Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is centred around Thomas Cromwell, a man widely hated in his lifetime and distrusted by his peers. He served as a high-ranking advisor to Henry VIII and played an important role in Henry’s break from Rome and both the rise and downfall of Anne Boleyn. Mantel, despite this,still attempts to portray Cromwell as the true hero archetype, having escaped the harsh cruelties of a drunk and abusive father and into the learned culture of the sixteenth century. His claim to omnipotence at times makes him a loathsome character and Mantel’s acknowledgment that he looked “like a murderer” only pushes Cromwell further from the reader’s sympathies. Despite this, Mantel is keen to juxtapose this by attempting to portray him as an enlightened and appealing character in comparison to her depiction of other characters such as Wolsey.
The book on the most part is historically accurate and doesn’t stray too far into fantasy. It is able to successfully avoid a scandalous love triangle clouding the minds of the reader, which have otherwise become such a prominent feature in other early modern historical novels. Instead Mantel focuses heavily on his complex relationship with Anne Boleyn, which she successfully pens as being fuelled by a jealous rivalry andportrays Boleyn as a fitting anti-hero.
When considering the book stylistically, it is understandable why the book has been panned by so many. It fails to highlight the sexual and more lurid aspects of court life and instead focuses on the formalities undertaken by a self-indulgent monotonous lawyer. It must also be noted that Mantel uses the pronoun “he” far too often and after reading the first 16 pages it becomes only becomes clear that she is talking about Cromwell, due to the fact one knows he is the protagonist.
Wolf Hall has been named as one of the “top ten best historical novels” by the Observer and has won both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. On the surface then, it would seem this book is an excellent read. Mantel does shed light on a different aspect of Cromwell’s character and offers new ways of understanding the role other figures played in the course of Tudor politics, but ultimately for a reader not interested in the sixteenth century it is hardly the most thrilling page turner.