Did you read along with January’s book club selection, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel?

Here’s the product description from Amazon:

"In the ruthless arena of King Henry VIII’s court, only one man dares to gamble his life to win the king’s favor and ascend to the heights of political power. England in the 1520s is a heartbeat from disaster. If the king dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of twenty years, and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope and most of Europe opposes him. The quest for the king’s freedom destroys his adviser, the brilliant Cardinal Wolsey, and leaves a power vacuum. Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell is a wholly original man, a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people and a demon of energy: he is also a consummate politician, hardened by his personal losses, implacable in his ambition. But Henry is volatile: one day tender, one day murderous. Cromwell helps him break the opposition, but what will be the price of his triumph? In inimitable style, Hilary Mantel presents a picture of a half-made society on the cusp of change, where individuals fight or embrace their fate with passion and courage. With a vast array of characters, overflowing with incident, the novel re-creates an era when the personal and political are separated by a hairbreadth, where success brings unlimited power but a single failure means death."

It was a dense read, and I only finished the morning of my book club gathering! I was actually the only who made it through before we met to discuss it, which I think reflects more on the book than on the dedication of my book club friends. :-) On the positive side, I enjoyed that the book was written in modern language, and its hyper-personal focus on Thomas Cromwell drew me into an emotional connection to the characters that I might not have had otherwise. But overall, I struggled a bit to get through it. Some of my problem was an utter ignorance of the historical facts! I spent the first third of the book waiting for it to explain why they started calling Thomas Cromwell, the main character, Oliver (the only Cromwell I knew of), until I finally looked it up on Wikipedia and discovered that Thomas and Oliver Cromwell are, in fact, different people. I found the book to be wonderfully written and was often caught up in the writing itself, struck by particularly poignant passages, but overall the book was not engaging. I had to force myself to sit down and read it because it wasn’t sucking me into the story. I agree with one reviewer who says, “Wolf Hall does not have the epic sweep of some novels of its genre. […] What grabs us here is not the broad picture but the detail, and Mantel is very good indeed at making it all real.”

All that said, I had an enjoyable time gathering discussion questions and evaluating my thoughts in order to lead the discussion at book club. The English major in me nerded out! This podcast from Slate gave me some good perspective, and I also found a discussion guide online.

Evidently Mantel treats several characters in non-traditional ways, i.e. Thomas Cromwell reads as the “good guy” and Thomas More (an actual saint in the Catholic church) is the “bad guy.” Since I had no historical frame of reference for these figures, I swallowed Mantel’s perspective hook, line, and sinker, so it was interesting to have it pointed out to me that this was a fresh take on the history!

Mantel made a few other interesting choices, such as the somewhat arbitrary time period she chose as the span of the book and the title itself, Wolf Hall. Wolf Hall is the family home of Jane Seymour, who ends up becoming Henry VIII’s wife. She is a rather minor character in the book, and Cromwell only visits the actual Wolf Hall at the end of the book, so why is the title significant? The guys at Slate pointed out the Latin phrase homo hominum lupus est - “man is a wolf to other men,” and my book club and I agreed that we think that plays into the title.

This passage, to me, is a good summation of Wolf Halls plotline:

Why does everything you know, and everything you've learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too.

And this quote, a good commentary on historical fiction:

Some of these things are true and some of them lies. But they are all good stories.

Wolf Hall is well written and a good story. It’s interesting to watch personalities evolve, power shift, and relationships crumble. As a piece of literature, I can see why it was awarded the 2009 Man Booker Prize, England’s highest award for fiction. But to quote a reviewer again, “Wolf Hall is a fine read for the enthusiast of English history, then, and one that rewards the reader patient enough to submit to its length. I think I need a break, however, before cracking open the pages of its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies” (if in fact I ever do at all).

Laura Lindeman

Laura Lindeman