WOLF HALL – Hilary Mantel (2009)

Wolf HallWolf Hall pops up in several lists of best historical fiction ever, but I got turned to it by Kim Stanley Robinson, who mentioned it in an interview as superb – together with Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey–Maturin series. It is the first book in a planned trilogy spanning the life of Thomas Cromwell, advisor to Henry VIII, and famous for having had a hand in the creation of the Anglican church, as well as in the downfall of both Thomas More and Anne Boleyn.

Wolf Hall sketches the events of Tudor England up until 1535. Sequel Bring Up The Bodies was published in 2012 and won a Man Booker Prize too. The Mirror And The Light will cover the last 4 years of Cromwell’s life and has yet to be published.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book’s 650 pages. It should appeal to lots of fantasy fans too, as the character of Thomas Cromwell makes for quite a hero. He is the first low born man to rise to such high stature in the English realm – an exceptional figure. What makes him remarkable is his intelligence: he is one of the first English people to notice the importance of the emerging financial, monetary world; speaks numerous languages; has a keen sense of the ways of humans that help him in his power brokering. Plus, he is a bit of a vagabond: fleeing an abusive father, he was a mercenary for the French, travelled through the Low Countries, and ended up serving a Florentine banker. Stranger than fiction indeed, a character that could have been plucked out of whatever court fantasy. Yet it is the other way around, as most subpar fantasy is just medieval history with dragons.

Obviously historians are still debating this and that, and writing about history willy-nilly leads to making choices. Hillary Mantel paints a Thomas Cromwell in a more or less sympathetic light – contrary to commonly held beliefs. He mourns his wife and daughters that die too early, he is a loyal servant to his first English patron, cardinal Wolsey, he struggles with memories of his father, feels for Thomas More’s family, etc. Reviewers writing that they didn’t get to see Cromwell’s emotions haven’t read carefully enough. The emotions are there, and they are one of the many strengths of the book.

Hilary Mantel knows she writes fiction, makes choices. She admits so on the final but one page, in a passage that is visibly meta, yet fits the story and the thoughts of her Cromwell well – all of the last 50 or so pages are truly exquisite, moving, final.

He knows different now. It’s the living that turn and chase the dead. The long bones and skulls are tumbled from their shrouds, and words like stones thrust into their rattling mouths: we edit their writings, we rewrite their lives.

Still, even after 650 pages, Cromwell stays an elusive character. He is a mystery to himself, and multiple personas in one body – as we all are, I guess. It is to Mantel’s credit she has managed to paint somebody complex, without resorting to vagueness, without the painted figure out of focus, and at the same time without being too obvious about Cromwell’s complexity. The two following passages are among the very few that explicitly, overtly talk about his inner life.

He Thomas, also Tomos, Tommaso and Thomas Cromwell, withdraws his past selves into his present body and edges back to where he was before. His single shadow slides against the wall, a visitor not sure of his welcome. Which of these Thomases saw the blow coming?


I shall not indulge More, he thinks, or his family, in any illusion that they understand me. How could that be, when my workings are hidden from myself?

So yes, Wolf Hall is an ‘English’ book, subtle – as the cliché goes. Plus, occasionally brutal and upfront – times were harsh, and Mantel doesn’t romanticize. Subtle, brutal, and funny too! Although it’s not a court drama, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell would be a good fantasy counterpart.

There’s so much to say about this book. In the remainder, I’ll focus on the conflict between two world views underlying the novel, and make some remarks on Mantel’s style.

Thomas MoreThomas Cromwell

In New York’s Frick Collection two surviving copies of lost Hans Holblein paintings hang opposed to each other: Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell. The central dichotomy of Wolf Hall isn’t about Anne Boleyn vs. Katherine of Aragon, or Henry VIII vs. The Pope, or nobility vs. the common people. It is between two world-views these two Thomases represent.

It is of note that Thomas More wrote Utopia, a book with socialist reform avant la lettre at its heart. It is also of note that Mantel’s Cromwell has sympathies for the poor, and very slyly manages to install Lutheran religious reforms – at heart a form of social reform as well. Utopia notwithstanding, it is often forgotten More tortured and burned protestants that just wanted to read the bible in English.

As such, the basic conflict of the book is not between people with opposite ideals, but with an opposite focus. It is the conflict between a Thomas who is a Prinzipienreiter, an idealist who genuinely fears for the damnation of English souls, including his own, and a more modern Thomas, who is pragmatic, with a focus on this life, not the next. More’s refusal to admit to the new legalities of the Anglican Church will prove to be his downfall.

The man’s tone, the emptiness, the loss: it goes straight to his heart. He turns away, to keep his reply calm and trite. ‘You have to say some words. That’s all.’  ‘Ahh. Just words.’  ‘And if you don’t want to say them I can put them to you in writing. Sign your name and the king will be happy. (…)’

More chose a “sanctified death” over uttering some words. One might argue he died because he could not distinguish between signifier and signified for a few seconds. He died because he couldn’t utter a few sounds as those sounds were symbolically tied to religious concepts that were very real to him. More was afraid of hell. Cromwell was not.

‘I am glad I am not like you.’
‘Undoubtedly. Or you would be sitting here.’
‘I mean, my mind fixed on the next world. I realize you see no prospect of improving this one.’

It is interesting that my favorite philosopher, Richard Rorty, talked about this ‘this worldthe next world‘-dichotomy as well, in the excellent episode of Of Beauty And Consolation (2000). Rorty places it in a later context, the 19th century. Obviously, a lot of people in the 16th century were still stuck in a form of Platonist/theistic thinking – but not Mantel’s Cromwell.

Pragmatist regard the Platonist attempt to get away from time into eternity or get away from conversation into certainty as a product of an age of human history where life on Earth was so desperate and it seemed so unlikely that life could ever be better that people took refuge in another world. Pragmatism comes along with things like the French revolution, industrial technology, all the things that made the 19th century believe in progress. When you think the aim of life is to make things better for our descendants rather than to reach outside of history and time, it alters your sense of what philosophy is good for. In the Platonist and theistic epoch the point of philosophy was to get you out of this mess into a better place. (…) There isn’t any natural order, but there is the possibily of a better life for our greatgreatgreatgrandchildren. That’s enough to give you all the meaning or inspiration or whatever you could use. Hans Blumenberg, in a remark that impressed me enormously, said, “at some point we stopped hoping for immortality and in place started hoping for our greatgreatgrandchildren”. This was a sort of turn in the culture of the West, and I really believe that. And I think it had to do with simple improvement of material conditions. When we got a comfortable bourgeois existence for large numbers of people, the bourgeoisie was able to think not about escape of the world and pie in the sky but about creating a future world for future mortals. This seems to me a great improvement.    (quote starts at 23:25, the above is my transcription)

Aside power, and class, and pragmatism vs. Platonism, the absence of free will is a minor theme. It’s not as obvious as power, class & pragmatism, but it’s there. The third quote also ties in to the previous section. It’s a bit longer, but it’s magnificent.

There are moments when a memory moves right through you. You shy, you duck, you run; or else the past takes your fist and actuates it, without the intervention of will. Suppose you have a knife in your first? That’s how murder happens.


Why are we so attached to the severities of the past? Why are we so proud of ourselves for having endured our fathers and our mothers, the fireless days and the meatless days, the cold winters and the sharp tongues? It’s not was if we had a choice.


‘I once had every hope,’ he says. ‘The world corrupts me, I think. Or perhaps it’s just the weather. It pulls me down and makes me think like you, that one should shrink inside, down and down to a little point of light, preserving one’s solitary soul like a flame under a glass. The spectacles of pain and disgrace I see around me, the ignorance, the unthinking vice, the poverty and the lack of hope, and oh, the rain – the rain that falls on England and rots the grain, puts out the light in a man’s eye and the light of learning too, for who can reason if Oxford is a giant puddle and Cambridge is washing away downstream, and who will enforce laws if the judges are swimming for their lives? Last week the people were rioting in York. Why would they not, with wheat so scarce, and twice the price of last year? I must stir up the justices to make examples, I suppose, otherwise the whole of the north will be out with billhooks and pikers, and who will they slaughter but each other? I truly believe I should be a better man if the weather were better. I should be a better man if I lived in a commonwealth where the sun shone and the citizens were rich and free.’

It’s both nature and nurture that determine us in the above quotes. Philosophical ruminations aside, all this should induce humility. We didn’t make ourselves, nor our surroundings. We shouldn’t take credit. Cromwell can’t help being “born tricky”.

In some of the above quotes, Mantel’s style and narrative voice shines through. It is quite something: fluid, heavy on dialogue, heavy on the inner dialogue of Cromwell as well. It’s all heaped up in one giant flow. Some reviewers complain that there’s too much “he” without it being clear who the particular he in a context is, but it’s Cromwell 90% of the time. That knowledge helps, but doesn’t make reading Wolf Hall a total walk in the park: there’s lots of detail in every passage, lots of characters – with lots of names and titles and alliances, but fantasy readers are used to that – and readers are dropped in new scenes without a lot of introduction.

The following quote is a bit longer, but shows pretty well what I mean. It also references Hamlet’s famous soliloquy – Shakespeare was apparently influenced by a book of George Cavendish on cardinal Wolsey. I’m sure Mantel hid more Easter eggs in the book, but this is the only one I found.

The difficulty is … No, in fact, there are several difficulties. The cardinal, a Bachelor of Arts at fifteen, a Bachelor of Theology by his mid-twenties, is learned in the law but does not like its delays; he cannot quite accept that real property cannot be changed into money, with the same speed and ease with which he changes a wafer into the body of Christ. When he once, as a test, explained to the cardinal just a minor point of the land law concerning – well, never mind, it was a minor point – he saw the cardinal break into a sweat and say, Thomas, what can I give you, to persuade you never to mention this to me again? Find a way, just do it, he would say when obstacles were raised; and when he heard of some small person obstructing his grand design, he would say, Thomas, give them some money to make them go away. He has the leisure to think about this, because the cardinal is staring down at his desk, at the letter he has half-written.

So yes, Wolf Hall has it all: evolving, grey characters with depth, a complex content, beautiful language…

The texts are heavy to hold in the arms, and awkward as if they breathed, their pages made of slunk vellum of stillborn calves, reveined by the illuminator in tints of lapis and leaf-green.


A wash of sunlight lies over the river, pale as the flesh of a lemon.

Obviously, if you know a bit about English history, the overall story will not surprise you. Yet, as Janet Maslin wrote in her review of Bring Up The Bodies: “The wonder of Ms. Mantel’s retelling is that she makes these events fresh and terrifying all over again.” The same applies for this first novel – that can perfectly stand on its own by the way, it doesn’t feel as the first of a trilogy at all, the narrative arc is finished neatly.

The final confrontations between Cromwell and More had me truly awed: these are two men that respect each other, both have blood on their hands, and both do what they feel they need to do, emotions and all. Such is life.

Highly recommended.

2 responses to “WOLF HALL – Hilary Mantel (2009)

  1. A wonderfully detailed and revelatory review that shames my avoiding it for so long. So percipient.

    Too much to meaningfully respond to just now but I’ll just focus on your philosopher’s insight: “at some point we stopped hoping for immortality and in place started hoping for our greatgreatgrandchildren.” Myself I’ve always thought the pragmatic way to achieve an immortality of sorts is through the continuance of our genes — but then, I’m an atheist. The other way, which has happened willy-nilly to Cromwell, is summed up in a quote from popular culture: “Fame! I wanna live forever!”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for the kind words, they are very much appreciated…

      I’m becoming a dad in a couple of months, so I’ll try my best to achieve immortality, for at least another generation indeed 😀

      Liked by 1 person

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