Samantha’s #CBR4 review #8: Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel
Tudor history? Lots of intrigue? Character-driven narrative? Check, check, and check. Given that the sequel to Wolf Hall came out recently, everyone’s all about Hilary Mantel right now. Except, surprisingly, me. I was very excited to read this book, and there are ways in which it did not disappoint, but overall it was lacking something. I’m not entirely sure what, though, so check back at the end of this review and we’ll see if I figure it out.
Wolf Hall is a narrative of the events surrounding the rise to power of Anne Boleyn. Instead of centering on Anne, however, the main character here is Thomas Cromwell. Although of common birth, Cromwell found his way into trade as a merchant, and eventually into the service of Cardinal Wolsey. From there he rose to a position of high favor with Henry VIII, eventually becoming his chief minister. Cromwell supported the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon, and was a proponent of Reformation and of Anne Boleyn. The novel follows Cromwell from childhood to perhaps the height of Boleyn’s stint as queen, exemplified by the execution of Thomas More. It’s an extremely dense account of political and personal intrigues, of the shifting face of religious expression in England during Henry’s reign, all from the perspective of Cromwell himself.
The characterizations, of Cromwell as well as the other major players, is the novel’s main strength. He’s a fascinating individual, and Mantel’s portrayal of him is extremely sympathetic. Additionally, through his eyes, we are able to gain more “personal” insights into the other main characters than if we were merely reading a biography of Henry or Anne. The politics of their various positions are often used to define them; Henry was powerful but spoiled, Anne was ambitious and self-serving. While those characteristics may have been true, Mantel gives these historical figures a more well-rounded aspect, choosing to highlight the tenuous nature of their positions, and the fear of failure that naturally comes with power and influence.
If the characters are rich and dynamic, the plot and action are a little too dry. Political intrigue is certainly fascinating, but it gets a little bogged down and repetitive after a while. Perhaps authors have chosen to focus on the salacious aspects of the story of Anne Boleyn because it’s more dramatic and intriguing. The political wrangling involved with bringing her to the throne, never mind the religious issues involved, isn’t really aided by filtering them through human faces and emotions. A big stumbling block for a lot of people here is probably the massive cast of characters (when there’s a list at the beginning, you know you’re in trouble) and also the voice of the novel, which is a weird sort of combination of first-person (Cromwell) and third-person. Mantel uses a lot of pronouns and it’s difficult to ascertain who is being referred to a lot of the time.
Sadly, I think the bottom line for me is that I got a little bored with this one. I found myself wondering what the point was, which is kind of weird when you’re dealing with historical fiction and you pretty much already know how things end. Wolf Hall is essentially the uninteresting prequel to the previously-mentioned soap opera of Anne Boleyn’s fall, which is presumably the subject of Mantel’s recent offering, Bring up the Bodies. I’m on the fence about whether or not I want to read that one given I was a bit bored by the first book. The characters, mainly Cromwell himself, will be what draws me in if I change my mind, but the writing itself was simply not enjoyable enough to convince me at present. I guess that’s what bothered me about Wolf Hall. It was very well-received, and I just expected more from it. In terms of an enjoyable read, I have found some of Alison Weir’s books (which are non-fiction) more fun and engaging than this.