Wolf Hall

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (4th Estate 2009)

This is a truly engrossing historical novel – I hope it wins the Booker Prize.

Written in beautiful, slightly quirky and so captivating prose, it’s full of vividly realised scenes and characters to care about, of engrossing argument in which the stakes couldn’t be higher. For me the main pleasure was of historical revisionism. In taking Thomas Cromwell as its hero, it effectively challenges the version of the English Reformation – indeed of the Protestant Reformation as a whole – that I absorbed from the nuns and brothers and, I’m embarrassed to acknowledge, remained pretty much intact under the assault of an undergraduate course in Reformation History. I’m consoled somewhat by having the great Erasmus as an offstage character who pretty much shares my understanding, and by a sense, especially toward the end, that it’s Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons rather than my young self that Hilary Mantel has in her sights. Thomas More – that’s Saint Thomas More to me – is portrayed here, among other things, a pitiless torturer and a misogynist a***hole. I suppose my younger self might have read this as Protestant propaganda. I hope I would have checked the evidence, and come to the conclusion that if it is propaganda, what it’s propagating is the view that rigid and intolerantly held religious views are an abomination, and that there is great virtue in devoting one’s self to making things go well.

I can’t read historical fiction these days without sensing Inga Clendinnen reading over my shoulder. I think she would approve of this.

4 responses to “Wolf Hall

  1. Thanks Jonathan … I was wondering whether to venture into this book, and now I definitely will. I loves a good historical novel, but how I hates a bad one.

  2. St Thomas More not a hero? – Nooooo!!! Another myth of my childhood that must be discarded.

    I was on a retreat once where a bio of STM was read during meals, and of course we ‘did’ <iA Man for all Seasons at school. So it wasn’t all true, then? 🙂

  3. Exactly, M-H. I have the same anguish. It seems we were told the truth, all except the nasty bits

  4. I’m so glad you like this. It’s not one of the books I bought on my recent binge—it came very close at the gleebooks checkout!—but I do very much want to read it, despite its revision of my well-favoured Tudor myths..