Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (Thomas Cromwell #1)

Last month, I finished making my slow way through the beastie, award-winning, historical-fiction, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. First published eleven years ago, in 2009, this has sadly sat on my to-be-read shelf, gathering dust, for almost as long, so it was amazing to finally get to it! Since then Mantel has released Bring Up the Bodies and The Mirror & the Light, making this the first book in a trilogy about Henry VIII’s right-hand man, Thomas Cromwell.

In Wolf Hall, Mantel takes us back to the England of the 1520s, a place of tension, danger, death and instability, because King Henry VIII has a big problem. He finds himself, after 20 years of marriage to Katherine of Aragon, still without a male heir. Therefore Henry wishes to annul his first marriage to marry his new, younger love, Anne Boleyn. But the pope and most of Europe opposes him. It is such a tricky conundrum, it even shockingly brings down Henry’s loyal and powerful favourite, Cardinal Wolsey.

Into this impasse steps Wolsey’s protégé, Thomas Cromwell: a successful trader and lawyer, to whose analytical, business mind there is no problem that can’t be fixed. I think Mantel has skilfully been able to deliver a balanced and believable portrayal of Cromwell as a man, not just a villain, with shades of light and dark to his character. He is a charmer and a bully. He is an idealist and opportunist. He is implacably ambitious and a generous family man. Surprisingly I found myself liking him, even if I hated many of his actions!

What I did struggle with though was Mantel’s confusing choice to write the narration in third person, from the point-of-view of Cromwell, in mostly present tense, but with past tense mixed in for flashbacks and Cromwell’s streams of consciousness, which can pop up at any moment. Once you get your head around that when Mantel uses ‘he’ and ‘I’ she generally means Cromwell then you can start to get on better. While not easy to read, it is quite an effective style for making the reader literally feel inside Cromwell’s mind.

Thankfully, I was able to get past the bemusing writing style the further I got into the drama and juicier details of the tale. As we get to see first hand the astronomic ascendency of Anne Boleyn and her family, which in turn leads to the dramatic fall of their enemies: Queen Katherine, Cardinal Wolsey, Princess Mary and Sir Thomas Moore, because lurking behind it all, pulling strings and making deals is Thomas Cromwell. All of which is all the more juicy and gripping for the fact we know from history that the tables will soon be turned!

So overall, Wolf Hall, was a slow and long read for me, but I genuinely did enjoy the characterisation, time period and storytelling. Having finished it, I feel quite proud and can understand how it can so starkly divide the opinions of readers. I am unsure whether I will read the rest of the trilogy – I think my brain needs a rest before I can decide! Good read.

I’d love to hear your thoughts: Have you read this? Would you like to? Have you read more from the trilogy?

This is book #1 for my 10 Books of Summer Reading Challenge 2020 and book #5 for my Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2020, which means I have completed the second, Victorian Reader level.


37 thoughts on “Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (Thomas Cromwell #1)

  1. I had similar issues and judging from its popularity I thought the issue was mine. I’m glad you finished it because I wasn’t sure if I can. Can anyone read “Bringing up Bodies” without reading Wolf Hall? I am tempted to give both away and be done with the series! 😂

  2. it does take a little time to tune into the third-person interiority narration and like you I found myself getting confused by the “I”. But once I’d settled into it, boy was this a great read. We know the story since it’s so familiar but she manages to make it seem fresh. I’m, currently reading/listening to The Mirror and The Light and it’s just as masterful

    1. Karen, I totally agree, Mantel has masterfully brought the time period alive and made a well known story fresh. Also great to hear you are enjoying The Mirror and the Light, too! 😃

  3. Great review, Jessica! It seems that you enjoyed it despite the not-so-minor quibbles. I’ll be finishing this reading year with this one; I’m not sure if setting aside one month will be enough. If it helps, I listened to a Dan Snow’s History Hit podcast episode interviewing one of England’s most prominent Tudor historians and she said Hilary Mantel got most things right; she was able to convey the qualities (good and bad) of the man, but also bring the period freshly alive.

    1. Thank you, Carmen! 😊 I really hope you will enjoy reading this, possibly even more than me! It is very interesting to hear a historian on Dan Snow’s podcast was saying how well Mantel did in this book, but it doesn’t change that bemusing writing style! 😉

  4. Thank you for a well-written, thoughtful review, Jessica:). I absolutely loved the trilogy – it took me a couple chapters to get into the swing of what Mantel was doing. And then I just went with the flow. But several of my students simply couldn’t get on with it – and I’m not quite sure why it didn’t bug me, because generally writers sliding around with viewpoint is a dealbreaker for me. But everyone is right, Bring Up the Bodies is easier to decode. I got hold of the audiobook of The Mirror and the Light and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to that – though the pacing slowed a bit before the end. But I think the trilogy is masterful – how Mantel managed to inject so much tension into a character and story that we all know isn’t going to end well, is simply the work of a genius…

    1. Aw, I am so pleased you enjoyed and found my review so thoughtful, SJ 😊 I do but it is always great to hear when I’ve managed it! 😁 Thank you for letting me know that your Bring Up the Bodies an easier read – many people seem to be in agreement with you – so maybe I will have to give that a go, when I have had a break and chance to recover! 😉

    1. Yeah… to be honest it is a little laborious! While I loved the characterisation, I am not going to be recommending this to many people, especially not those who are already strapped for time as it is with all their books! 😅

  5. I saw the TV series based on this book and it was good. However… I don’t think I am much into this era as far as novels are concerned, and it just seems to me that Henry VIII and his six wives has been done and done and done to death. The era, fine. But I’m bored with the king and his six queens and all the palace and political intrigue of the time.

    1. Davida, glad to hear you also enjoyed the TV series based on this book, but sorry to hear you’re bored with this era of history. I clearly am not, because as well as reading this, I am also working my way through Alison Weir’s brilliant Six Tudor Queens series! 😅

      1. Well, you are not alone, obviously, or there wouldn’t be so many books about Tudor England out there and being written as we speak. And actually, I’m really not bored by the era, but you see, when I was young, there were two BBC series (each six parts) that – to this day – are considered the most accurate dramatizations of this period. The Six Wives of Henry VIII from 1970, and Elizabeth R. from 1971. These two series kicked off a furor of interest in the era, and I was caught up in them heavily. With such quality stuff from back then, I have little patience for things that just don’t measure up. Yes the Mantel TV series was very good and very accurate (and Rylance is an amazing actor – whom I’ve actually had the pleasure of seeing on stage in London). You could say that I was spoiled by all I saw and loved in the 70s. But it is great that new generations have something to get them excited about this period. There is a whole lot to be excited about, to be honest.

  6. Sounds fascinating even if occasionally frustrating with the writing style. Still, such an amazing point in history. I love it when an author can make me like someone even when they do terrible things- people are nuanced, after all, and we often like people who are perhaps less than admirable in some ways! Great review and sounds like a very interesting read!

    1. Haha I’m afraid it wasn’t occasionally frustrating, Greg, it was all the way through! However Mantel’s brilliantly, nuanced portrayal of Cromwell more than made it up for it in parts. 😄

  7. I haven’t read the third one yet, but I remember that the second one is an easier read. I think she’d got so much criticism over that “he” business in Wolf Hall that she decided to make it clearer who she was talking about in the next one. The way she did it was a bit clunky – she’d say “he, Cromwell,…” or “he, Henry,…” each time, but it certainly meant my poor little brain wasn’t quite so puzzled!

    1. Oh that is good to hear, FF! A lot of the comments are telling me Bring Up the Bodies is easier to read, so I am leaning towards giving Mantel a second chance with that. Even if it’s clunky, I’ll take it over headache inducing! 😉

  8. As a Tudor fan, I loved both Wolf Hall and Bring up the bodies, but I also realize this story will not be for everyone. The writing style is difficult, the books are very detailed and for people not familiar with Tudor history it might be struggle to finish them. So I understand your feeling very well. However, if you enjoyed Wolf Hall enough, you might pick up Bring up the bodies too as this was my favorite one (so far). And I found it easier to read. The book covers a smaller timeframe and the dialogue is more intriguing.

    1. Oh I don’t think there is any problem with the story or the history in this, Annelies, I read pleny of Tudor history and historical-fiction. Currently I working my way through Alison Weir’s wonderful Six Tudor Queens series, which I highly recommend if you haven’t read them already. It is just the bemusing pronoun and tense choice that’s the problem! But glad to hear you found the next book, Bring Up the Bodies easier to read. A lot of people are saying this, so maybe I should give that a go.

  9. Good on making it through! I came away from the book being quite sympathetic to Cromwell. He is so complex, but then so is Henry. I also enjoyed Bring Up the Bodies and am gearing up to read The Mirror and the Light. I think it helped me to have read The Autobiography of Henry VIII by Margaret George before reading Wolf Hall.

    1. Thank you, Judy!! I feel rather proud and accomplished to have made it through!! 😅 It is good to hear you enjoyed this and Bring Up the Bodies, and I hope you will enjoy The Mirror and the Light. 🙂

  10. Your review and the comments here have me hesitant about reading this, based on the writing style. Still…it’s available through my library app, so nothing lost should I decide to try it out and not feel like it’s working for me. First, though, I need to get started on Alison Weir’s Tudor queens series!

    I’m glad you persevered and felt it was worth your while!

    1. As you’ll be losing nothing by trying this through your library app, I would say still give it a go, Kelly. As you’ll never know otherwise, because I struggled doesn’t mean you will, you might even love the style like many other people do. It is definitely a dividing writing style. However definitely start Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series first, as it is amazing! 😁

  11. It’s years since I read this. I loved it. The use of those pronouns can be confusing but I got used to the style eventually. The period is so well portrayed, and the way Mantel makes us care about Cromwell is remarkable.

    1. While I struggled a lot with the style and pronouns, I have to agree Ali, that Mantel has brilliantly brought the time period alive and it is nothing less than a miracle how she managed to make Cromwell likeable! 😄

  12. Mantel is certainly an acquired taste. I read this years ago and enjoyed it when I got the hang of the rhythm and narrative structure, and should probably re-read it before tackling the Mirror and the Light, though I’m not sure if I have the stamina for either right now. I’m glad you enjoyed this in the end though, and if you do decide to continue, I think you will have a better time with Bring Up the Bodies, as it is shorter, and less structurally confusing.

    1. Thank you, Alyson – Many people do seem to be saying Bring up the Bodies is better and easier to read than this, so I am coming round to the idea of reading more. However good luck with re-reading this ready to tackle The Mirror and the Light!! 😄

  13. I gave up on Wolf Hall 275 pages in because the lack of attribution of dialogue was driving me nuts – I was having to go back several pages a lot of the time and work through conversations – that sentence was Cromwell, so that was so and so, so that was Cromwell. I also hated the potted history of Britain from Boadicea onwards that intruded in the middle and finally it irritated me that in Chapter one he is a boy being abused by his father and in chapter two he’s Wolsey’s secretary. 275 pages in I still knew nothing of what had happened in between, so why not start at Chapter two???

    Having said that I gave her another chance with Bring up the Bodies and enjoyed that more – both dialogue and sheer story was better – so finished it. However I tried to start Mirror and Light recently and it is once again irritating me with her ‘he, Cromwell’ (everyone else is just named as normal in dialogue) so unsure if I shall finish it.

    1. I can totally sympathise with all the problems you had with this and why you gave up. Great to hear that you had a better experience when you gave the second book, Bring up the Bodies a chance, which makes me lean towards reading more from the series… But sorry you’re finding similar issues with the third book, Mirror and Light! 😒🙂🤷‍♀️

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