Wolf Hall

I savored Wolf Hall. I made it last as long as possible. Like nibbling on a brownie, or spooning tiny bites of ice cream. My strategy worked, too. I got it for Christmas, and here it is, Feb 6, and I just finished it.

It’s the kind of book that allows you to savor it, because it’s not plot driven. I read it in the mornings, for 30 or 40 minutes at a time, and not every day. The driving force of the novel is Thomas Cromwell, who I knew mainly from C. J. Sansom’s historical mysteries; The Tudors;  and various, scattered pieces I’d read about the Dissolution. Most often, he’s portrayed as a villain. Brilliant, sly, but a villain nonetheless.

Nothing is what one expects in Wolf Hall. It’s all complexities and contradictions. Cardinal Wolsey is a giant of a man; Sir Thomas More, a brilliant hypocrite. Henry VIII, selfish, obsessed with his former queen, Katherine, and the fact that people still love her. And Cromwell himself, a driven workaholic genius, but closer to hearth and home than we’d ever imagine. A loving husband and father, and a person who takes in orphans, children of friends, women in trouble, and earns the love, respect, and devotion of them all.

The book opens with a stunning scene depicting the brutality of Thomas Cromwell’s father kicking him down the street, nearly killing him. The years that came after, before his return to England and a place with Cardinal Wolsey, we learn about in bits and pieces throughout the book. Mantel shows us his fierce loyalty to Wolsey, and his gradual, deliberate transformation into King Henry’s chief adviser.

There are gorgeous descriptive passages, funny asides, moments of emotional clarity, and countless times we see the man behind the persona. The man who, though he hides it well, has never quite gotten over being thought of as a murderer, the son of a smithy, a mercenary, a person of low birth. He is, in fact, all of the above.

The juxtaposition of Cromwell with More was a stroke of genius. A dinner with the More family, Sir Thomas presiding, is revealing. More is exposed as cruel to his wife, pitiless to his daughter-in-law, and horribly condescending to everyone else. It’s a painful scene for the reader to witness. In the end, we can’t shed a tear for More’s demise. But Cromwell, despite his lifelong animosity for the man, still feels sorrow for him. “He can hardly bear it, to think of More sitting in the dark.”

I’ll close with a particularly beautiful passage, near the end of the book: “Clouds drift and mass in towers and battlements, blowing in from Essex, stacking up over the city, driven by the wind across the broad soaked fields, across the sodden pastureland and swollen rivers, across the dripping forests of the west and out over the sea to Ireland.”

I admit, the title Wolf Hall has me stumped. It’s the country seat of the Seymours. Cromwell has a special friendship with Jane Seymour–not a romance–before she’s caught Henry’s eye. At the end of the book, Cromwell is planning Henry’s Progress for the year, and says they’ll end at Wolf Hall. The last line of the book: “Early September. Five days. Wolf Hall.”

What do you think? Why is the book called Wolf Hall?

A book to read again. And again.

11 comments on “Wolf Hall

  1. I love Wolf Hall, too, but I found Thomas More to be a sympathetic character. I have always loved and admired him and I turn to his writings in times of doubt, so maybe I am seeing it differently due to my pre-existing bias.

    I think it is called Wolf Hall because that is where things will turn for Cromwell and he will part ways with wanting Henry to have whatever Henry wants. Cromwell wants Jane, but Henry ends up with her, and since she lives at Wolf Hall – that is the turning point. In an interview with Hilary Mandel, she said that it was originally about the journey to Wolf Hall, but the More aspect took over and it will now have a sequel.

    In all the scenes, I keep in mind we are seeing it slanted by Cromwell’s perspective. I love how the book makes us forget that he is actually abandoning Wosley, and I think he sees the family dinner in a way that confirms his experiences at Cardinal Morton’s house at a child when he felt More was dismissive of him.

    The book is so fabulous. I can not wait for the sequel!!!

  2. I also got the book for Xmas, Pam, and now am looking forward to it even more. Great review.

    >There are gorgeous descriptive passages, funny asides, moments of emotional clarity, and countless times we see the man behind the persona.

    What more could I ask for? 🙂

  3. Lexi,
    I think you’re right about the title; it’s the only thing that makes sense. I wonder if TC’s interest in Jane Seymour is documented, or if it was Mantel’s creative license. Cromwell did, in many ways, abandon Wolsey, and made excuses for himself–he needed to be in London to find out where things stood for the Cardinal. I also read a review that mentioned a sequel, and I’m so looking forward to it!

  4. It could be called Wolf Hall because that is where Thomas Cromwell plans to take a break. There is one scene that I just noticed in listening to the audio book that I missed while reading it. Cromwell is growing increasingly stressed and looking for a place in his calendar to take a break. He notes that he will have a few days as a break when they are at Wolf Hall.

    Maybe it is called Wolf Hall because that is the point where he will stop striving and stop being “he” (the pronoun use bothered me) and start being “I”.

  5. Ally, thanks for your comment. I think you’re right. It’s the family home of the Seymours, who will soon be big players in this story. The use of “he” I found somewhat confusing–initially, I wasn’t sure when “he” was Cromwell or someone else! As the book went on, I finally adjusted to it.

  6. I assumed the title, and the abrupt ending, was Mantel’s ironic twist. Cromwell is in love with Jane Seymour. At one point, he prays for God to give him “this one small thing.” After all the work of getting the King’s Great Matter settled, he is looking forward to his first break, and he plans to go to Wolf Hall to indulge his own desire to pursue Jane. Of course, we know how this turns out.

  7. Thanks for your comment, Lisa. Your interpretation makes sense. Do you recall when Cromwell says that prayer? I’d love to go back and re-read that part. I can’t wait for the next book.

  8. Hello Pam,
    It’s Margret from your Blog Triage class. Yes, I do think we have a lot in common with our interests, you with literature, me with painting. I love anything to do with the 17th century Dutch painters and culture, and Holland remains one of my favorite places to visit.

    Your description of Wolf Hall is intriguing. We are just now watching The Tudors series. It is one of the best films I have ever seen on TV. Every scene is a painting, perfectly color coordinated, and the costumes are gorgeous. I especially love the muted green earth tones in the backgrounds which allow the brilliant vermilions and purples to be the star performers. And oh, the story is wonderful too.


  9. Margret,
    We loved the Tudors, too, although we still haven’t watched the last season. I agree that the costumes were gorgeous. As for each scene being like a painting, I’ll have to leave that judgment to your artist’s eye!


  10. Some really interesting points about the title – I think the other commmenters have got it pretty much spot on. Although, it’s just one more of the fascinating elements of this book.

    I’ve just finished reading it, and am really enjoying reading all the blog reviews floating around the blogosphere. It’s definitely a book to savour, and I thoroughly enjoyed Mantel’s portrayal of Cromwell and the Tudor England he inhabits.

    I’m looking forward to the sequel – almost here I think!

    My review: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

  11. Thanks for your comment, Matthew. I read your review and see you’re also a fan. I liked your point about the politics, financial dealings, social maneuvering, etc., being not so different from today’s world. Hope you’re right about not having to wait too much longer for the companion book.


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