Wolf Hall is an enormous and slightly intimidating historical fiction novel, which focuses on the life of Thomas Cromwell and the role he played in Henry VIII’s court. Obviously this is a fictionalisation, but the majority (if not all) of the events and characters depicted were real. It’s hugely ambitious, and is the first book in a planned trilogy. The trilogy will cover the whole of Thomas Cromwell’s life, but this first instalment covers the years 1500 to 1535.
This is a bit of a tricky one because it is based on real events, and while I can say that the story was surprisingly absorbing and quite thrilling in places, I don’t know how accurate any of the depictions are. It’s very hard to know what to make of Thomas Cromwell’s character. The novel is from his perspective, but I don’t know whether I’m meant to feel sympathy for him or not. I did enjoy reading about his exploits and he was characterised in quite an engaging way, but at the same time he’s a pretty slippery guy and was responsible for a lot of manoeuvrings in court (including helping to arrange Henry VIII’s annulment to Catherine of Aragon and subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn) which led to the downfall of many courtiers. I did quite like him, but I wasn’t quite sure what to make of him. I felt sympathy for him and his rather odd family life though, as he obviously really cared for and missed his daughters, but his children either seemed afraid or not very fond of him. This is clearly a very fictionalised aspect of Cromwell’s story as we can’t know these details for certain, but what we do know is that he was a very important man, and it’s fascinating to read about his life from his perspective, whether it’s an accurate portrayal or not. Of course there are plenty of things we don’t know, especially in regards to his early life, and we can never really know what a person was thinking so many hundreds of years down the line, but in terms of telling an interesting story I’d say Hilary Mantel hit the nail on the head. I thought Wolf Hall would be a lot drier and stuffier than it was, but it was surprisingly entertaining for such a long book, and especially considering that this momentum needs to be maintained during the sequels. I did want to read the sequels afterwards, which is always a positive of course, although I’ll probably need to reread the first two by the time the final novel is released.
Having said that, although I did enjoy reading Wolf Hall, I didn’t always find it the easiest book to get through. I did find it fascinating (especially knowing that it was based on true events), but I found it extremely hard to keep track of all the different characters. A cast of characters was included, but during the novel itself a lot of characters were referred to by their titles, and the titles changed hands so often that I found it very difficult to keep up. Thomas Cromwell himself is always referred to as ‘he’ during the novel, which also made it rather tricky to tell who was talking at times. Cromwell could be having a conversation with Henry VIII, and then I wouldn’t be sure if the ‘he said’ tag referred to Henry or Cromwell, because Cromwell was only ever ‘he’. I did have to entirely reread one passage which I had at first believed to be a conversation between three people (Cromwell and two others), but after a great deal of confusion a bit further on down the line I went back to reread it, and discovered it was just a conversation between two people (Cromwell and one other). In an already complicated novel where characters are constantly changing allegiances and titles and you’re never quite sure which side anyone’s on, to not even be sure who was speaking or who was present in the scene was an added complication which I could really have done without.
I managed to muddle through despite this, and I thought the story really picked up its stride in the second half of the book, and especially towards the end. Cromwell became more heavily involved in the machinations of the court, and so the story was bound to get more interesting. While I enjoyed plodding my way through the first half of the book, I found it was the second half which really kept me wanting to read more. I think it’s quite an achievement that the story was made so engaging. It’s quite an exciting period of history anyway, but I thought Hilary Mantel did really well to bring the characters to life as successfully as she did, and to manage to keep the story as straightforward as she did. I was confused in places and I did find it hard to keep track of all the different allegiances etc., but considering how complicated and muddled the actual historical information is, I think she did well to provide as much clarity as she did. I’m not surprised that I got confused, because it sounds like the court was a pretty confusing place. People fell in and out of favour almost with the fashions, which is one of the reasons why their titles were passed around so much, and why I couldn’t keep everyone straight in my head. The fact that I wanted to read on regardless is a testament to the vivid and entertaining way in which the story was presented. I wanted to know what happened next, and even though I do already know some of it anyway (these are real events after all), I wanted to read them from Cromwell’s perspective and see through his eyes how he was personally affected by everything that happened. It’s largely because of this that I wasn’t daunted to pick up Bring Up the Bodies, the equally dense sequel.
I would recommend reading Wolf Hall, although I don’t think it’s the best place to start out reading historical fiction as it was rather dense, and there are confusing aspects to it. I have briefly studied this period of history (not that I can really remember anything about it), and so I did find it interesting to read a novelisation of it. However I’m not sure how much it would be enjoyed by die-hard history buffs who know a lot about this particular period during Henry VIII’s reign, as it is a fictionalisation and so a lot of assumptions will have been made about personal thoughts and conversations which can be rather off-putting and frustrating in a way (as I’ve discovered from reading fiction based on other periods which I’ve studied more closely). I know there has also been some dispute from historians and academics about the way in which Thomas Cromwell has been portrayed. While it’s hard to know what a historical person was really like in terms of their character and personality, we do have information about events which he was involved in and there are some historians who believe that Hilary Mantel has painted Cromwell in a light which doesn’t reflect his actions. I don’t want to say she’s showing him in a romantic light because I don’t think that’s true, but perhaps describing it as a sympathetic light would be a fairer description. I don’t know enough about the real Thomas Cromwell to be able to pass judgement, but I did warm to his novelised self and I found myself growing really rather fond of him by the end of Wolf Hall. There was something endearing about the way he would remember Wolsey (although again this must be a highly fictionalised element of the story), and I really did pity him when he was remembering his daughters. I think all historical fiction has to be taken with a pinch of salt though, but considering the novel in terms of its merit as a work of fiction, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, and I’m looking forward to the conclusion of the trilogy.