decemberthirty: (tree swallow)
[personal profile] decemberthirty
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel tells a long, many-threaded story: Henry VIII's divorce from Katherine of Aragon, his re-marriage to Anne Boleyn, the beginnings of the English Reformation, the rise and fall of Cardinal Wolsey, the rise and rise and rise of Wolsey's servant Thomas Cromwell. All of these plots are important, but it is Cromwell who is at the center of the book--appropriate, perhaps, since it seems he was also at the center of virtually every political development and intrigue in England in the 1530s. Mantel follows Cromwell from his low beginnings--the book opens with a scene of fourteen-year-old Cromwell being beaten nearly to death by his brutal drunkard of a father--to the lofty heights of King Henry's council chamber, showing us every twist in his fortunes along the way.

About that opening scene: it's effective. It would take a cold-hearted reader not to feel sympathetic toward a main character when we first meet that character battered and bruised and struggling to crawl out of the way of his father's boot. It worked on me, anyway--I loved Mantel's version of Cromwell, I wanted to hang out with him, I rooted for him even when he was at his most manipulative and morally ambiguous. And why not? He is an amazing character: eminently capable, intelligent, ambitious as the day is long, full of contradictions, possessed of a fine sly sense of humor which spreads outward from him to fill the narrative. In Mantel's telling, it almost seems as though Cromwell amasses power simply by always being the most imperturbable person in the room. Yet there is something unknowable about him too, a mystery that shrouds his innermost thoughts and motivations. We get hints, but we can never be quite sure--it's always possible that each of his machinations is just part of larger machination happening on a level too deep for us to see...

Ms. E read Wolf Hall before I did and raved about it so much that I decided to pick it up. But I had trouble liking the book at first. I was frustrated by it for the first 100 or 150 pages. I liked Cromwell, sure, but not Mantel's style. For instance, she doesn't like to use Cromwell's name, always referring to him simply as "he." She does this (I imagine) to emphasize his centrality, but it leads to absurd confusing situations in which "he" has two different antecedents in the same sentence. I didn't like the flow of Mantel's prose, which seemed almost aggressive in the way it chopped and changed without ever settling into a sustained rhythm. I found the story difficult to crack as well. Some of this seemed to be "legitimate" difficulty, but some of it seemed to be due to deliberate obfuscation by Mantel and I have no patience for that. Difficulty can serve a purpose, and the difficulty of Wolf Hall felt productive when my struggle to penetrate the story mirrored the difficulty of penetrating the layers of Cromwell's character; sometimes, though, it just seemed like Mantel was making me work without providing me with the payoff for my efforts.

But I got used to all of those things. By the 200th page, my objections vanished. Mantel's style no longer annoyed, the book no longer seemed difficult, and I just wanted to read it forever. There are huge tracts of the story where very little happens--hundreds of pages devoted to the two-steps-forward-one-step-back process of politics--but I didn't care. It was all interesting even in the stretches between big events. Mantel's sharp little depictions of characters, the wealth of detail she provides about the world of Henry's court and about domestic life in the 16th century, the moments when Cromwell triumphs over an old enemy or gets his subtle revenge for a slight so old that no one but him remembers it--these things were enough to keep me happily reading while I waited for, say, Anne's coronation or the birth of Princess Elizabeth.

I was prepared for the book to be smart and full of historical interest, but it was also affecting in a way that I hadn't expected. At one point, Cromwell endures a string of personal tragedies and it is just fucking brutal. Heartbreaking. It's also hard not to be moved by the fate of Mary Boleyn and the treatment she receives from her sister and...well, everyone, really. I was talking about this in a comment to [ profile] marchioness, but I thought the book provided an interesting (and very sympathetic) look at the situation of highly-placed women at that time--how limited their options were, how they were almost always pawns in someone else's game, how even the smallest miscalculation in how they played the game could condemn them to lives that were really miserable. Mantel demonstrates really persuasively the sort of bind you can get in when your primary value comes from your chastity, yet you must also deploy your sexuality in exactly the right way to get and keep the interest of exactly the right man, and give your chastity away at exactly the right moment... This is not news, of course, but Mantel lays it out subtly and compellingly.

I didn't want to give in to the hype surrounding Wolf Hall. But in the end I had to admit that it was great. I've was talking with a writer friend recently about the extent to which a writer's job is to give the reader pleasure, and Wolf Hall gave pleasure in abundance. I couldn't get enough of it. So much so that as soon as I finished it, I picked up the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies. So far Bring Up the Bodies does not quite live up to Wolf Hall, but I have great hopes that it will improve.

Date: 2013-09-10 03:06 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I must thank you for the recommendation, as I'm really enjoying Wolf Hall!

Date: 2013-09-10 04:29 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Hooray! There's a certain pressure that comes when someone reads a book on your recommendation--oh god, what if she hates it and it's all my fault?--so I'm glad to know that you're liking. Would love to hear what you think when you've finished it!

Date: 2013-09-10 04:11 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I've been meaning to Wolf Hall FOREVER. Ughhh, maybe now is finally the time.

Date: 2013-09-10 04:31 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Ha ha--I felt that way too. It happens to me all the time: a books comes out, makes a big splash, everyone talks about it, and then somewhere between three and five years later I finally get around to reading it. But Wolf Hall is worth it!

Date: 2013-09-10 03:53 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I actually picked up this book a week ago and so far have pretty much the same objections to the writing style. But the plot is interesting and I've already read a few books on Henry VIII to know that more juicy stuff will come. Of Cromwell I know very little and I'm so eager to find out more.

Date: 2013-09-10 04:32 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I hope you warm up to it the way I did. And I'd love to know what you think once you've finished it!

Date: 2013-09-11 06:27 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Don't worry, I'll definitely let you know once I'm done. But it might take me a while, though, as I've been a slow reader lately.

Date: 2013-09-11 04:57 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
A great review, truly inspiring.

I had no idea Hilary Mantel was a woman. Or such a powerhouse. Happy to learn of her via your post!

I looked her up. Is it me, or does she not look just like Margaret Thatcher, but with longer hair?

Date: 2013-09-14 12:29 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Ha ha--I hadn't thought of her in relation to Margaret Thatcher, but now that you mention it... I also seem to recall reading somewhere that she's extremely short. Like, maybe even under five feet tall? That doesn't really have anything to do with anything, but I found it interesting.

I haven't read anything of hers besides Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, but I can definitely recommend both, and I intend to check out her earlier work as well!

Date: 2013-09-13 01:05 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Thank you for the review! I have been very unsure if I should pick up this book, since it has been on the bestseller list over here and I am generally skeptical about hyped up books like that but then again I love historical novels. Now that I read your post, I will definitely give Wolf Hall a try!

Date: 2013-09-14 12:30 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I hope you like it! I tend to share your skepticism about bestsellers and heavily hyped books, but this one turned out to be worth it.

Date: 2013-09-17 01:09 pm (UTC)
ext_579428: (breakfast)
From: [identity profile]
Hello! I arrive here via [ profile] ange, in one of those random clicking on friends of friends profiles and finding they sound like your kind of person. We seem to share various interests, so I came here to leave a comment and what do I find? You've reviewed the book I'm finishing right now! Totally agree with everything, including the fact it took me over 200 pages to stop being annoyed beyond belief by the writing style and then be unable to put it down. the point! Mind if I add you? :)

Date: 2013-09-17 09:54 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
What a funny series of coincidences, right down to feeling the same way about Wolf Hall! I definitely don't mind if you add me--I had a look at your profile, and it seems quite likely that we'll get along. In fact, I've already gone ahead and added you. If you'd like, you're welcome to check out my intro post ( and learn a bit more about this person you've stumbled upon...

Also, I just finished Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel to Wolf Hall, and while I didn't think it was *quite* as good, it was still a great read. Recommended!

Thanks for dropping by!

Date: 2013-09-18 07:05 am (UTC)
ext_579428: (breakfast)
From: [identity profile]
The wonders of LJ! Thanks for the link to the intro post, I always enjoy reading those. I have one here too if you're interested!

I have that ready on the shelf, but I think I need a bit of a break from that prose..but it's definitely on my to-read list!

Date: 2013-09-30 01:55 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
This has absolutely nothing to do with your post but kaishin108 sent me your way because she thought we might get along so I promised to say hi and would you be willing to friend me and see if she's right? I'm Marie, btw :)

Date: 2013-10-01 01:32 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Hi! Thanks for dropping by to say hello! :)
I'd be happy to give LJ-friendship a try, and I promise I won't be offended if it turns out that my journal isn't your style. I'll go add you now, and if you'd like to learn more about what you're getting yourself into, please feel welcome to check out my intro post (
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