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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

WOLF HALL by Hilary Mantel

I’m suffering terribly at the moment, trying to come up with a title for my new novel.

This is something which dogs me, as I always start out with a working title I’m very excited about - and then write a completely different book, so the original one doesn’t work any more. Then there is much tearing of hair until the right thing pops into my head.

Today I was – semi-seriously - wondering if I could call it Untitled 6, in conceptual artist stylee. That won’t be allowed, of course, so I wish I could get Hilary Mantel to help me think of one, as Wolf Hall has to be one of the great titles of all time. As soon as I heard it I wanted to read it, even before it won the Booker Prize and all that hoo ha.

But I wonder if it actually was Ms Mantel who came up with it – or a very clever publisher? Because it has nothing to do with the book.

I haven’t felt so ripped off by a book title since Brick Lane. I rushed out to buy that on hearing the name, imagining a multi-layered portrait of the street I have loved since I lived in the East End in the 1980s.

I was eagerly anticipating Bangra, balti, bagels and bohemians in a delicious multi-cultural modern London mix, written with an insider’s insight. Instead it is the rather lowering tale of an isolated young Bangladeshi wife in an anorak.

I couldn’t finish it and felt vindicated when I read somewhere that the original title for the book had been Across Seven Rivers. That is not something I would have been attracted to and much more fitting to the content.

So I’d love to know what Hilary Mantel’s original title was. The Other Cromwell Boy, perhaps? Because it’s the not about the fabulously-named Wolf Hall – which was the country seat of Jane Seymour’s family – but Thomas Cromwell, great uncle of the more famous Oliver. A key historic figure I’m ashamed to say I’d never even heard of.

He’s an amazing character. A blacksmith’s son, who rose up through his own wits – and fists – to become first Cardinal Wolsey and then Henry VIII’s right-hand man.

An autoditact polymath polyglot supergenius with street smarts, an iron grip - but a tender and fair heart - and a gift for one liners that wouldn’t be out of place on The Sopranos, he has to be one of the most attractive dudes in fiction.

Indeed there were times – particularly when he seemed about to invent the internet in 1535 – when I wondered if he wasn’t almost as idealised as the male leads you find in, well, books like mine, really.

Ms Mantel seems at pains to stress that he was not a handsome man, but when he is so astonishingly brilliant in every other way, it really doesn’t matter. You get a bit of a crush on him anyway. Well, I did.

So despite my rather outraged surprise that the books is not set in an amazing old Tudor house called Wolf Hall – which is only referred to a few times in the book – I did really enjoy getting to know this fascinating man.

I also now have a real feeling for Cardinal Wolsey and the vile Thomas More, and some of the key historical details of this era. I confess – not on the rack, which More so enjoyed using, I’m happy to say – that I had never quite understood what people were being tortured and burned at the stake for during Henry VIII’s reign and now I fully do.

This insight into 16th century religious politics was really a bonus, as it seemed at first that the book was dwelling way too long on the Ann Boleyn story, which anyone who has supped deep at the cup of Philippa Gregory (as I have) is already more than well versed in.

In fact reckon I could go on Mastermind with the sex lives of the Boleyn sisters as my special subject, so I’m done with that Tudor Paris Hilton - and her party pooper Spanish love rival, for that matter.

But once we got into the really meaty bit about why Henry VIII broke away from the Vatican, gave the Pope the finger, founded the Church of England and cashed in the monasteries, I was gripped.

Especially as I was reading it while the husband one of my best friends – Geoffrey Robertson, married to Kathy Lette – is drafting serious legal proceedings to sue the current Pope when he visits Great Britain later this year.

So the row that was pushed to its limit five hundred years ago by Ann Boleyn practising The Rules (Google it...) on Henry VIII (unlike her younger sister, she wouldn’t put out until he married her), is still burning hot today. Yee haw.

What I hadn’t grasped until I read this book, though, was that the Roman Catholic church in the 16th century, as espoused by creepy hair-shirted More, wouldn’t allow the people to read the bible in English. I’d never understood that before. What an outrage!

Prior to Henry’s split from Rome, people could be burned at the stake simply for possessing the bible in a language they could read it in. This was the church’s way of keeping the people in their power – because only the educated elite knew what the bible really said.

Superfly guy Thomas Cromwell was secretly a supporter of a sect who wanted the bible to be available to all – so that they would be able to see for themselves what is in it.

Nothing about purgatory, nothing about cash for forgiveness ‘indulgences’, and no rules dictating that you have to go to church every week and give money to a lot of old men in Rome.

I was so moved by finding this out, I have resolved to go out and buy a bible in English. I probably won’t look at it but - like a vote – a privilege people sacrificed so much to win for us all, must be used and appreciated.

At 650 pages, this book is a serious reading commitment, but one that is worth taking on. Just choose your moment, as it requires long sustained reads, not five minutes at bed time.

And don’t be put off by the fascinating facts element. Living in the story, as you will for quite a while, you absorb the history lessons while reading what Thomas Cromwell had for dinner (quite a lot of capons) and who he fancies (Jane Seymour! Hold the front page of Tudor Grazia...).

It’s absolutely gripping stuff, conveyed at a cracking pace, with wonderfully vivid characterisation and settings. A description of a visit to Thomas More’s creepy home set up, particularly sticks in my mind.

So do read Wolf Hall. I just don’t want you to be as disappointed by the title as I was.

Reading satisfaction: 8
Un-put-downable-ness: 5
Recommend to best girlfriend: 7
Recommend to mother: 7
Recommend to niece: 7
Recommend to gay best friend: 7
Recommend to man pal: 7
Recommend to Helen Razer: 7
Read on public transport: 0 (too heavy)


  1. Ah, don't you hate when the title suckers you in and then the book is about something entirely different. But... Hooo-eeee, this one sounds like just my cup of tea. I'm off to search it out, thanks!

  2. I am a history major (now there's a useful degree) and I specialised in England in the 1530s. And there is a massively specialised specialty area! So this book was meat and veg to me. I really enjoyed it. Well-written, well-researched.

  3. I was actually glad it wasn't too much about Wolf Hall historically i find Jane Seymour a little insipid, not sure why it is not like i knew her. I eventually enjoyed this book but i found it a little tough to deal with at the beginning. I love this partucular era the interestin thing is i studied the reformation at school. A Catholic school nonetheless and my memories of it are quite scattered but it seems since the dust cleared it has become considered a good thing for the Catholic Church. Which witht he benefit of a few years of secular education seems weird.

  4. As a budding historian, 'historical fiction' often makes me cringe, as it is so rare that historical evidence imagination are used to bring history to life without the use of too much 'poetic license'.

    Wolf Hall changed the way I look at history AND fiction. From the way the characters are drawn to the tiny details, like fabrics and smells, I am awestruck at how Hilary Mantel managed to absorb so much information and create such a work of complex brilliance which is so evocative and gripping in its drama!

    I am currently reading her first (but not first published) novel 'A Place of Greater Safety' which is set prior to and during the French Revolution and follows the stories of key figures Danton, Robespierre and Desmoulins. You will LOVE the way she draws the characters of these men, from the flamboyant Desmoulins to the 'erotically ugly' Danton.

    A must-read though is her memoir Giving Up the Ghost which, among other things, explores her crippling experience with chronic illness and misdiagnosis. It's not a long read, but written in the most beautifully poetic and evocative prose. Not self-indulgent, but enlightening.

    The moral of the story: Hilary Mantel rocks!

  5. When historical fiction is good, it's very, very good - but when it's bad, it's horrid. This, however, is the best book I've read in a very long time - of any genre. Mantel seems to be writing in a completely new and unique style - new to me, anyway. It manages to be 'third person' but also from Cromwell's perspective. Not sure how she does that, but it's intriguing. I found so many ideas that I wanted to highlight, because of their relevance to right now. Yes, I too am a history graduate and am drawn to this genre. So when something this good is created, I want everyone to know about it!

  6. Thanks for this review Maggie. I so agree with you about the title - I kept waiting for Thomas to visit Wolf Hall or overthrow those Seymours or something... He did have a crush of some kind on Jane though... I also was surprised that the book finished when it did - thought we might end with Ann Boleyn's downfall? I have heard that Hilary Mantel is writing a sequel though... I went and googled Cromwell half way through the book to find out what happened to him too.