I quite liked Wolf Hall and I am looking forward to the sequel. I'll post my review here:
Hilary Mantel took quite a risk with this novel, packing it so full of little details that provide an interesting and colourful 16th century context for Thomas Cromwell’s life story, but also tire the reader out and make it much longer than necessary.
I knew very little of Thomas Cromwell other than his notorious shrewdness and rise to power under Henry VIII, and while I was reading this I kept the encyclopedia and historical references close at hand, and I enjoyed looking up the background stories of Castiglione and his courtesy book The Courtier, Guido Camillo and his memory machine, Luca Pacioli and his Arithmetica and proportions. If one is not prepared to do this and spend some time in the 16th century, as it were, one may quickly become frustrated or bored with the details.
Wolf Hall seems to be meticulously researched, but I am not in the position to check whether Thomas More was quite the religious fanatic that Hilary Mantel wants us to believe he was. Was he really responsible for all those burnings and hangings? And was Thomas Cromwell really such a good family man, a faithful husband, grieving over his wife for years after she died, taking orphans and a poor widow into his family, to feed them and educate them together with his own children? What Hilary Mantel does here is taking Thomas More from the dais that history created for him and putting Thomas Cromwell there for us to admire. The essence of her work really comes out when Thomas More refuses to recognize the divorce of Henry VIII while knowing that that would be his death, and Cromwell argues:
Your undivided church has liked nothing better than persecuting its own members, burning them and hacking them apart when they stood by their own conscience, slashing their bellies open and feeding their guts to dogs. You call history to your aid, but what is history to you? It is a mirror that flatters Thomas More. But I have another mirror, I hold it up and it shows a vain and dangerous man, and when I turn it about it shows a killer, for you will drag down with you God knows how many, who will only have the suffering, and not your martyr’s gratification.
Historically justified or not, I ended up liking Cromwell in spite of all his shrewdness, or at least admiring him for what he was:
But my sins are my strength, he thinks, the sins I have done, that others have not even found the opportunity of committing. I hug them close; they’re mine. Besides, when I come to judgment I mean to come with a memorandum in my hand: I shall say to my Maker, I have fifty items here, possibly more.
I gave Wolf Hall four stars, for entertaining me with all the 16th century details, and for the wonderful prose which makes it worth all the effort. But I will probably never read it again.