Wolf Hall

By Hilary Mantel

The Short Take:

This interesting novel is built around the early career of Thomas Cromwell as an advisor King Henry VIII. It received the 2009 Man Booker Prize and is certainly worthy of your time, but this book is not necessarily for everyone.


Like many, I’m fascinated by the Tudor era of English history (but not because of the HBO series, which I didn’t care for). What intrigues me is not so much all those wives as it is the religious turmoil of the time. A lot of this novel focuses on that turmoil and the gradually growing influence of Protestant thinking under Henry. It’s hard today to accept you could be burned at the stake just for having a Bible written in English. That was the case as this book opens, though by the end you could just as easily be condemned to death for not recognizing Henry as the head of the Church in England.

If the subtleties of religious thought intrigue you, you’ll find the discussions between Cromwell and Cardinal Wolsey (Cromwell’s original employer in the King’s service) and, later, with Thomas More fascinating indeed. Of course, you have all the intrigues and mechanizations of Ann Boleyn and her family to entertain you as well.

The book’s greatest success is as a rich character study of Cromwell. He really lives and breathes.

So why am I hesitating to give Wolf Hall a full endorsement? A lot of it comes down to the pronoun “he.” Mantel uses it as a literary tool when referring to Cromwell. When you’re accustomed to having “he” refer to the last male mentioned, her device can cause a bit of confusion as to who is doing/saying/thinking what. I guess I’m just not sharp enough to get it, because I found it irritating from start to finish. Sorry.

Otherwise, it’s a fascinating read for those with interest in the Protestant Reformation, Henry VIII, Ann Boleyn, Wolsey, More, or  — especially — Cromwell.

A Little Plot:

The book basically follows the arc of Ann Boleyn’s influence in Henry VIII’s court, though the focus is always  squarely on how she impacts Cromwell’s position. As the assistant to her perceived enemy, Cardinal Wolsey, he is in dire danger. Gradually he improves his position to the point that he is the most trusted advisor of Henry and Ann.

The book ends far earlier in Cromwell’s career than I would have expected. He is just beginning the dissolution of the monasteries and has yet to reach the full height of his influence. Guess what — there’s going to be sequel. But, Mantel did end her novel at a satisfying way.

To read a recent interview with Hilary Mantel, click here.

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