Wolf Hall
January 2, 2016 6:43 AM - by Hilary Mantel - Subscribe

"England in the 1520s is a heartbeat from disaster. If the king dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of twenty years, and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope and most of Europe opposes him. The quest for the king's freedom destroys his adviser, the brilliant Cardinal Wolsey, and leaves a power vacuum. Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell is a wholly original man, a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people and a demon of energy: he is also a consummate politician, hardened by his personal losses, implacable in his ambition. But Henry is volatile: one day tender, one day murderous. Cromwell helps him break the opposition, but what will be the price of his triumph? In inimitable style, Hilary Mantel presents a picture of a half-made society on the cusp of change, where individuals fight or embrace their fate with passion and courage." -- Amazon summary

This is the January Historical Fiction Book Club book, returning us to "true" historical fiction with the Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall.

New York Times: "Thomas Cromwell remains a controversial and mysterious figure. Mantel has filled in the blanks plausibly, brilliantly. “Wolf Hall” has epic scale but lyric texture. Its 500-plus pages turn quickly, winged and falconlike. Trained in the law, Mantel can see the understated heroism in the skilled administrator’s day-to-day decisions in service of a well-ordered civil society — not of a medieval fief based on war and not, heaven help us, a utopia."

The Guardian: "If the dance between king and mistress is expertly choreographed, it is Mantel's presentation of the common realm - the seething streets of Putney and Wimbledon, populated by drapers and boatmen - that gives this novel the force of revelation. The backdrop to the king's quest for sexual liberation is the daily horror of London life. Even Wolsey burns books, but Thomas More, the hair-shirted lord chancellor, burns men. (In many ways, Wolf Hall is a riposte to Robert Bolt's acclaimed 1960s play A Man For All Seasons, which casts More as saint and Cromwell as sinner.)"

London Review of Books: "Mantel’s chief method is to pick out tableaux vivants from the historical record – which she has worked over with great care – and then to suggest that they have an inward aspect which is completely unlike the version presented in history books. The result is less a historical novel than an alternative history novel. It constructs a story about the inner life of Cromwell which runs in parallel to scenes and pictures that we thought we knew. She works particularly well with witnesses like Cavendish, who are both extremely vivid and slightly unreliable. Such sources enable her to suggest that history, even when witnessed first-hand, can mingle fact and mythology: that gossip, misunderstanding, anecdote and deliberate distortion play a part in the processes of living as well as in the process of recording."

WSJ Interview with Mantel presents reader questions to the author.

Historical Fiction Book Club page, including upcoming reads. Next month: Apocalypse Book Club crossover as we read Paul Kingsnorth's "The Wake."
posted by Eyebrows McGee (25 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
(Sorry to be a day late, I am still coughing out the last of my pneumonia.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:43 AM on January 2, 2016

One of the things that's particularly interesting to me about Henry VIII's court is the same thing that's interesting about the Founding Fathers of the American Revolution -- what ARE the odds the Gods would drop them all in one spot? It's such a stunning collection of brilliant men -- More, Cromwell, Wolsey, John Fisher, Cranmer, even Henry himself before he got quite so enamored of his own penis. Not to mention the ferocious minds of his first three wives, his daughters, and even artists such as Hans Holbein who flocked to his court. Why does such an incredible concatenation of personal greatness sometimes concentrate itself in one place, in one historical moment? I think my favorite bits of history to read are those moments where that happens, like Lincoln's cabinet, or the Founding Fathers, or Henry's court, where you have not just one great man but a dozen titanic men of titanic passions, titanic gifts, and titanic flaws. It seems so unlikely, and yet it occurs, over and over.

I had a little trouble with the "third person immediate" Mantel chose (third person, limited omniscience, present tense), but once I figured out that "he" was almost always Cromwell, I really enjoyed it. I devoured Wolf Hall and its sequel and I'm impatiently tapping my foot for the conclusion.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:01 AM on January 2, 2016 [4 favorites]

I won't be able to really participate in this thread, because I have not read much of the book. But the reason for this is that I just can. Not. Get. Through. The first chapters. I have tried several times; everyone says this book is amazing, and I just can't do it!

Is it worth it to skip ahead, or am I just doomed not to like this book?
posted by chainsofreedom at 7:23 AM on January 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

I was frustrated with Wolf Hall at first too -- I felt that the book didn't start to shine until the cardinal's fall, and I wouldn't have continued if people I trust hadn't told me it was worth the slog.

I wasn't ultimately sure about this one until I read Bring up the Bodies and came to feel that Wolf Hall's constant justification of Cromwell's actions is internal, not external -- it shows up more boldly once he's fallen further to the dark side. It seemed at first that these books were a straight apologia/re-imagining of Cromwell, but she's playing a more complex and longer game than that.

I liked Mantel's essay Royal Bodies, which explains a lot of what she brings to the story of Henry and his various Annes and Katherines. In some ways it makes me wish Wolf Hall weren't played so close to Cromwell's vest, but I think these ideas come through anyway, and maybe even more interesting for the thick woolen filter.
posted by thesmallmachine at 10:27 AM on January 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

I also feel that readings of Mantel have to take into account her experience with endometriosis, a real shit of an illness whose diagnosis and treatment were, in her case, almost as hard to live with (she was first diagnosed as mentally ill and given antipsychotics; her treatment was hampered by frank medical disbelief in her condition and the ways it manifested, and when she was finally treated, her thyroid failed, she lost her fertility, gained weight uncontrollably, and after all that is still in chronic pain). She said last year that "anything I have achieved has been in the teeth of the disease."

By saying this, I don't want to reduce a brilliant woman to her body, or put forth any particular autobiographical reading of her historical novels. As I said a moment ago, they really don't lend themselves to it, since the story of Henry and his wives -- shot through with infertility and physical pain and feminine humiliation -- is told from the perspective of the chronically healthy Cromwell.

But I feel like that very absence is significant, something akin to Siri Hustvedt's use of deeply misogynistic narrators in The Blazing World. She's telling stories she knows well through the lens of someone who has no conception of them and isn't sympathetic to them.
posted by thesmallmachine at 11:08 AM on January 2, 2016 [7 favorites]

I'm on the other side of the country from my copy at present, but what struck me when I read the novel the first time is how Mantel deliberately undercuts our expectations about Big Moments from History, of the sort you'd expect to see fictionalized in a historical novel like this one. If Cromwell isn't there, then we don't get to hear Famous Quote X--the novel's characters do not appear to be engaged in acts of prophetic citation. That's one of the things that sets it apart from A Man for All Seasons, with which Wolf Hall is having an extended argument.
posted by thomas j wise at 3:53 PM on January 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Is it worth it to skip ahead, or am I just doomed not to like this book?

I found the first 2/3 to be a MAJOR slog, but things pick up toward the end if you're willing to plow through (or skim). I think the second book was a lot more readable.

(I can't bear the thought of rereading this book because it was such an effort the first time, and don't remember it well enough to participate in the discussion, sorry!)
posted by leesh at 3:58 PM on January 2, 2016

I loved this book the way I used to love a good fantasy novel when I was 14. The lead, but also the whole book, has this incredible charisma that made me half in love and kept the pages turning. I wanted to know Cromwell, to be close to him, to be him. A few years after reading it I say to myself on occasion, "arrange your face."

Oddly I could not get even 50 pages into Bringing Up The Bodies. Nor did I finish the one contemporary Mantel novel I tried. I can't say why.

The book felt like it had a lot of meaning and metaphor but I can't exactly say what that was.
posted by latkes at 4:07 PM on January 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think I feel quite similarly to latkes to this book - I fell headfirst into it in a similar way that I would a sf work with incredible worldbuilding and great characterization. I know the history, but not very intimately (and haven't seen all of A Man for All Seasons) so it's easy to get swept into Cromwell's worldview. I did go on to read Bring Up The Bodies, but for whatever reason it didn't stick with me nearly as much, which may mean I'm missing out on part of what Mantel was doing in the books, especially if the second acts to subvert the first.

For what it's worth, I was able to fall into the book pretty quickly. I was surprised at that because I had heard it was a difficult book but for whatever reason it didn't hinder me.

That essay linked above is wonderful, and I'm glad to have read it.
posted by PussKillian at 9:29 PM on January 2, 2016

I found the third person style OK; it is remarkably innovative but for me it soon started to seem natural, invisible.

For me she paints a brilliantly engaging and historically plausible picture of a man of formidable competence, someone with an almost supernatural ability to get anything arranged or solve any problem; a learned, multi-lingual lawyer who could also stop a brawl in the street singlehanded - or start one.

Against that we have the cheering portrayal - again historically plausible - of the supposedly saintly Thomas Moore as a cruel, conceited arsehole.

I loved it.
posted by Segundus at 10:00 AM on January 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

I loved this book so much that I turned right around and read it all over again, then ran out and found Bring Up The Bodies and also read that twice. And I never read books twice except in extraordinary circumstances. (Henrietta Lacks was the last one.)
I seduced my 13-member women's book group, which has been together for 3 1/2 decades, into choosing Wolf Hall and the one member who LOVES historical fiction hated this book passionately. I can only assume she's a fan of bodice rippers but I love her anyway. Several other members also loved the book, and a few resolved to finish reading after hearing the lively discussion. But it's clear the books are not for everyone despite the Bookers. I think if you're used to popular literary fiction, the central character and many of the key players are not what you've come to expect and be comfortable with. Cromwell and Wolsey are constantly calculating, Boleyn and even Henry are constantly calculating. We are not used to characters who think so much, we are used to characters who feel all the time. Basically, now that I think about it, it's more about these people's jobs and how they approach them, than it is about their inner lives. Who else does that?
posted by kemrocken at 11:08 AM on January 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

The point where this book stole my heart and blew my mind is when Cromwell* muses about the economic systems behind More's hairshirt. It provided a perspective I have never seen in historical fiction before: an appreciation of the Big Figures as embedded within real social, political, and economic systems. These men--these proud, rich, powerful, historical men--are products of their circumstances, but privileged to a point where they cannot realize it. Cromwell, unlike More, appreciates how the politics of the court are built on the backs of the oppressed. He appreciates how power actually functions. He isn't a freedom fighter, trying to fight oppression for the sake of justice; he is a realist. He is aware of how the world works, of where the points of injustice are, and this is why he is able to navigate his way to power and wealth... while he can.

In high school, I read (and watched) A Man For All Seasons, and I was taught to revere More as a man of principle. He was presented to us as the upstanding man, the man who one should look up to and revere. And here, in this novel, we get to see the other side of that: we get to see how the chance to make a stand on principle is paid for by his loved ones; how his principles involve a blindspot regarding the well-being of his family; how his respectability is welded to a disrespect for the women in his life. This portrayal of More solidified in me an appreciation for critical theory, an understanding of how virtue, value, oppression, and privilege intertwine. I'd love to see an explanation of feminist theory and Marxism built primarily around Wolf Hall and A Man For All Seasons.

*My husband got me in the habit of calling him TommyCrommy, and it took me a little too long to remember his real name, here.
posted by meese at 1:12 PM on January 3, 2016 [5 favorites]

I didn't know this was the book club choice, but coincidentally I re-read this this weekend and am starting in on Bring Up The Bodies (took them out of the library before Christmas and someone requested them, hence they got bumped up the reading queue). I didn't love it the first time I read it, and on re-reading I a) didn't remember anything about it and b) still didn't love it. It should be right up my alley! I like her prose! And yet, it feels like something's missing that would make me really love it, and I think two readings are enough to make me say it's just not for me. It's definitely a slog to get started in WH; I'm only about 40 pages into BUTB but it's much easier going.

I partly wonder whether I just don't know enough about the historical events to appreciate any subversion Mantel does in exploring them through Cromwell's perspective - the Tudors and Stuarts were my history topic in year 5 (~age 10, don't know what grade that is) and it's not an era I've particularly revisited since then. I know divorced/beheaded/died/divorced/beheaded/survived and that's about it. So perhaps I'm losing a lot of nuance in the text because I don't have that knowledge that would help me to appreciate it more?

I do think Cromwell as Mantel writes him is a compelling character, as is Henry VIII. I always forget how visceral and brutal our punishment system was - the descriptions of what happened to Wyatt in the tower, or people being burned alive with the crowd watching were really awful to get through. And her writing of Wolsey in the first third or so makes me want to be able to sit down to dinner with him. But my goodness I'm glad we seem to have more names in circulation than Thomas and Henry these days. So many Thomases and Henrys.
posted by theseldomseenkid at 2:10 PM on January 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Hmmm...I had a weird paradoxical thing with Wolf Hall where I adored and admired it, but during the reading found myself strangely reluctant to pick it back up again when I had put it down. I loved it, but found it a heavy book, one that required attention, for me to shift a couple of rusty gears to each time I opened it to get into its headspace. But once I'd done that I found it fascinating. Still haven't done Bringing up the Bodies, maybe I'll reread and then take the dive.

But I feel like that very absence is significant, something akin to Siri Hustvedt's use of deeply misogynistic narrators in The Blazing World. She's telling stories she knows well through the lens of someone who has no conception of them and isn't sympathetic to them.

I found that an interesting comment, because I didn't take that from the book at all. The sense I got was that she put Cromwell at the center because she likes Cromwell, admires him, likes being in his head, in having that vantage, that of the pragmatist in an age of Puritans. He is the center because he is the object of interest, not just a pair of eyeballs to walk around the world in, a vehicle to tell others' tales. That seemed to line up to me with what I've read of her other essays --- she comes off cool-eyed, someone who sees the human shivering under the brocade, who has eyes for the wires that hold up the machinery, hell, for the straining muscles of the stagehand on the catwalk overhead.

I think that's maybe why people who normally like historical fiction might not like her, though. She's a disabuser of grandeur, a puncturer of pomp. What she wants to show you of the past is not the majestic and awe-inspiring and strange, but all the grubby little things that ought to be quite familiar to us in their modern guises. That's another reason why Cromwell is the center; Cromwell is modern. A cosmopolitan, a trader, a bloody accountant. A lawyer, to whom theology is just another branch of jurisprudence. The world was going his way, but it wasn't there yet, which is why his era was so dangerous and intersting.
posted by Diablevert at 3:57 PM on January 3, 2016 [9 favorites]

As mentioned above, the writing viewpoint took a bit to get used to, but once I did, I loved this book. Cromwell is clearly looking out for number one at all times, but it is hard not to root for him against the nobility.
posted by Chrysostom at 10:05 AM on January 4, 2016

I loved this and Bringing Up the Bodies. I didn't find them to be easy reads, but not slogs at all either. It was more like Riddley Walker -- the structure and language were different than in most books, so it took more work to read, but the writing was so good that the effort was worth it.

That said, I can very much see how they are not books for everyone and not everyone is going to find that level of effort to be worth it at all.

I constantly found myself wishing that I knew more about the history in order to catch references and better understand the context. There were also a lot of scenes and sections where I wished she slowed down or gave more details, and I'm not sure if the pattern of touching on things quickly was a stylistic choice or because she expected her readers to be better informed, historically, than I was.

I also found that endometriosis article (posted as an FPP, I think) interesting, and it is something that I will keep in mind when I reread these books, possibly later this year.
posted by Dip Flash at 12:32 PM on January 4, 2016

This was extremely enjoyable and engrossing; my first attempt to read it after I succumbed to curiosity and learned what happened to Cromwell's wide and daughters. Eventually I recovered from losing Liz and was able to pick it up again. I appreciated the close POV but there just seemed to be a lot of unnecessary pronoun confusion. In a conversation with Cromwell, Anne, and sister Mary, I can use a clue who 'she' is.

I don't feel I have a good sense of Jane Seymour and I don't know why this book is called 'Wolf Hall'. I mean, I know what happened next, but I still don't understand.
posted by bq at 4:39 PM on January 11, 2016

Wikipedia claims:

The title comes from the name of the Seymour family seat at Wolfhall or Wulfhall in Wiltshire; the title's allusion to the old Latin saying Homo homini lupus ("Man is wolf to man") serves as a constant reminder of the dangerously opportunistic nature of the world through which Cromwell navigates.

Which seems reasonable enough. I think it's a bit of a title of associations, rather than a direct reference.

I love Wolf Hall and re-read it often, and I didn't like Bring Up The Bodies half as much (for that matter, I haven't really enjoyed Mantel's other non historical novels all that much either, except the one with the missionaries in it, but that had a few very compelling characters in it too). I think I found it a bit of a whirl the first time I read it, you really can get very tangled up about who is meant (particularly, I think, when the same character is referred to by various of their names at different times, I was often sent looking up stuff, like who on earth is Suffolk? Oh! Brandon, right), and where you are and who exactly is it that is speaking, but once you start to get a sense of the narration, it becomes so enjoyable. We become so intimately involved with Cromwell, his observations and memories, it is incredibly immersive, and he is so incredibly compelling a character. I'm only a little bit embarrassed by how much I liked Cromwell!

In general I do like historical fiction, but Wolf Hall is like supercharged historical fiction, and it is helpful to be able to look things up as you go, to help keep everyone straight in your head. It's really great for characters, almost everyone in this book sort of shoulders their way off the page into real life, very determinedly distinct and robust.
posted by glitter at 3:57 AM on January 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

Cromwell as Mantel portrays him is so fiendishly compelling. (He has memorized the bible, the entire bible - by using a technique taught to him while working for... After fighting as a mercenary with... and etc...) the death of his wife and daughter broke my heart though, in a way and I had a hard time afterwards. It's a curious thing and so foreign, to live so close to death - death is almost exotic these days.

I'll read it again when I'm through the current stack. I'm curious now how different it is on a second reading.
posted by From Bklyn at 12:20 PM on January 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm late to this party, but have read both this and BUtB and loved them. I loved how even though I knew the story, I didn't know the story Mantel was telling until it was being told. All of the little sorrows of life in the 16th century, the subtle (and not so subtle) tensions at court, the betrayals and politicking, just delicious.
posted by OHenryPacey at 8:37 PM on March 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

I was disappointed with BUTB and honestly I felt a bit cheated after reading it. In WH Cromwell seems so intent on finding his path to morality - all that musing on 'choose your prince'. And in the second book he seemed like a different character and he does some horrible things without seeming to have qualms. Poor Anne!

Aside, these books prompted me to reread Nancy Kress's short story 'And Wild For To Hold', about Anne Boleyn IN SPAAAAACE. Which is actually quite lovely.
posted by bq at 8:27 AM on March 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

bq, thanks so much for the mention of the short story. I went and tracked it down, and it's absolutely delightful.
posted by joyceanmachine at 10:02 AM on March 23, 2016

The relevant Metafilter thread is now closed, so I just wanted to urge anyone who enjoys Mantel's writing - or even if they don't but are interested in historical fiction - to listen to her absolutely superb Reith Lectures on history and historical writing, the last of which was released this week. They are available as transcripts linked from each individual lecture but are really worth listening to.
posted by tavegyl at 10:50 PM on July 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

The Mirror and the Light was released in the US yesterday. I am a little over a sixth through. I will make a post for the book tomorrow. I am a bit offput by how thoroughly Mark Rylance’s depiction of Cromwell now inhabits my mind’s voice as I read his seductive third-person self-narration.

A point regarding upthread persons expressing disappointment in Bring up The Bodies; am I mistaken in that your difficulty with the work is that the character of Cromwell appears to diverge in your understanding from that shown in Wolf Hall?

If so, I find that surprising, because what is appealing and of interest to me with regard to Mantel’s enscription of Cromwell’s character is the ease with which he deceives himself regarding his motivations and his morality. It’s what makes the books wonderful, dizzying, nearly perfect.
posted by mwhybark at 7:51 PM on March 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

my error, there was a post already.
posted by mwhybark at 3:22 PM on March 13, 2020

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