Saturday, August 7, 2010

2009 - Wolf Hall

Oops, I read this back in January 2010 but I forgot to post about it here...

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is a masterpiece.

Cross posted at


  1. I have been rather dreading this one in case I don't like it (the flip side of very long books!), but now I am encouraged. Thanks for an intriguing review!

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and felt a part of my daily life changed radically when I finished reading it. It's a nice counterpoint to A Man for All Seasons, a novel sympathetic to Thomas More.

    It was nice re-visiting the novel this morning through your review.


  3. Couldn't agree more! A blogging friend and I did a "read along" in May -- and had a lively discussion about this book.
    I thought Mantel's dialogue was brilliant!