Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall

April 30, 2009

Set in the period from 1500 to 1535, Wolf Hall is a sympathetic fictionalised biography documenting the rapid rise to power of Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII through to the death of Sir Thomas More. The novel won both the Man Booker Prize...

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Historical Fiction

604 Pages
3.9

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Set in the period from 1500 to 1535, Wolf Hall is a sympathetic fictionalised biography documenting the rapid rise to power of Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII through to the death of Sir Thomas More. The novel won both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Wolf Hall (2009) is a historical novel by English author Hilary Mantel, published by Fourth Estate, named after the Seymour family seat of Wolfhall or Wulfhall in Wiltshire. Set in the period from 1500 to 1535, Wolf Hall is a sympathetic fictionalised biography documenting the rapid rise to power of Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII through to the death of Sir Thomas More. The novel won both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 2012, The Observer named it as one of "The 10 best historical novels".

 

Dame Hilary Mary Mantel, born 6 July 1952 is an English writer whose work includes personal memoirs, short stories, and historical fiction.

 

She has twice been awarded the Booker Prize, the first for the 2009 novel Wolf Hall, a fictional account of Thomas Cromwell's rise to power in the court of Henry VIII, and the second for the 2012 novel Bring Up the Bodies, the second instalment of the Cromwell trilogy.

 

Mantel was the first woman to receive the award twice, following in the footsteps of J. M. Coetzee, Peter Carey and J. G. Farrell (who posthumously won the Lost Man Booker Prize). The third instalment to the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, is projected for publication in 2020.

Awards and honours

 

    1987 Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize

    1990 Southern Arts Literature Prize for Fludd

    1990 Cheltenham Prize for Fludd

    1990 Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize for Fludd

    1992 Sunday Express Book of the Year for A Place of Greater Safety

    1996 Hawthornden Prize for An Experiment in Love

    2003 MIND Book of the Year for Giving Up the Ghost (A Memoir)

    2006 Commonwealth Writers Prize (Eurasia Region, Best Book), shortlisted for Beyond Black

    2006 Orange Prize for Fiction shortlisted for Beyond Black

    2009 Man Booker Prize for Wolf Hall

    2009 National Book Critics Circle Award for Wolf Hall

    2009 Honorary DLitt from Sheffield Hallam University

    2010 Walter Scott Prize for Wolf Hall

    2010 Specsavers National Book Awards "UK Author of the Year" for Wolf Hall

    2011 Honorary DLitt from the University of Exeter

    2010 Orange Prize for Fiction shortlisted for Wolf Hall

    2012 Man Booker Prize for Bring Up the Bodies

    2012 Specsavers National Book Awards "UK Author of the Year" for Bring Up the Bodies

    2012 Costa Book Awards (Novel) for Bring Up the Bodies

    2012 Costa Book Awards (Book of the Year) for Bring Up the Bodies

    2013 David Cohen Prize

    2013 South Bank Sky Arts Award for Bring up the Bodies

    2013 Honorary DLitt from the University of Cambridge

    2013 Honorary DLitt from the University of Derby

    2013 Honorary DLitt from Bath Spa University

    2015 Honorary DLitt from the University of Oxford

    2015 Honorary degree from the Oxford Brookes University

    2016 British Academy President's Medal

    2016 Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement

 

She was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2006 Birthday Honours and Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 2014 Birthday Honours for services to literature.

The book is the first in a trilogy; the sequel Bring Up the Bodies was published in 2012. The last book in the trilogy will be called The Mirror and the Light and is expected to cover the last four years of Cromwell's life.

Historical background

 

Born to a working-class family of no position or name, Cromwell rose to become the right-hand man of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, adviser to the King. He survived Wolsey's fall from grace to eventually take his place as the most powerful of Henry's ministers. In that role, he observed turning points of English history, as Henry asserted his authority to declare his marriage annulled from Catherine of Aragon, married Anne Boleyn, broke from Rome, established the independence of the Church of England, and called for the dissolution of the monasteries.

 

The novel is a reenvisioning of historical and literary records; in Robert Bolt's play A Man for All Seasons Cromwell is portrayed as the calculating, unprincipled opposite of Thomas More's honour and rectitude.

 

Mantel's novel offers an alternative to that characterization, a more intimate portrait of Cromwell as a tolerant, pragmatic, and talented man attempting to serve king, country, and family amid the political machinations of Henry's court and the religious upheavals of the Reformation, in contrast to More's viciously punitive adherence to the old Roman Catholic order that Henry is sweeping away.

Awards and nominations

Winner – 2009 Man Booker Prize. James Naughtie, the chairman of the Booker prize judges, said the decision to give Wolf Hall the award was "based on the sheer bigness of the book. The boldness of its narrative, its scene setting...The extraordinary way that Hilary Mantel has created what one of the judges has said was a contemporary novel, a modern novel, which happens to be set in the 16th century".

Winner – 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.

Winner – 2010 Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction.

Winner – 2010 The Morning News Tournament of Books.

 

Adaptations

Stage

 

In January 2013, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) announced that it would stage adaptations by Mike Poulton of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies in its Winter season. The production transferred to London's Aldwych Theatre in May 2014, for a limited run until October.

 

Producers Jeffrey Richards and Jerry Frankel brought the London productions of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, starring Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell, Lydia Leonard as Anne Boleyn, Lucy Briers as Katherine of Aragon, and Nathaniel Parker as Henry VIII, to Broadway's Winter Garden Theatrein March 2015 for a 15-week run. The double-bill has been re-titled Wolf Hall, Parts 1 and 2 for American audiences. The play was nominated for 8 Tony Awards, including Best Play.

Television

Main article: Wolf Hall (miniseries)

 

In 2012, the BBC announced that it would be adapting Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies for BBC Two, to be broadcast in 2015.On 8 March 2013, the BBC reported that Mark Rylance had been cast as Thomas Cromwell. The first episode was broadcast in the United States on PBS's Masterpiece Theatre, on 5 April 2015. In June 2015, Amazon announced exclusive rights to stream Masterpiece programs, including Wolf Hall, on its Amazon Prime Instant Video platform

 

 

 

Review:

theguardian.com

Christopher Tayler

 

homas Cromwell, the chief minister to Henry VIII who oversaw the break with Rome and the dissolution of the monasteries, was widely hated in his lifetime, and he makes a surprising fictional hero now. Geoffrey Elton used to argue that he founded modern government, but later historians have pared back his role, and one recent biographer, Robert Hutchinson, portrayed him as a corrupt proto-Stalinist. He's a sideshow to Wolsey in Shakespeare and Fletcher's Henry VIII, a villain who hounds Thomas More to his death in Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons. Law and financial administration - his main activities - don't always ignite writers' imaginations, and in the pop-Foucauldian worldview of much historical fiction since the 1980s, his bureaucratic innovations would be seen as inherently sinister. Then there's the portrait of him, after Holbein: a dewlapped man in dark robes with a shrewd, unfriendly face, holding a folded paper like an upturned dagger. He looks, as Hilary Mantel has him say in her new novel, "like a murderer".

 

In Wolf Hall, Mantel persuasively depicts this beefy pen-pusher and backstairs manoeuvrer as one of the most appealing - and, in his own way, enlightened - characters of the period. Taking off from the scant evidence concerning his early life, she imagines a miserable childhood for him as the son of a violent, drunken blacksmith in Putney. Already displaying toughness, intelligence and a gift for languages, he runs away to the continent as a boy of 15 or so (his date of birth isn't known, and in the novel he doesn't know it himself). At this point, only 16 pages in, the action cuts to 1527, with Cromwell back in England, "a little over forty years old" and a trusted agent of Cardinal Wolsey. His life-shaping experiences in France, Italy and the Netherlands are dealt with in flashback here and there: he has been a soldier, a trader and an accountant for a Florentine bank; he has killed a man and learned to appreciate Italian painting.

 

Mantel's Cromwell is an omnicompetent figure, "at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop's palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury." Fluent in many languages, learned, witty and thoughtful, he's also an intimidating physical presence; Wolsey fondly compares him to "one of those square-shaped fighting dogs that low men tow about on ropes". This makes him an ideal emissary for Wolsey's project of liquidating some smaller monasteries to fund a school and an Oxford college. But self-advancement isn't Cromwell's only motive. He's disgusted by the waste and superstition he encounters, and takes a materialist view of relics and indulgences. The feudal mindset of Wolsey's rival grandees seems equally outdated to him: jibes at his lowly origins bounce off his certainty that noble blood and feats of arms now count for less than lines of credit and nicely balanced books.

 

The first half of the novel, built around Wolsey's fall from power, details Cromwell's domestic setup at Austin Friars and introduces the major players in Tudor politics. Without clobbering the reader with the weight of her research, Mantel works up a 16th-century world in which only a joker would call for cherries in April or lettuce in December, and where hearing an unlicensed preacher is an illicit thrill on a par with risking syphilis. The civil wars that brought the Tudors to the throne still make older people shudder, bringing Henry's obsession with producing a male heir into focus. And the precarious nature of early modern life is brought home by the abrupt deaths of Cromwell's wife and daughters, carried off by successive epidemics in moving but unsentimentally staged scenes. Cromwell asks if he can bury his elder daughter with a copybook she's written her name in; "the priest says he has never heard of such a thing".

 

Grieving, he thinks of Tyndale's banned English Bible: "now abideth faith, hope and love, even these three; but the greatest of these is love." More, he knows, thinks "love" is "a wicked mistranslation. He insists on 'charity' . . . He would, for a difference in your Greek, kill you." In the second half of the novel - which charts Cromwell's rise to favour as he clears the way for the king's marriage to Anne Boleyn - More emerges as Cromwell's opposite number, more a spokesman for another worldview than a practical antagonist. Shabbily dressed, genial, yet punctiliously correct on politically controversial points, this More is a far cry from Bolt's gentle humanist martyr. He's made repulsive even more by the self-adoring theatricality behind his modest exterior than by his interest in torturing heretics and contemptuous treatment of his wife. He ends up stage-managing his own destruction out of narcissism and fanaticism, or at best a cold idealism that's contrasted unfavourably with Cromwell's reforming worldliness.

 

For all its structural and thematic importance, however, Cromwell's conflict with More is only part of a wider battle caused by Henry's desire to have his first marriage annulled. Much space is given over to court politics, which Mantel manages to make comprehensible without downplaying its considerable complexity. Central figures - the Boleyn sisters, Catherine of Aragon, the young Mary Tudor, the king himself - are brought plausibly to life, as are Cromwell's wife, Liz Wykys, and Cardinal Wolsey. Determined, controlled but occasionally impulsive, and a talented hater, Mantel's Anne Boleyn is a more formidable character even than her uncle the Duke of Norfolk, portrayed here as a scheming old warhorse who rattles a bit when he moves on account of all the relics and holy medals concealed about his person.

 

Making characters of all these people is, of course, a big risk. How do you write about Henry VIII without being camp or breathless or making him do something clunkily non-stereotypical? Mantel attacks the problem from several angles, starting by knowing a lot about the period but not drawing attention to how strenuously she's imagining it. Meaty dialogue takes precedence over description, and the present-tense narration is so closely tied to the main character that Cromwell is usually called plain "he", even when it causes ambiguities. Above all, Mantel avoids ye olde-style diction, preferring more contemporary phrasing. Small rises in the level of language are frequently used for comic effect, as in: "Well, I tell you, Lady Shelton, if she had had an axe to hand, she would have essayed to cut off my head." The effortless-seeming management of contrasting registers plays a big part in the novel's success, as does Mantel's decision to let Cromwell have a sense of humour.

 

"Love your neighbour. Study the market. Increase the spread of benevolence. Bring in better figures next year." If not a man for all seasons, the book's heroic accountant is surely the man for his season. Mantel keeps too close an eye on facts and emotions to make her story an arch allegory of modern Britain's origins, but her setting of such unglamorous virtues as financial transparency and legal clarity against the forces of reaction and mystification is interesting and mildly provocative. At the same time, sinister grace notes accompany Cromwell's triumph. Wolf Hall, the Seymour family seat, is a site of scandal in the novel, a place where men prey on women and the old on the young. It's also where Jane Seymour first caught Henry's eye - an event that falls just outside the book's time scheme, but which serves as a reminder that, whatever their status in 1535, most of the major characters will end up with their heads on the block.

 

Mantel is a prolific, protean figure who doesn't fit into many of the established pigeonholes for women writers, and whose output ranges from the French revolution (A Place of Greater Safety) to her own troubled childhood (Giving Up the Ghost). Maybe this book will win one of the prizes that have been withheld so far. A historian might wonder about the extent to which she makes Cromwell a modern rationalist in Renaissance dress; a critic might wonder if the narrator's awe at the central character doesn't sometimes make him seem as self-mythologising as his enemies. But Wolf Hall succeeds on its own terms and then some, both as a non-frothy historical novel and as a display of Mantel's extraordinary talent. Lyrically yet cleanly and tightly written, solidly imagined yet filled with spooky resonances, and very funny at times, it's not like much else in contemporary British fiction. A sequel is apparently in the works, and it's not the least of Mantel's achievements that the reader finishes this 650-page book wanting more.

 

Age rating: +18

Book Awards


Man Booker International PrizeNational Book Critics Circle Award

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