Sunday, February 27, 2011

Review of the Day: Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall is as rich in texture and detail as the sumptuous tapestries Henry VIII hung in his palaces. Hilary Mantel tells the historical story of Henry's early reign and break from the Catholic Church from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, who rose from obscure beginnings to work for Cardinal Thomas Woolsey and then Henry himself.

The focus of the story is the political, religious, and Parliamentary maneuvers endeavored so that Henry could annul his marriage to Katherine, with whom he had a daughter, Mary, but no son. The machinations in themselves are interesting, involving diplomatic missions to France to get the support of the French king, court intrigues, assassinations, and imprisonment of political enemies.

What sets the book apart is Mantel's delving into the ideas behind the machinations. Henry's efforts to wrest power from Rome occurred during the religious upheaval of the Protestant reformation, but Henry himself was no Protestant. He belived Martin Luther and his followers to be heretics and opposed publishing the Bible in English. He didn't want to start a new Church; he just wanted to be head of the Catholic Church in England. But Protestant ideas were in the air, and Mantel weaves them into the story, presenting Cromwell as a Lutheran sympathizer and others within Henry's inner circle as ardent believers.

Another idea Mantel explores is the role of England's Parliament in the monarch's affairs. It was during the reign of Henry and the other Tudors that England's Parliament coalesced into its modern form. Henry used Parliament to ratify and thereby legitimize his decisions. Mantel looks at the political theory behind these events, offering an understanding of where they fit on the political continuum from total control by the Church to constitutional monarchy.

This blending of ideas and action make Wolf Hall fascinating. The addition of myriad details of daily life in the early 16th Century, the fact that so many characters shared first names, and Mantel's technique of overlapping conversation with the speakers' mental observations make the story hard to follow on occasion. But just as it is not necessary to trace a single thread in a tapestry to be dazzled by the overall creation, Wolf Hall is no less a masterpiece for getting a little tangled now and then.



(If you would like your review listed here, please leave a comment with a link and I will add it.)


Wolf Hall won both the Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. It was my Booker choice for the 2011 Battle of the Prizes, British Version.  There is still plenty of time to sign up for the challenge, which doesn't end until January 31, 2012.


  1. What a brilliant review! I can't wait to read this book now. I have put it off for awhile because of it's size and I am still a bit scarred from having to carry Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell around with me :-)

    I hear so many great things about this book - i can't wait to get stuck into it

  2. I'm sure this book is very well written, but I have a feeling it's too dense for me.

  3. Becky: Thanks! It is a chunkster, but worth it.

    Cathy: It really isn't dense. It's long and has a lot going on, but it keeps moving and is very entertaining.

  4. I still have this TBR, having chickened out on it last year for fear I wouldn't be able to finish it. This year for sure! Thanks for letting me know what to expect in such a positive way!

  5. Curse* you, Rose City Reader, for recommending too many books for me to ever digest.

    *not to be construed as a ~real~ curse.

  6. Available on audiobook! All is forgiven!

  7. Indeed, a wonderful book. Not dense at all in my mind, simply fascinating and so, so much fun to read.

  8. I have this book but have yet to open it and read. It's certainly a big one. I'll have to get into it sooner or later. You wrote a great review though. :)

  9. I was very 'meh' about this one. I loved the way Mantel wrote Cromwell and how the personal sections broke up the political ones but I just didn't enjoy picking it up and reading it.

  10. JG: I would think you'd like it a lot. Cromwell, among his other jobs, is a lawyer and, in effect, lobbyist. Some of his lawyer arguments are particularly interesting.

    Michael: I listened to the audio myself and thought it was very good.

    Biblibio: Fascinating is a good word to describe it. I really felt like I was was enmeshed in it.

    okbolover: Thanks! I hope you like it when you finally get to it.

    Sam: I may have enjoyed it as an audio book more than I would have if I had read it with my eyes. Less daunting.

  11. A wonderful review of a wonderful book--I really liked your comment that you don't need to follow a specific thread to appreciate the tapestry. Nicely put.

  12. I "tried" to read this book, but couldn't get all the way to the end.

    Thanks for the great post on it, though.

    Stopping by from Carole's Your Favorite Historical Fiction Post. I am in that list as #4.

    Silver's Reviews
    My Blog

  13. Oh hey! I DID ear-read Wolf Hall in 2011, and liked it very much. My wife read it last month and agreed.

  14. This was a very engrossing read. Loved it!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...