Serious Tudor Fiction

It's hardly an understatement to say that historical fiction fans the world over were rejoicing this past year when Hilary Mantel's epic Tudor-era novel Wolf Hall won the 2009 Man Booker Prize for fiction.

Despite A Reader's Respite's love-hate relationship (okay, mostly hate) with previous Booker-winning novels, we weren't going to miss out on this one.

Our thoughts?

Mantel chose probably one of the most enigmatic players of Tudor England, the oft-vilified Thomas Cromwell, to explore the court of Henry VIII. Cromwell, who deftly weaves between memories of his childhood and present 16th-century day, is presented as a tolerant, wise lawyer with a business acumen unsurpassed in his time.

the man of mystery himself, Thomas Cromwell

Born a mere commoner into abject poverty, Cromwell rose through the ranks of the Tudor court in meteoric fashion. The right-hand man of Cardinal Wolsey, himself the son of a butcher, Cromwell deftly avoided the Cardinal's sad fate by delivering to Henry VIII precisely what the Cardinal could not: a divorce from Katherine of Aragon.

Wolsey appears in the pages as benevolent, if slightly bewildered by the unexpected rise of Anne Boleyn. "...Anne is not a carnal being, she is a calculating being, with a cold slick brain at work behind her hungry black eyes." After his demise at the hands of the Boleyn family, Cromwell becomes the go-to man of Henry himself and facilitates England's break with the Pope and the Church of Rome.
for such a tiny thing, she sure caused a lot of trouble, didn't she?

And while the reader certainly becomes a part of Cromwell's life, it should not be mistaken that this novel is entirely about Thomas Cromwell. The novel is, in point of fact, a full-fledged portrait of the Henry VIII's court: the characters, the intrigue and the political backroom deals where fortunes were made and heads were lost. "There's no man in the room who doesn't want Henry to have what he wants. Their lives and fortunes depend on it."

The Duke of Norfolk ("If you tell Norfolk anything, he will twist it into treason.") skips nimbly across the pages, a coarse man full of bluster, while Thomas More is bent on ecclesiastical vengeance, determined to stamp out the Protestant tidal wave sweeping Europe: "He would chain you up, for a mistranslation. He would, for a difference in your Greek, kill you."

Thomas More, the scourge of Protestants everywhere

Harry Norris, Thomas Wyatt, Mary Boleyn, Stephen Gardiner, Charles Brandon all feature prominently and are, for the student of Tudor history, a veritable feast of characters.

Overflowing with period detail and a droll wit, this is not an introductory novel to the Tudors. The sheer volume of characters and the depth of their motivations make this a complex story better suited, or at least most enjoyed, by those who have a good grasp of the historical players of the time.

Even before he walks in from the kitchens at Austin Friars, the women of the house know that he has been so see Anne.
"So," Johane demands. "Tall or short?"
"I'd heard she was very tall. Sallow, is she not?"
"Yes, sallow."
"They say she is graceful. Dances well."
"We did not dance."
Mercy says, "But what do you think? A friend to the gospel?"
He shrugs. "We did not pray."
"Are her teeth good?" Mercy says.
"For God's sake, woman: when she sinks them into me, I'll let you know."

A Reader's Respite thought the novel was, quite simply, brilliant.

Word on the street is that Mantel will produce a sequel to Wolf Hall, one that continues to follow Cromwell's rise to power vis-a-vis Henry's marriage to his third wife, Jane Seymour, which will produce the long-awaited male heir to the Tudor throne.

Required FTC Disclosure: This novel was furnished to A Reader's Respite by a publicist. It was drooled over and devoured in a most un-ladylike manner and remains on our permanent bookshelf, drool and all.


  1. I know very little about that time period, so that book may not be for me. Glad you enjoyed it so much, though!

  2. I want this book! I'm hoping you accidentally drop it out of the plane on your next flyby over my house!

  3. Wow -- sounds like a must read for a Tudor freak like me.

    Happy new year!

  4. Oh, good! Glad to hear you liked it. I have this one on my to-read list, and thanks for not giving away your drool-covered copy :)

  5. I love to be involved with books that create a buzz, and this one definitely has. But I know virtually nothing about this era (and frankly, the author's picture in Bookmarks this month gave me nightmares) so I've been scared to touch it...

  6. I LOVED this book! I love Hilary Mantel, too. She rocks my socks with all her books, particularly A Place of Greater Safety.

  7. Love the review Michele. I think you have given me the final push I need to pick this one up.

  8. I really need to put this one on my list to be read.... Good review!!!

  9. I've heard wonderful things about this novel from everyone that has read it. I've placed a request for it through my library. Thanks for the review!

  10. I got this for Christmas and I'm beyond excited to read it, you're just making me even more so!

  11. Alrighty then. Guess I'll have to look for this one when I go shopping with my Gift card next weekend. Darn it. I was hoping you'd hate it, but with everyone seemingly loving this one I guess I'd better get on the band wagon!

  12. Glad you enjoyed it! I thought it was brilliant too.

  13. I really want to read this book. I have heard so much good about it, and this makes me even more looking forward to read it.
    Oh, and happy new year!

  14. I love the excerpts you shared! I'm not the biggest fan of historical fiction but this might even be of interest to me (even though I'm "unschooled" in the period, I feel like I'm learning a lot just by reading your blog).

  15. I've borrowed this from the library a couple of times but I have decided that it isn't really a book that you can read with a deadline. One day I will buy it and read it.

  16. Interesting. I liked all the quotes and pictures too, great review!

  17. I have a little knowledge of the Tudors. You make this book sound very appealing though. I might just have to pick this one up. Happy New Year!

  18. I'm determined to read this book in January, but thanks for the advice about brushing up on history. I know next to nothing about this time period, so I'll review before I dig in. Thanks!

  19. So glad to read your review of this wonderful book. I can hardly wait for part 2 too. Loved having the opportunity to hate Thomas More--Mantel made him quite deliciously self-important, didn't she. And I must confess to an unhealthy fascination with Norfolk. He deserves his own book, I think.

  20. Cate - couldn't agree more re: Norfolk. I once found a non-fiction book that traced the folks who have held the title over the centuries, but it was dry enough to put you in a coma. I would be happy if Mantel spent the rest of her writing career just writing one HF novel after the other....she's brilliant!


Fire away!