; and as a loving father to his children – both real and adopted.
In Wolf Hall, Mantel succeeds in showing a different side to Thomas Cromwell – a side that is left out in history; a side which not many people think exist; a human side.
Another point where Wolf Hall differs from history is in Mantel’s portrayal of the much-loved martyr, Thomas More, now also known as the patron saint of lawyers. Mantel paints More, a “frenemy” of Thomas Cromwell, as a cold and indifferent husband who often enjoys humiliating his wife, and as a cruel torturer of known Lutherans.
Despite the interesting portrayals of well-known historical figures, Wolf Hall has nothing that anyone with a basic knowledge of English history, and the Tudors doesn’t already know. With the influx of historical fiction in the media, there is no shortage of tales of Henry VIII and the events of his era (The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory, the Showtime mini-series, The Tudors, etc.).
Despite the seriousness of topics tackled in the story, and the odd narrative style, which sometimes leads to confusion as to who is doing or saying what, I really can’t stress enough the entertainment factor of Wolf Hall. Witty banter and humor in unexpected parts adds charm to what would otherwise be a tedious topic to read.
Being historical fiction, Wolf Hall, to me, didn’t seem to fit in with the usual Booker award-winning novels. Then again, Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin which won back in 2000 had some elements of sci-fi in it, so what do I know?
Wolf Hall is the first book in a planned trilogy. The second book in the series, Bring up the Bodies, which deals mostly with Anne Boleyn’s eventual downfall, was published just this month.
Wolf Hall is the 4th book in my Chunkster Challenge, 2012.
Wolf Hall (2009) – Hilary Mantel
Picador; 532 pages
Personal rating: 4/5