Monday, February 21, 2011

Wolf Hall

Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, which follows the saga of Henry VIII down to the execution of Thomas More in 1535, has been cast in reviews as a novel primarily about Thomas Cromwell, the King's confidant and chief political advisor. Having finished the novel this weekend, I want to challenge this assumption.

It seems to me that while Mantel processes the tumult of Henry's reign through the eyes - and experiences - of Cromwell, the novel is as much about Thomas Wolsey and the Boleyn Clan as it is about Cromwell.

At first, this surprised me: but by the end of the book it seemed clear that Mantel intendedWolf Hall as the first novel in a series of three.

Imagine this: Wolf Hall addresses Wolsey's collapse and Cromwell's rise; the second volume covers Cromwell's demise; and the third chronicles the growth of Edward VI and the controversies swirling around Jane Grey. The trilogy, as it were, ends with the ascent of Mary Tudor in 1553.

What's the point of all this conjecture? Wolf Hall was the name of the Seymour family's principal estate - and this is where Mantel's novel ends: that is, with hints of Anne Boleyn's collapse and even more subtle hints of Jane Seymour's rise.

In some ways, it's odd that Mantel named her novel as she did - for the Seymour Clan does not enter the book, really, until its final hundred and fifty pages. A more apt title might have been Austin Friars, Cromwell's perch from 1527 forward.

To close: I can't imagine that Mantel is done with her work - and I certainly hope she is not, because this novel was an addiction. Hulking, strenuous, insightful: it was all of these things - and more!

Plus, I wanted to add: Mantel's a master of style. Her use of the colon and semi-colon is tremendous. Really, it is. She writes in an organic way, one which perfectly matchs the content of her book.

Hilary Mantel: I may not always love your essays, but this was one great novel. Thank you! (It's not often that I make it through six hundred pages without complaint...)


  1. She's already writing the sequel.

  2. I just have to point out that when I heard Mantel was writing a sequel, I may have started to twitch with excitement/anticipation. Wonderful post.