QAB Book Review: WOLF HALL, by Hilary Mantel

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wolf hall book cover

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by Cyndi Williamson

With all the hype surrounding the premier of BBC’s Wolf Hall mini-series, I decided some attention needed to be placed upon the first novel written by Hilary Mantel. After all, it was the driving force for all that came after. Without the original Wolf Hall, there would be no Bring Up the Bodies, no repeat Man Booker Prizes, no plays, no mini-series, no Damien Lewis in tights, and no portrait of Hilary Mantel hanging in the British Library.

When people ask me which is my favorite Tudor novel, my answer is always the same, Wolf Hall. The story is a familiar one, with the usual cast of characters, but Hilary Mantel has done something outstanding. She has made all of the old faces new again, by changing the perspective in which we see them. The story is seen through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, the usual villain of Tudor lore. Mantel has created him as her protagonist, and given her readers the opportunity to see him in a much more human capacity.

Wolf Hall takes you from Cromwell’s humble beginnings, being abused by his father in an ale yard, through his service to Cardinal Wolsey, and on to his rise in the court of Henry VIII. Mantel never lets us forget Cromwell’s low birth, and she is careful to keep his admiration for his mentor, Wolsey, always in mind.  Her Thomas Cromwell is a husband, father, brother, servant, mentor, and friend. Her Thomas Cromwell is a self-taught man, a genius, and hard worker. Her Cromwell is like no other that I have ever encompassed — and I liked him.

The people and events in King Henry VIII’s court take on different personas seen through Cromwell’s eyes, and they evolve with Cromwell as his situations and experiences change. We see the people he loves and the people he hates very clearly, as Cromwell does not afford respect nor affection to those he does not love. From his perpetual antagonism for Stephen Gardiner to his devotion to his children, we can feel his animosity, or smile as he bemoans his son’s atrocious Latin . When Cromwell is haunted by the memory of his daughter, we can see her tiny hand turning the page in a Book of Hours, and grieve with him.

Mantel’s descriptions of her characters are very detailed, as Cromwell was a detail oriented man. Her scenes are set in a manner that shows the very cost, the weight, and the detail of a gown, a carpet, or even a candle. As Cromwell measures the luxury or lack in a thing, the reader can see it, feel it, and smell it. For example, when Cromwell is mired in at Calais with the king and court, waiting for good weather to sail, one can  feel the oppression of the chilly rain, which contrasts sharply with the lush furs worn by Mary Boleyn.

The prose in Wolf Hall is astounding. Cromwell has just the right turn of phrase, the descriptions are vivid, and the words lend themselves easily to the imagination of the reader. This novel richly deserved its awards, as Mantel paints pictures with words, and even if you know the story, it is fresh and enticing. For example, Thomas More’s resignation as Chancellor looks different, when viewed from a window with Cromwell and Anne.

Mantel spent as much attention to the historical accuracy of this novel as she did the brilliant prose.  While some might take issue with the portrayal of their favorite Tudor character, it is seen through the eyes of Cromwell, and where the thoughts and daily conversations are fiction, the events and places are spot on. There were many places in the novel that I decided to further explore the history of some of the lesser known figures, and double check what I thought I knew about the period. That is crucial to me in a historical novel. Mantel tells us a story, and makes us want more.

As Wolf Hall drew to a close after the execution of Thomas More, which is poignantly underplayed, I found myself experiencing a myriad of emotion. I turned back to the first page and started my journey with Cromwell again.

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WOLF HALL starring Mark Rylance premiers on BBC2 beginning January 22, 2015 in the United Kingdom and on PBS on April 5, 2015 in the United States.
WOLF HALL starring Mark Rylance premiers on BBC2 beginning January 21, 2015 in the United Kingdom and on PBS beginning April 5, 2015 in the United States.

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WOLF HALL and BRING UP THE BODIES featuring the Royal Shakespeare Company and starring Ben Miles will premiers on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre on March 20, 2015.
WOLF HALL and BRING UP THE BODIES featuring the Royal Shakespeare Company and starring Ben Miles both premier on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre on March 20, 2015.

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AUTHOR HIGHLIGHT

Hilary Mantel
Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel is a highly acclaimed, award winning English historical fiction writer of novels and short stories. A two time Man Booker Prize Award honored author of Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, both novels featuring Thomas Cromwell as main character, Hilary Mantel is currently composing the final novel of her Tudor Era trilogy, The Mirror and the Light. 

Considered by many to be the world’s finest historical fiction author writing in the English language, Hilary Mantel’s first novel, Every Day is Mother’s Day, was published in 1985. Since then, Mantel’s exhaustive body of work includes a variety of stellar novels and short story compilations. Her commitment to and interest in composing compelling short stories greatly enhanced the genre’s popularity with readers and continued publishing viability.

Awards and prizes bestowed upon Hilary Mantel for extraordinary accomplishment in literature include the following: Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize 1987, Southern Arts Literature Prize 1990, The Cheltenham Prize 1990, Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize 1990, Sunday Express Book of the Year 1992, Hawthornden Prize 1996, CBE 2006, Yorkshire Post Book Award (Book of the Year) 2006, Costa Novel Award 2009, Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2009, National Book Critics’ Circle Award (US) 2009, James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for fiction) 2010, Walter Scott Prize 2010, and Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2012.

A portrait of Hilary Mantel, the creativity of Nick Lord, is on display at the British Library. She is the only living author to be bestowed such honor.

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Hilary Mantel
Hilary Mantel

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