Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel


What is there to say about Wolf Hall that hasn’t already been said? I am, as always, very late to the party, and am really quite cross with myself for putting off reading it for so long. I was daunted by its length, by its covering a period of history with which I am not excessively familiar, and by its use of present tense narration – a device I normally can’t stand, for no particular reason. Obviously as soon as I was past the first chapter, all of these things ceased to be a problem and I was well and truly absorbed in the world of Thomas Cromwell and the court of Henry VIII. Hilary Mantel is actually a genius; her use of a range of different narrative styles; free indirect discourse, reported speech and indirect discourse, all combine to make a wonderfully immediate and fresh sounding narrative voice that keeps the reader inside the mind of Thomas Cromwell while also allowing an insight into the hearts and minds of the many and various characters who people his world. The language she uses is also different to most historical fiction; it is handled with a deft, light touch; the syntax is only slightly altered, the vocabulary thoughtfully adapted, to create a realistic sense of the past while also ensuring that the dialogue remains crisp, vital and refreshingly modern. The novel is therefore peopled by passionate, emotional, cruel, loving, violent, aggressive and occasionally foul-mouthed creatures who would certainly not feel out of place on the streets of London in 2015, though are still very much rooted in the Tudor era. This ability to bridge the gap between history and modernity, to recreate the past without resorting to formulaic or laboured use of antiquated vocabulary, is really quite extraordinary, and I can’t think of another historical novel like it.

I don’t know enough about Cromwell to comment on the accuracy of Mantel’s portrayal; I know that he is a divisive figure, maligned and admired in equal measure, but Mantel’s interpretation of him is warm and sensitive, rendering him a magnetic force for both readers and characters alike. I was absolutely fascinated by the journey he took from the mean streets of Putney to the private chambers of Henry VIII. The forensic exploration of what kind of a person you have to be: what measure of courage and tenacity and intelligence it takes to drag yourself up from the cobbles of your father’s blacksmith’s yard to be within touching distance of your King is what makes this tale of a man dead for half a millennium so timeless and so utterly relevant to contemporary readers. It is the story of someone utterly self-made, utterly self-reliant, and utterly self-assured; someone who overcomes the most awful of childhoods and the most profound of griefs in order to manoeuvre themselves into a position to make a difference to the world around them, and for that quality alone, aside from all of the wrangles over Henry and Anne, it is worth reading. It is almost magical in its magnificence; Mantel weaves such a mesmerising web that it is hard to extricate yourself from the world she creates, and I could barely drag myself away from its pages. Even if you think historical novels aren’t for you, you have no interest in the Tudor period, or normally run a mile from doorstep length novels, you need to put your prejudices to one side and give this a go. It’s an unforgettable reading experience, and I already can’t wait to get stuck into Bring up the Bodies.


    1. I remember saying to someone (after the TV adaptation) “it appears there was more social mobility 500 years ago than there is now.” I agree, he must have had exceptional strength of character.

      1. Yes, he must have done – to come from nothing to the court of the King in an age where social status was everything…his intelligence must have been extraordinary.

  1. So enjoyed your review. Useful and insightful, as I have not plucked up enough courage nor set aside enough time to plow through the book – yet.

  2. I love this book so much, it gives me intense pleasure to learn of someone else discovering its magnificence. Your review is spot-on in describing the reasons why it’s so good. I can’t think of another novel like it.

    It helps, mind you, if you know a fair bit of the history of the time. I think she’s pretty damn accurate. She’s projected some events into historical ‘holes’, but so convincingly that it’s easy to think ‘Yes! That must be what happened!’

    1. I would have liked to know more of the real story so I could see what she had done with the history…I want to know about these historical holes!

  3. I’m sorry I waited so long too -read Wolf Hall late last year and listened to Bring Up The Bodies this year – but now at least I don’t have long to wait for the next book. The audio book for Bring Up the Bodies is phenomenal by the way.

    1. Hello Laura, could you tell me who was reading the audio version please? I am new to audio versions of books so would welcome advice on this one.
      Regards Jennifer.

  4. I loved Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, though Hilary Mantel’s writing style took a bit of getting used to. She’s brilliant though. Because of her, I actually really admire Thomas Cromwell.

    Have you seen the BBC mini-series of Wolf Hall/Bring Up the Bodies?

    1. Yes I have seen the miniseries – I loved it and that’s what prompted me to read the book at long last. It did help enormously with keeping track of everyone, I must say!

  5. You are not the last to read it, I haven’t yet either. (Although I’ve read and liked previous Hilary Mantel books, and although I do love that period in history – I think I was paradoxically put off by the buzz about this one). So glad you found it a worthwhile experience.

    1. She does come across as being incredibly knowledgable and erudite – I’d love to get the chance to speak to her in person! You must read it – you’d love it! xx

  6. I read Wolf Hall when it was first published and absolutely loved it. I was so looking forward to the next instalment but I was so disappointed; I just couldn’t get into it. I tried on three separate occasions but it was a no go and I really don’t know why. I will give the third book a try when it’s published and hopefully will enjoy that one.

  7. I’ve just read a previous comment from Laura where she says the audio of this book she rates highly. I think that’s the way to go so thank you Laura.

  8. Wonderful review, Book Snob, and I am tempted to revisit the book. I read it about three years ago and struggled all the way through – but then I was unable to sit down or lie down for any length of time as I had a slipped disc (unknown at that point) and concentration was compromised to say the least! I loved Bring up the bodies (read when no back pain!) and had been thinking about a second reading. Your comments have inspired me to try again – thank you.

    1. Thanks very much – I’m sorry to hear about the slipped disc – painful! Yes, perhaps a pain-free re-read is on the cards. Though a second reading is truly impressive – I am still congratulating myself on making it through once!

  9. Has anyone read one of her very first novel,if not the first about the French revolution?

  10. Have you read her short stories, “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher”? I found the writing poor and, quite honestly, it put me off reading her longer books.

    1. I was also very disappointed by this collection of stories, but don’t let it put you off her other books – especially Wolf Hall which is simply brilliant.

  11. I’m in the middle of reading it now, for some reason I wasn’t expecting the writing style – I was expecting something … pulpy (more Philippa Gregory-esque).

    I’m not loving or hating it thus far, I’m hoping the further I get into it the more it will pull me in. Especially as you seemed to have enjoyed it so much.

    1. Yes, it’s a very distinctive voice and definitely not the voice you expect from the usual suspects of historical fiction set in this era. I hope you’ll soon be sucked in – it does take a while to get involved, but once you are, you’ll not want to leave the world behind!

  12. When I first saw you were reading this I couldn’t wait for your review, Rachel. You do not disappoint. We just viewed the BBC production of Wolf Hall and I was quite taken in with it. Now with your review, I think I will soon find it in my hands. Thank you.

  13. It doesn’t matter when you get to the party, especially when you’ve done such a beautiful job of describing Mantel’s writing. I felt as though I was sitting on Cromwell’s shoulder overhearing everything that went on when reading ‘Wolf Hall’. I do hope you enjoy ‘Bring Up the Bodies’ as well. (And ‘A Place of Greater Safety’ is another treasure.)

    1. Thank you Jule – I am sure I’ll love Bring up the Bodies, and I am really looking forward to exploring her back catalogue further.

  14. I’m gathering from comments thus far that having seen the series (which was fantastic) it won’t spoil reading the book. Will be borrowing from my local library this week. Also just finished The Goldfinch and thought it was absolutely brilliant ! Loved your review of that book.

    1. Oh no, not at all – I actually found it helped having watched the series, as I could imagine it all so much more clearly and keep things straighter in my mind. I hope you’ll love it as much as I did. Oh I’m so glad you loved The Goldfinch – such a fantastic book. I’m pleased I inspired you to read it!

  15. So glad to see you enjoyed the book as much as I did–it was one of my favorite reads of the year. Bring up the Bodies, which is just as good, is slightly different in an interesting way– it’s much more tightly focused and dramatic (it put me in mind in some ways of one of those Greek tragedies that just hurtle along at lightning speed). I’ve been a Mantel fan from way back and I’m very gratified to see that she’s now getting the enormous recognition she deserves. I’ve read most of her earlier novels, with the exception of The Giant, O’Brien; of these I particularly enjoyed Beyond Black, A Place of Greater Safety and Eight Months on Ghazzah Street. But–none matches her Thomas Cromwell books!

    1. That’s interesting about the difference between the books – you have intrigued me! I plan on tackling Bring up the Bodies over the summer, and I’m looking forward to it very much. I am impressed by you having discovered her so long ago – I feel quite the philistine. I definitely want to read her back catalogue, as I think she will become a new favourite.

  16. I loved your commentary. Every of your word I heartily agree with. And don’t have a word to add.
    AH yes one: I read it in English and German at the same time. In my opinion the translator did a very good ☺job.

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