Pages: 532 (hardcover)
Published: 2009 by Henry Holt
Synopsis: In the ruthless arena of King Henry VIII’s court, only one man dares to gamble his life to win the king’s favor and ascend to the heights of political power 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. The quest for the king’s freedom destroys his adviser, the brilliant Cardinal Wolsey, and leaves a power vacuum. Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell is a wholly original man, a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people and a demon of energy: he is also a consummate politician, hardened by his personal losses, 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 presents a picture of a half-made society on the cusp of change, where individuals fight or embrace their fate with passion and courage. With a vast array of characters, overflowing with incident, the novel re-creates an era when the personal and political are separated by a hairbreadth, where success brings unlimited power but a single failure means death.Wolf Hall makes for a very unconventional historical fiction novel. Not only does it reverse almost all of our long-held beliefs about the players of King Henry VIII's Tudor court, the style in which the book is written is incredibly refreshing. No long-winded descriptions of tapestries and family histories here-- to the contrary, Mantel skips the exposition which many historical novels are so fond of and jumps right into the story, leaving us to work out the various relationships between characters. Her very modern writing style and blunt, clever dialogue are likely two of many elements working skillfully together which has helped this bulky book (and its recent sequel, Bring Up The Bodies) to catapult onto the bestseller lists.
This is the first book I've ever read which focuses on Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's infamously capable and manipulative chief minister. In history and in modern fiction, he is traditionally portrayed as something of a villain, but here Cromwell is sympathetic, if only-- in my opinion-- the point-of-view character around which the better-known court dramas surrounding Henry VIII, his advisers, the Pope, and Anne Boleyn unfold. Likewise Sir Thomas More, the conservative Catholic minister who was eventually executed for his opposition to Henry's divorce from Catherine of Aragon, is not a wise martyr in this book, but an unyielding radical who imprisons and tortures reformist thinkers and "heretics". I have to say, I was always a fan of More, "The Man for All Seasons", particularly after watching the Showtime series The Tudors, in which he's portrayed as a kindly intellectual with a very cool hat. Not so in Wolf Hall: here More is as ambiguous as Cromwell, but often much less than kindly.
King Henry VIII is a major player, of course, but I really liked Mantel's portrayal of Anne Boleyn especially. She is a crafty woman, of course, but her conversations with Cromwell bring new perspective into what the personality of this siren-like lady may have been like-- she seems a little neurotic, always in control but also maybe a little bit mad. Other familiar characters from the Tudor era which make appearances include Catherine of Aragon, Henry's first wife who was de-throned in favor of Anne, her daughter Mary-- strange and emotionally unstable in this book--, the Dukes of Suffolk and Norfolk, the Cardinal Wolsey-- who was accused (probably correctly) of corruption--, and Mary Boleyn, Anne's sister.
My pet peeve with this book is its title, because I don't think Cromwell ever visited Wolf Hall even once in the story. (I'm pretty sure...?) Wolf Hall was the Seymour house's traditional seat in England, and Jane Seymour herself is yet to be a major character or established on Henry's romantic radar. Despite the misnomer title, I totally enjoyed this tome of a novel. Despite its bulk, it turned out to be a rapid page-turner. The next time you feel like tackling a 500+ page novel, look to Wolf Hall.