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Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Posted By Claire on November 10, 2010

Wolf Hall by Hilary MantelThis is a really tough review for me to write because although Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” won the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, I just couldn’t get into it.

Now, I’m a complete bookworm and love everything from thrillers to Jane Austen, from Jodi Picoult to Charles Dickens, from Stephenie Meyer to Tolkien, so I’ve got rather varied taste, but Wolf Hall just didn’t do it for me. You’d think as a bookworm and Tudor history fanatic that a novel based in Tudor England, with Thomas Cromwell as the protagonist, would be just the book for me and that I’d be raving about it and shouting its praise from the roof tops, but I’m not. It’s not that I hated it, I didn’t even dislike it, I just didn’t fall in love with it and I had to keep pushing myself to read it when normally I use any excuse to sit and read. Usually, my husband will find me in a corner with a book when I’m supposed to be doing something else. You know, you disappear off to the loo and never come back! However, I really had to force myself to read Wolf Hall.

It’s hard to know why it didn’t grab me. I liked the way that the story was told from Cromwell’s point of view and that you saw the events and other characters through his eyes, and therefore with his bias, and I enjoyed empathising with Cromwell for once and seeing a rather nasty side to Thomas More, but I “liked” that, I didn’t “love” it. I commend Hilary Mantel for her meticulous research and for bringing Cromwell’s story to the public, but that wasn’t enough to make me fall in love with her novel. For me, it didn’t bring the Tudor period to life like the novels of C J Sansom or Robert Parry’s “Virgin and the Crab”, I couldn’t see and smell Tudor England when I read Mantel’s words, I wasn’t drawn into the book and the lives of the characters, I was more of a voyeur than a participant. Does that make sense?

Now, this does not mean that I would not recommend it to other Tudor history fans and book-lovers because I realise that there are many people out there who loved Wolf Hall. A friend of mine couldn’t believe it when I told her that I’d had trouble getting into it, she raved passionately about how it was the best book she’d read in years. Weird!

Obviously, Wolf Hall also won two prestigious prizes and there have been many, many glowing reviews of it both online and in newspapers, so I decided to ask for people’s views on the novel on my Anne Boleyn Files Facebook page – I got a mixed response:-

The Positive

“I really LOVED it. I thought the language was beautiful, and by the end I really felt like I could walk into his house and move his chess pieces, rearrange his furniture, try on his clothes. I felt like I could smell him and hear his footsteps ringing on the floors of the court. I thought Mantel really brought his character to life. It’s what has made me want to find out more about the Tudors.” Hannah

“I liked it and am looking forward to the next installment. It sheds a lot of light on the one train of thought that Cromwell was instrumental in Anne’s downfall.” Ralphine

“Loved reading it, was sorry when it ended.” Karin

“I loved it –can’t wait for the sequel. Want to re-read it. I think the opening scene will be reprised as the final scene. A great literary work.” Karen

“I loved it – it did take me a while to get used to the writing style, but I felt that it made me pay more attention. I especially loved the fact that Cromwell has a big old donkey crush on Jane Seymour. Jane doesn’t get much attention in historical fiction, so it was nice to see her get an important part. I’m curious to see what happens in the sequel when Henry becomes interested in her.” Brooke

“I loved it too! I can’t wait for the sequel. It gave a gave a human/family side of Cromwell life.” Lori

“I absolutely loved it!” Sarah

The Negative/Indifferent

“I started it, but did not finish it yet. Will return to it eventually. The style is pondersome, so thorough and exact that one does read it, put it down, to read it slowly. One cannot read it at a clip. I did like her observations..she is an excellent, thoughtful writer, but it is pondersome to read. So will return when I find the time.” Janet

“I didn’t care for it….too much Cromwell, not enough Anne.” Cecily

“I couldn’t get into it.” Kelly

“I didn’t particularly enjoy it. Her portrayals of several historical figures I found to be distasteful, and I could not connect to her Cromwell at all…he didn’t feel right and didn’t have a lot of depth in my view!” Lauren

“I started to read it but hated the writing style and put it down. Picked it up two days later and got into the writing but halfway through it I just found it tedious. I did finish it but am not a fan of this book.” Inese

“It did take a while to warm up and get use to the writing style.It is told in present tense and the writing is disjointed in places. Cromwell is constantly referred to as β€œhe” which I found irritating to begin with.Some patience is required to get through it but the story is enjoyable and witty and I appreciated the perspective from the people behind the King & his Queens. 3.5-4 stars. So I’m with you Claire, I didn’t love or hate it.” Kate

“I have started it twice and can’t get beyond 100 pages. I have always hated Cromwell so it’s hard to read from his perspective. I also have issues with the present tense aspect. It makes for a tough read.” AnneMarie

“I read it but I have to admit I did have to force myself at times.” Tracy

“I didnt care for it regardless of the reviews.” Elizabeth

“I disliked it so much, I sold back my copy, and bought “the Lady in the Tower”. I found the writing style unreadable. Though I did read the whole book, I never wanted to read it again!” Marie


All I can say about “Wolf Hall” is that you should read it and make up your own mind. As you can see from the above comments, a group of Tudor history lovers could not agree on it so I just can’t say whether you’ll like it or not. If you have read it already then please leave your feedback in the comments section below to help others.

What’s It About Anyway?

As you can gather from what I’ve said about it, and the comments above, “Wolf Hall” is set in Tudor England during the reign of Henry VIII and it stars Thomas Cromwell as its main character, but here is the publisher’s ‘blurb’:-

“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. Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell: a wholly original man, a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people, and 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?”

More About Wolf Hall

To celebrate the release in paperback, Picador Macmillan have got a page on their website – where you can:-

  • Read an excerpt of Wolf Hall – click here to read the excerpt.
  • Enjoy videos of Hilary Mantel talking about Wolf Hall and discussing Henry VIII with David Starkey – see Video Page
  • Download a Reading Group Guide – click here for the PDF which includes discussion questions, a useful timeline and details on the book and author.

You can also find out more about Hilary Mantel on her special Facebook page.

Wolf Hall was published in paperback in the USA on the 31st August 2010 and is available from Picador direct (see links above for their Wolf Hall page), from Amazon US (click on cover image) or your favourite bookshop or library. It was released in paperback in the UK on the 4th March 2010 –click here for information from Amazon UK. The UK cover is white with a Tudor Rose.


16 Responses to “Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel”

  1. Gene says:

    I share the very same opinion of this book that Claire has expressed. I really had to push myself through it! There’s little that I could add that she hasn’t expressed already except that I do also agree with the view that readers should read Wolf Hall for themselves and make up their own mind!

  2. memory says:

    I tried to read this one but just couldn’t get into it…..however, I downloaded it to my IPOD from a free trial at and I did manage to get through it that way.

  3. Leigh says:

    dull. i never finnished it. and i can say that i ALWAYS finnish a book

  4. Kelly says:

    This book could not interest me at all..

    From the Netherlands

  5. Claire says:

    It is interesting, Leigh, that some people rave about how fantastic this book is and yet others just can’t get into it. I really struggled with it but I have a friend who thought it was the best book she’d read in ages!

  6. S. Betti says:

    I read now this book. I don’t like it, but I’m trying to finish.

  7. Sharyn Bearse says:

    Claire: I couldn’t agree with you more about Wolf Hall. I was so prepared to love it — just as I do other books on the Tudors. It was plodding. I had to push myself to read it. Yet, I can’t put my finger on what was wrong with it. I read constantly — four to five books a week. I usually have one fiction book going and one non-fiction historical text and switch reading between them. Wolf Hall was neither fish nor foul — not quite entertaining fiction, but not solid history either.

  8. Peggy says:

    Claire: thank goodness for your review: I thought it was me, and something was missing in my makeup because I could not appreciate Wolf Hall. My background is like Sharyn’s–I’m an avid reader of history and fiction, and I just could not warm up to this book.

  9. Katherine says:

    It took me a while to get into this book too and, with
    persistence, I did finish it. I couldn’t quite place why I wasn’t
    as taken with it as other Tudor books I have read. I suppose it
    must have been the writing style. It is rather slow. It is very
    unusual for me to take so long to get through a book! I did find,
    however, that in the second half of the book I was far more into it
    and it became an easier read but yes, I did struggle with this one
    too despite my love of the history of the era. Interesting to hear
    I wasn’t the only one!

  10. Joy says:

    I wonder if its me. I am in the middle of this book and I can hardly put it down. I love it. I love her prose. I find her writing is nuanced and unexpected, told from the viewpoint of Thomas Cromwell. Everyone who reads this book knows the story, we are already avid Tudor fans. We know the characters and what they are like, we know all their famous quotes. There is none of that in this book, thankfully. Wolf Hall reveals two of history’s villains, Cardinal Wolsey, and Thomas Cromwell in a more human light. Also, we see another viewpoint of Thomas More. Altogether, a terrific read.

  11. Lindsey says:

    I struggled with this one too. The only reason I stuck with it, was because a friend had given it to me as a birthday present.

    I am well versed with the history of that period and knew the story well, but I did wonder how someone who had no knowledge of this period would have coped with the story – I think that they would have been lost!

    The other problem with the book is that the ‘she/he saids’ were few and far between, so I often became confused as to who was speaking.

    Towards the end of the book, my disapointment was increased my realising that there wern’t enough pages left for Thomas to make it to the executioners block and there would, therefore be a sequel!

  12. emma says:

    totally agree, never finished it tried twice ;(

  13. Susie says:

    Hmmm- I so agree with the comments above. I genuinely tried hard with this book as I love and know the subject area. However, about half-way through I had just had to give it up because I simply did not enjoy it..

    Perhaps what was missing for me the most was the development of real depth of the various characters. Their exploration never seemed to shift beyond the academic. I had the same problems with language as described by some readers above – it is often not clear who is speaking and the flow of reading is regularly interrupted.

    And yet to some people this the utlimate prose – I am intrigued by the difference in perception and also what drives Hilary Mantel’s writing style. Maybe she wants us to pay attention to detail rather than race through it? Food for thought.

  14. Adrienne Dillard says:

    It took me a bit to get into it. I think I was about halfway through and then it caught me like wildfire and I was really into it, only for it to end πŸ™ But yes, I did have to go back and re-read some parts because it is a very heavy piece. Very verbose. It really humanized Cromwell for me and because of it, I took an interest in him and did more research and found that I did actually respect him for many reasons. So I am glad that I read it because it made me push past my bias and find out more. I will be reading the sequel. But probably in small doses, LOL

  15. Anne Barnhill says:

    I did finish it, but was not impressed. There were some nice, literary passages but overall, the style put me off. I agree about using ‘he’ when referring to Cromwell instead of his name–made things confusing many times. I didn’t quite ‘buy’ the Cromwell portrayed, though I very much liked the juxtaposition of More and Cromwell and how each was quite different from the usual portraits. But it made me happy that a book about Tudor England won the Booker! I didn’t like the way Anne was portrayed, though. Or Mary. Some of the minor characters were interesting and well-drawn. Glad I’m not the only one with very mixed feelings about it!

  16. Jo says:

    I have just finished (struggling) this book. I almost gave up several times, but forced myself to continue for a couple of reasons. I did love the humor that popped up, and I also enjoyed the somewhat different perspectives we were given on the main characters, some of whom have been portrayed as saints or villains – this book pretty much took the opposite view of what I’ve read in the past.

    I totally HATED the ‘he’ thing. I didn’t know half the time who was ‘speaking’. It got so confusing at points that I found I would have to go back 3-4 pages and reread just to see if I could figure out who was expressing their thoughts or words. As other readers have said, it took me 3-4 times longer to get through this than any other book I’ve ever read, mostly because I had to keep going back to figure out who the speaker was.

    The other thing that bugged me was the swift switches between names. In the same sentence, we would hear the same character referred to by two, sometimes three names. As in, their normal name, their lordley name, and whatever nickname Cromwell may have graced them with. Not an issue except there are so many players in this narrative, all of whom have names, names and more names. Maybe I was just frustrated with this because I was always trying to figure out who was speaking….

    So, loved the story, loved the idea of painting different pictures of these flogged to death historiical figures and their relationships. HATED the strange stylism.

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