- File Size: 1893 KB
- Print Length: 559 pages
- Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.; First edition (October 13, 2009)
- Publication Date: October 13, 2009
- Sold by: Macmillan
- Language: English
- ASIN: B002UZ5K4Y
- Text-to-Speech: Enabled
- Word Wise: Enabled
- Lending: Not Enabled
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #10,363 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Wolf Hall: A Novel Kindle Edition
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"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
"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...
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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.
Top international reviews
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 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.
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.
Wolf Hall is a book about Thomas Cromwell. It is told from his point of view, but not in the first person. This creates a narrative in which we see the world through Thomas’ eyes, be where he is, know something of what he knows, but we can also pull back and see him, asking questions of himself as he sorts out the lives of others. Thomas in this version is a ‘fixer’, the supreme pragmatist who does what has to be done to whoever needs sorting out. His memory is a blessing in this work, but a curse as he copes with the loss of his wife and daughters. The loss of his family haunts this book, as does his awareness of ghosts of the past, those who lived in a house before him, and Cardinal Wolsey’s enormous personality. He copes with the women of the court, Anne, Katherine, Mary and the others that serve them with caution and sometimes confusion, seeing them as another problem to solve as well as possible actors in his scenarios. King Henry is sometimes a child to be placated, an impossible, querulous dictator. Cromwell has his measure in this book, but remains under no illusions that he must proceed with caution to avoid potentially fatal confrontations.
This is not a perfect book. It takes its time to get anywhere, and sometimes gets bogged down under the weight of its constant thinking, reaction and action, plotting and planning. Yet it is a human book in its diverse progress, the tangents and confusions that we can understand. Life in this period could be and often was short and brutal, and this book shows us how and why. Mantel has said that she was keen to look at the events of Henry’s reign through other eyes than the wives, the King himself, the minor functionaries of court. Thomas Cromwell was the supreme fixer of problems and situations. This book shows you how and why, as well as the human thought processes behind his survival and success in a dangerous time.
A lot of other reviewers have complained the about the writing style, but I urge new readers considering picking this up not to let those complaints put you off. Mantell writes in present tense, using the the term "he" a lot. It takes a chapter or so to get used to this and learn a sense of who is actually speaking. But you soon learn; when Mantell refers to 'he', she is almost always referring to Cromwell. If you assume 'he' is Cromwell you'll get it right 98% of the time.
The story follows Cromwell episodically. Roughly, it covers the period from the fall of Wolsey in 1529 to 1535. Early chapters (episodes) jump backwards in time- Cromwell running away from home at fifteen in 1500, working with Wolsey in 1521, 1527 etc. The middle and later chapters remain episodic but do become more chronological.
You will fall in love with Cromwell a bit. He is an appealing character, intelligent and measured. Mantell shows us how he can be intimidating and dangerous to others, but we the reader are always on the inside, with Cromwell- we see his threat from his point of view.
There are no two dimensional characters. Henry is understandable and you develop empathy for him, rather than being the flat psychopath of other writers. Anne Boleyn is built up as a vile nutcase when spoken of by other characters, but in person with Cromwell is a more rounded character.
I cannot recommend this highly enough. If you want a taste of the Tudors this is magnificent. I would argue that it isn't a cheap and easy beach read, so don't pick it up for that. But neither is it War and Peace - it is not the challenging read it it built up to be
From humble beginnings then we see the rise of Thomas Cromwell, to a trusted aide and righthand man to Cardinal Wolsey and beyond. Why this works is because a character is built up that is believable, and we can also relate to. At a time when apart from the living conditions of many and poor health so we arrive at the top, where things can be more comfortable, but with any mistake or causing displeasure for the king can bring upon you turmoil and even death, so one has to tread carefully. Cromwell in real life has a rather sketchy history growing up, with contradictions and some mystery, but as far as can be discerned he served as a mercenary, did learn languages and helped to accommodate trade deals. All of this was of course to serve him well, making money for himself and his family, but his relationship with Wolsey was to prove a high point as such, because this brought him into a more prominent position, increasing his ability to network and move in the higher echelons of society.
Assisting Wolsey here we see the problems that arise with Henry wanting to divorce his first wife for Anne Boleyn, and the part that Luther and his protestant beliefs were to assist in this matter. Although Wolsey falls from grace, so Cromwell manages to still keep in among the court, and as a protestant himself so we see how he deals with others, and how he deals with the Church.
This is very much a tale of the rise of Cromwell to prominence at court and how the king befriends him and requires his assistance. Another thing that helps this book is although for instance we see Henry and Anne, along with others, so this does not overshadow the tale of Cromwell, bringing to life this man as never before. We will never really know what he was like, but Mantel does give him a believable presence that we can sympathise with, as he places himself in a position where he has to deal with the politics of the time, and become a statesman. Well written this also reminds us that in many ways this was when England started to take a more prominent place on the European, and thus the world stage. Within this story we see the rumours and grudges that arise between different characters, and also for Henry it may not just have been that his first wife, Catherine of Aragon could not give him a healthy son, but also that she proved to be a better tactician than him, after all while he does poorly in France, she prevents the Scots from invading northern lands. With treachery and a lot of machination so we are taken on a trip back through time to what was a dangerous period.
Admittedly I do enjoy pretty much anything Tudorbethan - it's my favourite musical period, the architecture's great and the whole Thomas Cromwell / Henry VIII / Church of England story is deeply fascinating. I had already read all of C. J. Sansom's Shardlake series set in the same time and place (for example, Lamentation) and had loved those - and I had quite enjoyed the TV adaptation despite a few moans, though that wasn't as well endowed with humour as the book's marvellous dialogue. But Mantel won me over after a few pages. It is a remarkable book that deserves all the accolades it has, both in terms of the handling of story and bringing the period alive.
I'm no historian, so I don't know how accurate it is - but I get the impression it's not bad in this regard. I read somewhere that Mantel did away with the saintly image of Thomas More, though I think, to be fair, Josephine Tey had already done that to the limit in her fascinating if sometimes rather dull The Daughter of Time. More to the point, though, Wolf Hall is a wonderful novel.
I do have one issue I need to briefly moan about, which is perhaps the only way in which the author seems to have consciously attempted to be literary in her approach. She insists on referring to Cromwell as 'he', even when convention has it that 'he' should refer to the male person most recently mentioned. A classic example was 'Norfolk will preside. He will tell him how it will be.' That first he is not Norfolk, but Cromwell. I lost count of the number of times I had to go back and re-read a paragraph to work out who 'he' was.