Summary and book reviews of Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall

A Novel

By Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • Hardcover: Oct 2009,
    560 pages.
    Paperback: Sep 2010,
    592 pages.

    Publication Information

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Book Reviewed by:
Judy Krueger

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About this Book

Book Summary

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.

PART 1

Across the Narrow Sea

PUTNEY, 1500

So now get up."

Felled, dazed, silent, he has fallen; knocked full length on the cobbles of the yard. His head turns sideways; his eyes are turned toward the gate, as if someone might arrive to help him out. One blow, properly placed, could kill him now.

Blood from the gash on his head— which was his father’s first effort— is trickling across his face. Add to this, his left eye is blinded; but if he squints sideways, with his right eye he can see that the stitching of his father’s boot is unraveling. The twine has sprung clear of the leather, and a hard knot in it has caught his eyebrow and opened another cut.

"So now get up!" Walter is roaring down at him, working out where to kick him next. He lifts his head an inch or two, and moves forward, on his belly, trying to do it without exposing his hands, on which Walter enjoys stamping. "What are you, an eel?" his parent asks. He trots backward, gathers pace, and aims ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
This reading guide can also be downloaded from the publisher's website in PDF, including a useful timeline of events.

About this Guide
The following author biography and list of questions about Wolf Hall are intended as resources to aid individual readers and book groups who would like to learn more about the author and this book. We hope that this guide will provide you a starting place for discussion, and suggest a variety of perspectives from which you might approach Wolf Hall.

Discussion Questions

  1. What is the significance of Mantel's "occult" history of Britain? How might these legendary traditions have influenced Henry in choosing to marry Anne Boleyn? What role does legend play in the ...

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  • award image

    Man Booker Prize
    2009

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    National Book Critics Circle Award
    2010

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Reviews

BookBrowse

Religion, power, politics, money and sex - key elements of human life - are all on full display in Hilary Mantel's Booker Prize winning novel. Any fan of historical fiction, especially the Tudor period in England, will find new ground covered here. There is something liberating about reading a story while already knowing how it will all turn out, yet I became so sympathetic to Cromwell that I found myself dreading his impending doom. Most impressive is Hilary Mantel's fresh new account of an old, old tale, placing it in the broad canvas of western civilization and the evolution of society.   (Reviewed by Judy Krueger).

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Media Reviews
The New York Times Book Review - Christopher Benfey

…dazzling…Thomas Cromwell remains a controversial and mysterious figure. Mantel has filled in the blanks plausibly, brilliantly.

Publishers Weekly

Unfortunately, Mantel also includes a distracting abundance of dizzying detail and Henry's all too voluminous political defeats and triumphs, which overshadows the more winning story of Cromwell

Kirkus Reviews

The characters, including Cromwell, remain unknowable, their emotions closely guarded; this works well for court intrigues, less so for fiction. Masterfully written and researched but likely to appeal mainly to devotees of all things Tudor.

Library Journal

It should appeal to many readers, not just history buffs. And Mantel achieves this feat without violating the historical record! There will be few novels this year as good as this one.

The Guardian (UK)

This is a burstingly large book, so densely peopled that the cast-list alone takes up five pages. It rattles back and forth across the Channel and reaches, sometimes confusingly, back through time. Much of Cromwell's past is told in flashbacks - somnolent, slippery sequences that add to the novel's dreamlike sense. For all her meticulous historical reconstruction, Mantel's world remains a strange place, permeated by the many dead. None the less, it is both linguistically and sensually vital, stacked with images and phrases that linger in the mind.

The New York Times - Janet Maslin.

In Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel's arch, elegant, richly detailed biographical novel centered on Cromwell…characters are scorchingly well rendered. And their sharp-clawed machinations are presented with nonstop verve in a book that can compress a wealth of incisiveness into a very few well-chosen words.

The Times (UK)

As soon as I opened the book I was gripped. I read it almost non-stop. When I did have to put it down, I was full of regret the story was over, a regret I still feel. This is a wonderful and intelligently imagined retelling of a familiar tale from an unfamiliar angle — one that makes the drama unfolding nearly five centuries ago look new again, and shocking again, too.

The Washington Post - Wendy Smith

Hilary Mantel has created a novel both fresh and finely wrought...unfolding cogent insights into the human soul within a lucid analysis of the social, economic and personal interactions that drive political developments, Mantel has built on her previous impressive achievements to write her best novel yet.

Reader Reviews
Meredith Whitford

However did this win the Booker Prize?
On my first attempt to read Wolf Hall, I tossed it after about 200 pages as simply too tedious and lacking in narrative pace, characterisation or outstanding writing. Its sequel, "Bring up the bodies" is better in that the story, such as it...   Read More

Voracious Reader

Enough already
Being very familiar with the period, I was looking forward to reading a book from a different perspective and felt completely frustrated. The writing style made it impossible for me to enjoy the book. I started reading the book five times, and I ...   Read More

Canadian Chickadee

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
I found this book exasperating in the extreme. Mantel's gift for a telling phrase is unsurpassed (black fur that ruffled like feathers, ruby rings like droplets on blood on the king's knuckles, e.g.) but I longed for a red pencil to edit this tome!...   Read More

Dorothy T.

A Short Review of a Long Book
The number of pages is not really why I call this a long book--I kept thinking as I was reading that surely some of it could have been edited, although I have no specific suggestions. I was thankful for the cast of characters list, because I ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Cast of Characters

Henry VIII
King of England 1509-1547
Painted by Hans Holbein in 1536

German painter Hans Holbein made his reputation in Basel, designing wood blocks for book printers, and painting portraits and commissions for churches. Despite his relative success, the disturbed conditions of the Reformation led him to doubt his financial future and thus seek work in Britain. During his first visit in 1526 he was patronized by the circle of Sir Thomas More. Until his death Holbein was employed by Henry VIII in a wide assortment of tasks, ranging from designing court costumes, silverware, jewelry and triumphal arches to painting the actual and prospective brides of the monarch.

Thomas Cromwell
Appointed Lord Chancellor after ...

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