Wolf Hall & Bringing Up the Bodies

I decided to review Hilary Mantel’s books Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies together in order to avoid redundant comments. Eschew redundancy and don’t repeat yourself, I always say!

I liked both these books much better than I should have, taking into account the things I didn’t like about them. For one thing I was initially repulsed by her writing style, which I viewed as yet another affectation put on by people claiming to write “literature” instead of mere novels like lesser authors; I almost quit 3 pages into Wolf Hall. For another thing, I disagree VEHMENTLY with her depiction of several historical figures. Nevertheless, her books sucked me in and left me slightly forlorn when I was done with them because I wanted a third one to read. There is something about her descriptions, her adjectives, her metaphors, and her odd sentence constructions that makes the reader sink into the story … and isn’t that the purpose of a narrative?

Fair warning, I sometimes unknowing write in great swathes of spoilers. Flee now if spoilers will in any way wreck your enjoyment of the novels.



The books are written from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell, and while it is historically accurate for the most part in the things it includes, it also uses subtle but significant ‘omissions’ in the records and ascribes motivations to the protagonist that allows her to show him as a much better person than history would suggest he really was. She is right in remembering the nice things he did for people and the good care he took of his underlings, of course. He should be given his due. However, her story makes several of Cromwell’s actions and behaviors the result of noble motivations – his loyalty and love for Cardinal Wolsey as well as his sincere desire to serve the King and save his majesty from  the evil Boleyn family – when the more likely truth is that Cromwell was clawing his way to the top and always keeping in mind which side his bread was buttered on.

There were several sleight of hand techniques Mantel used to refigure Cromwell as less of a jerk than history records him as. First, she made Cardinal Wolsey a much better person than his actions indicate so that it would explain why Cromwell would avenge him. Secondly, she made the Boleyns and the men falsely executed for sleeping with Queen Anne much worse than reality could demonstrate, in order to make it completely justifiable that Cromwell helped the King murder them on trumped up charges. She even made it plausible that the Queen really WAS nailing half the court, which is complete twaddle. She also made Cromwell’s rise to power more about his merits and King Henry’s notice that it was about Anne’s patronage, so it wasn’t so shocking when Cromwell turned on Anne and stabbed her in the back. Mantel also whitewashed the behavior of men like Wriothesley and Rich, who were Cromwell’s assistants in the slaughter of Anne Boleyn, so it looked better for Cromwell that he worked with them. 

Furthermore, Mantel made Cromwell’s assistance to others way more noble than it really was. Cromwell wasn’t being a benevolent patron from kindness. Today’s “networking” and handshake deals among the Good Old Boys Club and “synergy” pales in comparison to the interlocking web of social connections, family responsibilities, and “favors” that held Henry’s court together. Cromwell helped family because it was understood that’s just what you DID, so they would help you later. He also aided others for the social status, quid pro quo, and the “fees” he collected from them that are more accurately described as bribes. He helped people out for the same reason the Godfather did; you paid him for it one way or the other.

There were other historical figures that I was happy to see Mantel depict. She made it blindingly obvious that Thomas More was no “saint”. I’m glad she pointed out that More enjoyed a nice Protestant torture session and subsequent human bonfire, and although he wasn’t quite as much of a hypocritical monster as she portrayed him as, he was certainly someone who deserved (in a karmic way) the chopping block. She also dug her claws into Katherina of Aragon. Henry’s first Queen is often lauded as loyal wife who was treated cruelly, but she was also the woman  who was willing to rip the country into pieces, let Henry break from the Church she claimed to adore, and was even willing to risk her daughter’s life rather than to relinquish her crown. That deserves at least a little condemnation in fictional prose, in my opinion.

Over all, I really enjoyed the books. Considering the irritation I felt toward her depiction of some characters and her laissiz-faire attitude toward grammatical convention and look-at-me-aren’t-I-clever prose, that is a powerful recommendation for the novels.

2 thoughts on “Wolf Hall & Bringing Up the Bodies

  1. Good review, although I think you’re overly harsh on Catherine of Aragon — she couldn’t possibly have seen where this would lead, and by the time Henry was deciding to declare independence and uproot the monasteries, she was long past having any influence on his actions. By choosing to pursue a route that would make their daughter illegitimate, he was also putting her in a much worse position than if he had chosen more conventional grounds which would have left Mary still legitimate. (Have you read Scarisbrick’s analysis of the annulment? Fascinating stuff).

    As for More, she wasn’t exactly the first to break the news that he liked a spot of Protestant-burning himself, but I thought that hinting at incest went beyond the pale. Charge him with what he did, don’t just throw the whole nasty book at him. Incidentally, I wonder if Cranmer’s penchant for burning Anabaptists and Sacramentarians will get an airing in the last book?

    1. I have read Scarisbrick but I think he doesn’t take into account that at ANY time Katherina could have taken the veil. When Henry married Anne and was separating form Rome, she could have reconciled him with the See even then by a tactful withdrawal. In religious practice, Henry was very, VERY Catholic dogmatically.

      I agree that Mantel went overboard on More. However, he is so overpraised in other narratives that for me it was almost “refreshing” to see him written as a creep!

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