Book Review: Wolf Hall

Thursday 16 April 2015 by

Book, Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel, Fourth EstateWolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Published by Fourth Estate

‘Lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning,’ says Thomas More, ‘and when you come back that night he’ll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks’ tongues, and all the gaolers will owe him money.’

England, the 1520s. Henry VIII is on the throne, but has no heir. Cardinal Wolsey is his chief advisor, charged with securing the divorce the pope refuses to grant. Into this atmosphere of distrust and need comes Thomas Cromwell, first as Wolsey’s clerk, and later his successor.

Cromwell is a wholly original man: the son of a brutal blacksmith, a political genius, a briber, a charmer, a bully, a man with a delicate and deadly expertise in manipulating people and events. Ruthless in pursuit of his own interests, he is as ambitious in his wider politics as he is for himself. His reforming agenda is carried out in the grip of a self-interested parliament and a king who fluctuates between romantic passions and murderous rages.

From one of our finest living writers, ‘Wolf Hall’ is that very rare thing: a truly great English novel, one that explores the intersection of individual psychology and wider politics. With a vast array of characters, and richly overflowing with incident, it peels back history to show us Tudor England as a half-made society, moulding itself with great passion, suffering and courage.


I’ve always been reticent in reading Wolf Hall, purely because it has been overwhelmed with accolades and praise and I’m never sure a book can live up to that much hype. But I have to admit that my interest was piqued when I caught a couple of episodes of the BBC adaptation.

So whilst I was tramping across Hadrian’s Wall, I was also reading Wolf Hall. It tells the story of Anne Boleyn’s marriage to Henry VIII from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell, whose appearance in history is often less than flattering, but who in this comes across rather well.

The writing itself is perfectly unique. It’s sharp and witty yet subtle and detailed. Mantel lets the characters speak for themselves. Cromwell himself is entertaining and realistic, and his character arc – from humble beginnings to morally ambiguous man of huge power at the King’s side. He is the centre of the storm.

No matter how many times you learn about the Tudors, there is always more to learn, and this reads like a more accurate history than many interpretations, which is what makes it so compelling. The list of characters is longer than my arm (the handy who’s who at the beginning will be a Godsend). The hype was well-founded, because this is a brilliant read – Mantel is a masterful storyteller and it reads like a rip-roaring adventure, full of intrigue and backstabbing and love and betrayal. Cromwell is the least of it – with a tempestuous Anne Boleyn, righteous Princess Mary and changeable King. The names are always familiar, but this new, intimate look at them is totally different and exciting.

To be honest, you’ve probably already read Wolf Hall, as I’m about the last person on the planet to have missed out the first time around. In fact, you’ve probably even moved on to Bring up the Bodies, and I’m telling you what you already know.

But I was deeply impressed with this book (more so than I thought I would be, despite its awards). An addictive, entertaining and perfectly formed read.

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