Wolf Hall, written by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall, written by Hilary Mantel

The First in Hilary Mantel’s “Cromwell” Trilogy is a Thrilling Example of Historical Fiction


Wolf Hall is one of the greatest novels of the 21st century. With wit and flair, it reinvigorates the Tudor period – perhaps the most well worn era of English history – and breathes new life into one of its most mysterious figures, Thomas Cromwell. As close to perfection as possible.

Rating: 11/11


A little more than two thirds into Wolf Hall, protagonist Thomas Cromwell finds himself trying (and falling short) of describing something. It is a device, crafted by Italian philosopher Giulio Camillo, to aid one’s memory. “Like a library”, he says, “but as if – can you imagine a library in which each book contains another book, and a smaller book inside that? Yet it is more than that.” I find myself grasping at similarly inadequate words whenever I try to explain the layered opulence of Wolf Hall. Here is a book that crafts a story so dense that it almost overwhelms you, yet it is told so deftly and with such intelligence as to whisk you away effortlessly. It contains stories within stories, takes place in a world born of other worlds, and concerns lives wrapped up in the lives of others. It’s legitimately hard to believe that, in the end, it’s still only a book.

So, to offer the briefest of synopses: told largely between 1527 and 1535, Wolf Hall is the story of Thomas Cromwell, a man who was born a peasant and rose to become one of King Henry VIII’s most trusted advisors. He aided in repurposing Henry as not only the King but also Head of the Church in England, making him able to grant himself a divorce from Katherine of Aragon and remarry to Anne Boleyn. Most notably, Cromwell butted heads with Thomas More, a man who was canonised for his martyrdom in defending the sovereignty of the Roman Catholic Church in England but comes across here as… shall we say, less than saintly.

However, despite such a remarkable ascension and profound effect on England, relatively little is known about Cromwell by historians. Which, it turns out, author Hilary Mantel perceived as something of a challenge to rise to when writing a book concerning the man himself. Though she spent years researching the time period and Cromwell’s movements in order to properly ground her novel, much of what transpires – in the specifics, at least – is her own invention. It’s a version of events and, true or not, it’s hard to deny how utterly riveting she makes it all.

Wolf Hall, like little else in contemporary fiction, is such an embarrassment of riches that it’s honestly difficult to know where to begin in praising it. But I suppose it’s wisest to start with the man at its centre, Thomas Cromwell, one of the most well-crafted and engaging characters I have ever encountered. Cromwell is a man of preternatural ability, always able to maintain a stoic reserve, never caught off his guard or unaware and, essentially, the smartest person in every room he enters. He has a remarkable memory and can recite the entirety of the New Testament, but he also grew up the son of a blacksmith in Putney and so can shoe a horse. His mind whirrs and darts about mechanically, his actions are always deliberate and, apparently, people think he looks like a murderer. “Didn’t you know?”, Cromwell’s son Gregory replies when told of this last part.

Like Sherlock Holmes (or his medical contemporary, Dr. House), Cromwell is quite a challenging character to convincingly write. Because he is frequently in situations where nothing but the best will do, he needs to constantly be the best, yet in a way that makes sense. He can’t falter because, when dealing with a King, the stakes are literally life and death. But still, there’s no fun to be had if the author simply appears to be tipping circumstances to the character’s favour. Sherlock Holmes can’t just be smart because he’s written that way; he needs to be shown making deductions that no other human being would make, though in a way that tracks with what we know about him.

The same is true of Cromwell, and Mantel pulls this trick off marvelously, chiefly by stacking the odds so heavily against him at every opportunity. To succeed in a world of rigid hierarchy when he comes from such humble beginnings, Cromwell needs to be equipped with the means of handling virtually any obstacle. So, naturally, Mantel ensures that we are so enamoured with him from the get go, with his assuredness and ceaseless loyalty to the realm (and his first master, Cardinal Wolsey), that we want to see him prosper.

When he first meets Henry, who attempts to goad him into an argument, we are relieved that he is able to make the King smile; similarly, when Anne Boleyn berates him, it is wildly satisfying that Cromwell refuses to rise to her antagonism. Men prod him and find their fingers bouncing off as if he were made of granite; when Wolsey tries to grab him as a joke, Cromwell is halfway across the room before his fingers have even closed on the air. He is a shadow of a man, yet at times as imposing as they come, quick to show amusement but often seen with an unreadable expression. He is, in other words, a complete master of himself and his appearance, who can either choose to be the centre of attention or not be seen at all.

These are traits any person would admire and, in this era, the qualities a man requires, not only to live but to profit. Incidentally, in her portrayal of Cromwell as such a man, Mantel examines the morality of this period of English history. Cromwell has equal measures of etiquette and grit, is a mannered conversationalist and yet has killed a man. These are the intersections of England under Tudor reign, a land where civility and decorum are expected until the very moment when they suddenly become useless. There is little direct violence in the book, but certainly enough implication of the horrors that await men and women who are implicated in crimes against the realm, with nothing but courtesy to defend themselves with. Cromwell knows this and acts accordingly.

Of course, while Cromwell remains the book’s fixture, it’s Mantel’s remarkable prose that orchestrates proceedings. She has a particular style of packing sentences and ideas so tightly upon each other to increase tension, yet she always allows her words the room to breathe. Common tropes of literature, such as alliteration (“…you get to be a lord by fighting, shouting, being bigger, better, bolder and more shameless than the next man…”) feel grander here for their natural deployment. Her matter-of-fact imagery, especially in regards to Henry (“The sable lining creeps down over his hands, as if he were a monster-king, growing his own fur.”), suits the angle she has chosen to frame the story from. After all, everything we see is from Cromwell’s perspective and though he is a direct man, his thoughts and words are not without poetry.

Elsewhere, Mantel has a particular skill for suiting the length and structure of her sentences to the action taking place. For instance, her writing in the book’s opening pages is staccato and pointed, reflecting the beating a young Cromwell is taking from his father: “One blow, properly placed, could kill him now.” The chopped, curt flow of these sentences are like jabs, each one feeling like a thought broken off by a sharp kick. Conversely, there are moments that unfold as a long and steady stream, notions that linger throughout the novel’s entirety. Often, these are the times when Mantel takes stock of the man that is Thomas Cromwell: “He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury.” In this manner, Mantel develops a repeated dynamic that buoys much of the action in Wolf Hall, a trade off between function and consideration, inhale and exhale.

There’s another passage of the book that comes to mind as an apt description of itself. It is when Henry discusses the Italian concept of sprezzatura: “The art of doing everything gracefully and well, without the appearance of effort.” This is Wolf Hall in a nutshell. It amasses reams of information – dates, names, pedigrees, histories etc. – and fashions it all into something parsable. It does so without simplifying anything, but takes the time to explain what might not be clear to the uninitiated. It rescues Thomas Cromwell, a figure obscured by the passage of time and indifference of historians, and remakes him into an unlikely hero, a man to be feared and respected. There is no appearance of effort, only the spectacular result. It is, without a doubt, one of the greatest achievements in writing of the 21st century.

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