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Wolf Hall (Wolf Hall Trilogy, 1) Paperback – May 4, 2021
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WINNER OF THE 2009 MAN BOOKER PRIZE
WINNER OF THE NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD FOR FICTION
A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
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. Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell: a wholly original man, a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people, and 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's Wolf Hall is "a darkly brilliant reimagining of life under Henry VIII. . . . Magnificent." (The Boston Globe).
“Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall is a startling achievement, a brilliant historical novel focused on the rise to power of a figure exceedingly unlikely, on the face of things, to arouse any sympathy at all . . . . This is a novel too in which nothing is wasted, and nothing completely disappears.” ―Stephen Greenblatt, The New York Review of Books
“Nothing in the last few years has dazzled me more than Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. . . . Magnificent.” ―Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love
"Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s epic fictionalized look at Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power, came out in 2009, but I was a little busy back then, so I missed it. Still great today."―Barack Obama
“On the origins of this once-world-shaking combat, with its still-vivid acerbity and cruelty, Hilary Mantel has written a historical novel of quite astonishing power. . . . With breathtaking subtlety--one quite ceases to notice the way in which she takes on the most intimate male habits of thought and speech--Mantel gives us a Henry who is sexually pathetic, and who needs a very down-to-earth counselor. . . . The means by which Mantel grounds and anchors her action so convincingly in the time she describes, while drawing so easily upon the past and hinting so indirectly at the future, put her in the very first rank of historical novelists. . . . Wolf Hall is a magnificent service to the language and literature whose early emancipation it depicts and also, in its demystifying of one of history's wickedest men, a service to the justice that Josephine Tey first demanded in The Daughter of Time.” ―Christopher Hitchens, The Atlantic
“Whether we accept Ms Mantel's reading of history or not, her characters have a lifeblood of their own . . . . a Shakespearean vigour. Stylistically, her fly-on-the-wall approach is achieved through the present tense, of which she is a master. Her prose is muscular, avoiding cod Tudor dialogue and going for direct modern English. The result is Ms Mantel's best novel yet.” ―The Economist
“A novel both fresh and finely wrought: a brilliant portrait of a society in the throes of disorienting change, anchored by a penetrating character study of Henry's formidable advisor, Thomas Cromwell. It's no wonder that her masterful book just won this year's Booker Prize . . . [Mantel's prose is] extraordinarily flexible, subtle, and shrewd.” ―Wendy Smith, The Washington Post
“A huge book, in its range, ambition . . . in its success. [Mantel's] interest is in the question of good and evil as it applies to people who wield great power. That means anguish, exultation, deals, spies, decapitations, and fabulous clothes . . . She always goes for color, richness, music. She has read Shakespeare closely. One also hears the accents of the young James Joyce.” ―Joan Acocella, The New Yorker
“Dazzling . . . .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 . . . . both spellbinding and believable.” ―Christopher Benfey, The New York Times Book Review
“Mantel's abilities to channel the life and lexicon of the past are nothing short of astonishing. She burrows down through the historical record to uncover the tiniest, most telling details, evoking the minutiae of history as vividly as its grand sweep. The dialogue is so convincing that she seems to have been, in another life, a stenographer taking notes in the taverns and palaces of England.” ―Ross King, Los Angeles Times
“Darkly magnificent . . . Instead of bringing the past to us, her writing, brilliant and black, launches us disconcertingly into the past. We are space-time travelers landed in an alien world . . . history is a feast whose various and vital excitements and intrigues make the book a long and complex pleasure.” ―Richard Eder, The Boston Globe
“Arch, elegant, richly detailed . . . [Wolf Hall's] main characters are scorchingly well rendered. And their sharp-clawed machinations are presented with nonstop verve in a book that can compress a wealth of incisiveness into a very few well-chosen words . . . Deft and diabolical as they are, Ms. Mantel's slyly malicious turns of phrase . . . succinctly capture the important struggles that have set her characters talking.” ―Janet Maslin, The New York Times
“Brilliant . . . A provocative, beautifully written book that ends much too soon.” ―The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)
“The essential Mantel element . . . is a style--of writing and of thinking--that combines steely-eyed intelligence with intense yet wide-ranging sympathy. This style implies enormous respect for her readers, as if she believes that we are as intelligent and empathetic as she is, and one of the acute pleasures of reading her books is that we sometimes find ourselves living up to those expectations. . . . If you are anything like me, you will finish Wolf Hall wishing it were twice as long as its 560 pages. Torn away from this sixteenth-century world, in which you have come to know the engaging, pragmatic Cromwell as if he were your own brother--as if he were yourself--you will turn to the Internet to find out more about him . . . But none of this, however instructive will make up for your feeling of loss, because none of this additional material will come clothed in the seductive, inimitable language of Mantel's great fiction.” ―Wendy Lesser, Bookforum
“Mantel sets a new standard for historical fiction with her latest novel Wolf Hall, a riveting portrait of Thomas Cromwell . . . Mantel's crystalline style, piercing eye and interest in, shall we say, the darker side of human nature, together with a real respect for historical accuracy, make this novel an engrossing, enveloping read.” ―BookPage
“The story of Cromwell's rise shimmers in Ms. Mantel's spry intelligent prose . . . [Mantel] leaches out the bones of the story as it is traditionally known, and presents to us a phantasmagoric extravaganza of the characters' plans and ploys, toils and tactics.” ―Washington Times
“Historical fiction at its finest, Wolf Hall captures the character of a nation and its people. It exemplifies something that has lately seemed as mythical as those serpent princesses: the great English novel.” ―Bloomberg News
“Inspired . . . there are no new stories, only new ways of telling them. Set during Henry VIII's tumultuous, oft-covered reign, this epic novel . . . proves just how inspired a fresh take can be. [Mantel] is an author as audacious as Anne [Boleyn] herself, imagining private conversations between public figures and making it read as if she had a glass to the wall.” ―People Magazine (four stars, People Pick)
“A deft, original, but complicated novel. Fans of historical fiction--or great writing--should howl with delight.” ―USA Today
“[Mantel] wades into the dark currents of 16th century English politics to sculpt a drama and a protagonist with a surprisingly contemporary feel . . . Wolf Hall is sometimes an ambitious read. But it is a rewarding one as well.” ―Marjorie Kehe, The Christian Science Monitor
“This masterwork is full of gems for the careful reader. The recurring details alone . . . shine through like some kind of Everyman's poetry. Plainspoken and occasionally brutal, Wolf Hall is both as complex and as powerful as its subject, as messy as life itself.” ―Clea Simon, The Boston Phoenix
“Reader, you're in excellent hands with Hilary Mantel . . . for this thrumming, thrilling read. . . . Part of the delight of masterfully paced Wolf Hall is how utterly modern it feels. It is political intrigue pulsing with energy and peopled by historical figures who have never seemed more alive--and more human.” ―Ellen Kanner, Miami Herald
“Wolf Hall is a solid historical novel that's also a compelling read . . . Mantel's narrative manages to be both rich and lean: there's plenty of detail, but it's not piled in endless paragraphs. The plot flows swiftly from one development to the next.” ―David Loftus, The Oregonian
“[Mantel] seamlessly blends fiction and history and creates a stunning story of Tudor England . . . . With its excellent plotting and riveting dialogue, Wolf Hall is a gem of a novel that is both accurate and gripping.” ―Cody Corliss, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“[A] spirited novel . . . . Mantel has a solid grasp of court politics and a knack for sharp, cutting dialogue.” ―Thom Geier, Entertainment Weekly
“This is in all respects a superior work of fiction, peopled with appealing characters living through a period of tense high drama‚There will be few novels this year as good as this one.” ―Library Journal, starred review
“Mixing fiction with fact, Mantel captures the atmosphere of the times and brings to life the important players.” ―Publishers Weekly
About the Author
- Publisher : Picador Paper (May 4, 2021)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 640 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1250806712
- ISBN-13 : 978-1250806710
- Item Weight : 1.04 pounds
- Dimensions : 5.45 x 1.35 x 8.25 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #8,764 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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Mantel's Cromwell is someone who refers to himself in the third person and seems to regard his life, and himself, as a character in a play or a book. It's very interesting how Cromwell mirrors Henry, perhaps this is what made him such a good servant of the king (up until the king got tired of him as with so many others) - he, like Henry, has a marvellous way to rewriting the past so that it is always the fault of someone else as to their fates - Henry has more self-pity about it, but he blames his wives, bad counsellors, the will of God and anything else to render himself blameless. It wasn't Henry deserted Katherine, it wasn't Henry turned the realm upside-down so he could marry Anne, it wasn't Henry's fault that anything happened. And Cromwell does the same - even when we see him at work digging the pitfalls, it's not Cromwell who convicts Fisher and More and the poor bastards set up for the showtrial about Anne's alleged adultery, it's their own fault for not being willing to give just one little word in agreement.
It's also hard to take this Cromwell seriously as a proponent of Reformed religion and the Gospel; he's very clear on all that *isn't* in the Bible, but as to what will happen once the people have a Bible in English that they can read themselves? Well, something something profit something. He's supposed to be a lawyer (amongst many, many other talents) but he has no regard for oaths; neither as a secular man nor a supposed lover of true religion does he scruple to blink at perjury. First he coerces Harry Percy to swear on the Bible that he never had anything to do with Anne, then when the wind changes he wants to make him swear that he was married to her. Not too much regard for the word of God there!
If I go by this trilogy, what Cromwell really believed in was money, power, and revenge. There's some vague, poetic maunderings about progress and the New Men making a new world. The trouble is, when we see Cromwell and his circle of New Men - men without ancient noble families behind them, men who were made by the king out of nothing and dependent on him for everything - making the new world, it's definitely a modern world that is very familiar to us: the world of Stalin's hey-day, the world of the showtrial and the disappeared, of spies everywhere and any word twisted to your downfall, to trials where the verdict is already decided and now we just need to pick the victims and extort by any means 'confessions' out of them.
There's a telling line where Cromwell muses on truth being not what really happened but what the law says is the verdict. We see Cromwell and his picked protegés building this whole elaborate structure where laws are passed *after* the fact to make something a crime in retrospect, where everyone is guilty and what the facts are depends on what the whims of the king today are. It's fascinating to watch Cromwell creating the machine that will bring him, in his turn, down.
Cromwell, like Henry, seems to regard women as mainly there for sex and child-bearing. Henry can be tearfully sentimental about love, but it doesn't stop him being cruel and selfish in his desires. Cromwell echoes Henry in this but colder and harder. He has some sentimental notions about his dead wife and daughters, but he never remarries because he can't see any use for a woman (he runs his own household perfectly and it's so majorly a male environment that a different novelist or more psychoanalytical approach would suggest he's closeted homosexual) apart from sex, and if he wants that then a discreet mistress or hire a whore by the hour is the solution. He professes a certain degree of sympathy for the various women he interacts with, but his general notion is that they are stuck in a particular sphere, have only weak 'women's weapons' and are of no interest or affect on his male world of power, politics, and European intrigue.
He's not very correct in that, and paying closer attention to the women he meets would serve him better, but he's curiously blind for a character presenting as not alone jack but indeed master of all trades. His tussle with Anne Boleyn is over their grudge to do with Cardinal Wolsey, the one person Cromwell is presented as genuinely loyal to even after the cardinal's downfall and death. Once he's achieved the victory there, Cromwell does not seem to see the pattern that is abundantly clear in all those Henry has shown his favour and later discarded - and not simply discarded, but made sure they were killed. Cromwell is there in the midst of Wolsey's downfall, he sees how Henry turns on Katherine, he sees how he treats boyhood friends and close companions - arm around the shoulder one day, cold shoulder the next - how Henry wants Anne and then turns on her, how Henry lies, how when he is showing you the most favour is the most dangerous moment - and still he never seems to seriously think he is ever going to be at risk, that he too is the next head on the chopping block.
Cromwell's downfall, when it comes, is inevitable because of the master he served and how he served him. Cromwell may imagine that the new world is already here, where princes mean nothing and it's the bankers and moneylenders who run Europe, who set policies and pull the strings of power, and he is one of these New Men who are indispensable, but Henry (and the enemies Cromwell made) still have a kick or two left in them. The smooth-running machine Cromwell helped build to grind up others will grind him up as well. It's hard to feel sorry for him and indeed I didn't. All his willingness to swear whatever oath you want, to agree that black is white and white is black, didn't save him from Henry's ire in the end and his contempt for those who wouldn't swear to fit the king's wishes, who stuck to truth as they imagined it to be - objective, real, unchangeable - and who died for that: in the end, his trimming brought him to the same ends, and it's impossible to respect him as you'd respect someone who died for the truth.
Normally, I read a book first and then—if a subsequent film production gets rave reviews—I’ll see the movie. Occasionally, the movie will live magnificently up to all my wildest expectations; To Kill a Mockingbird is a good example of movie-from-book perfection. And occasionally, rarely, a movie will surpass the book. I thought The Graduate a mediocre book, but the movie was and always will be a classic portrait of a particular time and place.
Which brings us to Wolf Hall. I’m not sure how and why I missed the book. It won a Man-Booker Prize (Great Britain’s equivalent of the Pulitzer, though over there they might say the Pulitzer is America’s equivalent of the Booker) and then author Hilary Mantel turned right around and won another Man-Booker for the sequel to Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies. That is, I believe, the only time Booker prizes have ever been awarded to a novel and then its sequel.
Not only had I missed the book(s), but at first, when I saw the trailers on PBS for the film version, I wasn’t all that intrigued. Downton Abbey had just finished its last episode of the season and it was hard to imagine anything equaling that. So, a mini-series based on Henry VIII and his wretched excesses, told from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell, one of the king’s, ah, shall we say, less fastidious enablers… Ho, hum. I’ve read my history; I’ve seen A Man for All Seasons; been there, done that. But a Close Relative By Marriage insisted we watch, and after the first ten minutes you could have set fire to my chair and I wouldn’t have left. That’s how good the production was, and Mark Rylance, the British actor who stars as Thomas Cromwell, gave one of the most compelling performances I have ever seen: quiet, understated, absolutely convincing, and absolutely electrifying. So consider this also a rave review for the PBS series.
(By the way, for those of you interested in historical tidbits: any great English house with “abbey” as part of its name, as in Downton Abbey, is so named because when Henry VIII, aided by Thomas Cromwell, took the great monasteries from the Pope, he awarded some of those lands to favored courtiers who retained the appellation “abbey.”)
After the second episode I galloped to my desk and ordered copies of both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies for myself and just everybody I know, and as soon as they arrived, I dove in. Now I know why Hilary Mantel won the Man-Booker twice. She deserves it.
In case you’re even more of a troglodyte than I and you’ve never heard of Hilary Mantel or Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, yes, it’s Henry VIII and all his unfortunate wives and all those men and women who circled around the king and his court like flies around a corpse, but… But how much do you actually know about Thomas Cromwell? Ah. That’s the point. That’s part of Hilary Mantel’s genius: she has taken a famous and influential man about whom little is known and gone to town with him.
Thomas Cromwell is one of those mysterious figures in history who beggar the imagination. Acknowledged as arguably the single most influential minister (that’s minister in the political sense, not ecclesiastical) in all of English history, he seems to have sprung fully evolved out of his own imagining and will power. Even the authoritative Encyclopedia Britannica describes his origins and early life as “obscure.” Probably (no one knows for certain) born around 1485; probably (no one knows for certain) born in Putney, at that time a decidedly seedy suburb of London; probably (no one know for certain) born to a man who may have been named Cromwell, but who may have been named Smyth who was probably (no one knows for certain) a blacksmith, but who might have been a brewer or a cloth merchant or all of the above; Thomas Cromwell probably (no one knows for certain) and improbably somehow ended up in Italy early in his life; he probably (no one knows for certain) lived in the Low Countries (think Flanders, Holland, Belgium); and he was probably (no one knows for certain) somehow associated with the London Merchant Adventurers. His early history contains the qualifying words “seems,” “appears,” “might have,” and “probably” almost more than any others.
And yet, somehow, out of these inauspicious beginnings, Thomas Cromwell suddenly burst into history in 1520 as a solicitor (that’s “lawyer” to we simple-minded Americans) to the great and immensely powerful Cardinal Wolsey. How did a man from such meager beginnings in such a rigidly stratified society manage to catapult himself into the halls of power and the pages of history?
I stumbled across an interview on the internet with Hilary Mantel, and that question is pretty much what compelled her to start her journey. So that’s half the genius.
The other half is Mantel’s writing.
To quote Rudyard Kipling:
“There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
And every single one of them is right.”
Doubtless very true, and who am I to question as great a writer as Rudyard Kipling? But some methods of construction are righter than others, and Hilary Mantel’s writing is breathtaking.
Of all the varied ways of constructing tribal lays, the one that appeals most to me is the kind where a master artist plays with his or her materials. Think Shakespeare. Think Faulkner. Think Cormac McCarthy. Think Hilary Mantel. The English language, so rich and varied, so ripe with multiple subtle meanings, lends itself to a kind of imaginative playfulness, verbal pyrotechnics, if you like, that amaze and delight. She writes in the present tense, third person singular, which lends an urgency to her tale, but she jumps back and forth in time, sometimes in a sentence, sometimes in a paragraph, sometimes in a section, using the mnemonic device of Cromwell’s memories to give us information about him and his past. But it is the oblique grace with which she tells her story that is so delightful. I will give you one example.
Bring Up the Bodies, the second volume of what will eventually become Mantel’s trilogy, opens with Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII out hawking. In Wolf Hall, Cromwell’s daughters have died, but he cannot allow himself the luxury of grief. He lives to serve the king, and as a minister to the king he cannot indulge in such distracting luxuries as grief or rage or love or hate. Whatever he might feel or want must be subsumed in service to the throne. So in “Falcons,” the opening chapter of Bring Up the Bodies, Cromwell and Henry are sitting their horses and watching their falcons, and a lesser, more pedestrian, writer might have opened the book with a paragraph such as:
“Cromwell watches his falcons plunging after their prey. He has named the birds after his daughters, and as he and the king watch from horseback, this one, Grace, takes her prey in silence, returning to his fist with only a slight rustling of feathers and a blood-streaked breast…”
And so on.
Now, consider this, Señorita; consider how Hilary Mantel handles the opening.
“His children are falling from the sky. He watches from horseback, acres of England stretching behind him; they drop, gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze. Grace Cromwell hovers in thin air. She is silent when she takes her prey, silent as she glides to his fist. But the sounds she makes then, the rustle of feathers and the creak, the sigh and riffle of pinion, the small cluck-cluck from her throat, these are sounds of recognition, intimate, daughterly, almost disapproving. Her breast is gore-streaked and flesh clings to her claws.”
If you don’t like that, you don’t like chocolate cake.
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It's nearly impossible to figure out what is happening or who is speaking. The prose is written in the present tense, which I find incredibly irritating for some reason and makes the book sound like a Peppa Pig or Charlie and Lola book. The most infuriating thing though is Mantel's habit of writing "he says" during a conversation between three, or possibly four, men meaning that you have no idea who is speaking. She also quite often uses speech without quote marks, e.g. "He says, don't be childish. George says, she is so a witch: the Duke of Norfolk says she is, and he's her uncle, he should know." I'm at a loss who the first "he" refers to. I thought it was Cavendish because that's the only name mentioned in the two pages before but then the following page tells us that "he would rather be drinking with Cavendish". The book is a complete mess and how this won the Man Booker Prize is a mystery to me, but it doesn't make me want to read any other winners.
Interestingly, I tweeted that I was reading a prize winning book that was impossible to follow but did not name the author. It took less than 2 minutes for 10 people to all correctly guess the author and book I was talking about so clearly I'm not the only person who feels this way.
The problem though is that it is incredibly poorly written. All the characters are lifeless, hard to tell apart from each other, the story is... uneventful at best. You hardly even know who the author is talking about, you always find the awful structure: "He, Cromwell, thought.." So clearly, the author is as confused as you are (and if it's voluntary for purpose of style, it's even worse). I hardly ever give up on a book after reading half of it. But I realised that when you put the book down to browse on your phone, you just have to face the fact. To me this book is a missed opportunity.
The tempo is SO slow and the dialogue is lacking any real character, and so I gave up on it without even reaching 100 pages. Maybe it would have got better had I persevered with it, but I had lost my enthusiasm for it at that point. A real shame as it’s set in such an incredible point in British history.