Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Tips on How to Read Wolf Hall

I don't know anyone who has finished "Wolf Hall". Most of my friends (as you would expect) are avid readers, but all of them say things like: " I couldn't follow it", or "You didn't know who was who, or who was speaking", or simply "I found it unreadable".

Finally, four years after publication (Wolf Hall won the Man Booker Prize in 2009), and three years after I bought and stashed away my hardback copy, it has at last reached the top of my "to-read" pile.

First tip - Read "Bring Up the Bodies" first.  (Thanks are due for this tip to my young friend and ex-work-colleague who took a first in History, but still couldn't make it through WH).  She said that BUTB is easier, and I certainly agree with her.  I didn't have any problems with it and it eased me into the mind-set of the author's way of writing, and her intentions.  Also, I was disappointed when it ended, and therefore actively looking forward to reading WH.  Although WH comes first, of course, and BUTB follows on, both chronologically and in the author's order of writing.

Second tip- Watch "The White Queen" first, and read at least one of the four novels on which the series is based.  You don't need to read all of them because they each take a different character's point of view of essentially the same events.  Maybe not "The Lady of the Rivers", though, because that one is slightly earlier in time.  The best two books in my opinion are "The Red Queen" and "The White Queen".

The reason for my second tip is as follows:

Philippa Gregory's historical novels are much, much easier to read than WH or BUTB, and you can easily get into the period via these novels.  The period of course being the one immediately prior to the Tudors.  In fact Henry VIII's father, Henry Tudor, is a major character in the Philippa Gregory series.  You get to know him, and his extremely stubborn, single-minded and obsessive mother, Margaret Beaufort.  Don't forget she was H8's grandmother on the Lancaster, (or Red) side.  And they introduce you to his grandfather (on the York side, the white side of the Tudor Rose).  This was Edward IV, and once you have met him, you see how much H8 took after him.  Physically, both were very tall, very golden, very good-looking, very charming, and very athletic and strong - in their youth.  Both put on weight, ran to fat, and became more self-centred and ruthless in middle age.

A further crucial similarity is that Edward IV, controversially, married an English commoner, for love.  And even more interestingly, that particular woman refused to be his mistress, and held out for marriage or nothing.  And another similarity is that the existence of a "pre-contract" or earlier marriage (which happened before the one universally recognised), later emerged as a reason why the public marriage was declared legally invalid.  And when it did emerge, the children of the public marriage were declared to be bastards.  And someone else took the throne on that presumption.  (The infamous Richard III, but I am not going there). 

So all that sets the scene, and gives a background for the character and behaviour of H8, and the background of civil unrest and war which explains the ruthlessness of the Tudors in executing anyone who set up as a rival claimant to the throne.  The history of the "Wars of the Roses" and the "Princes in the Tower" also explain the Tudors'  absolute obsession with the production of adult male heirs. 

Third tip - Read and study the family trees which are laid out at the beginning of WH, and insert pencilled notes about the characters based on what you have learned from the study of the "Wars of the Roses" period.  Keep a bookmark in the family trees page, and refer to it as often as needed.

Fourth tip - Have some history books to hand.  My recommendations are as follows:

"The House of Tudor" by Alison Plowden.  This gives an excellent overview of each of the Tudor monarchs as they follow on from the Plantagenets, and has further helpful family trees.

"The Six Wives of Henry VIII" by Antonia Fraser.  The really excellent and meticulous fact-gathering of this work help you to navigate through the politics both national, international and religious.  You can use the index to help you sort out the many Thomas's appearing in WH. You can look up the differences between Thomas Wolsey, Thomas Cranmer (both churchmen) and Thomas Cromwell, (linked to both, and the central persona of WH and BUTB). 

In a similar vein, the last of the Plantagenets are confusingly called "The Poles", (descended from George Duke of Clarence, he who drowned in the butt of Malmesy wine), and the "de la Poles" (descended from a sister of Edward IV, also sister to Clarence and Richard III).  You can look these names up in the history books to clarify who is who, and amend the family trees with further information.

Antonia Fraser's chapters on Anne Boleyn herself recount many of the events described in Wolf Hall, in the same order, so you can go there for verification of what is going on.  And lastly, perhaps most importantly, Antonia Fraser gives impeccable reference notes, and lists her sources exhaustively.  So, for example, you learn that Wriothesley, an irritating minor character in WH and BUTB, has a cousin who is the author of a "Chronicle of England" and hence a source.  Likewise, the rather shadowy minor character George Cavendish, Wolsey's servant, turns out to have written a biography of Wolsey which is heavily used by AF as a source document.  This is heaven for a person who likes checking things.  Novels, of course, don't have an index!

Fifth tip - don't read it as a page-turner - it isn't. Take your time.  Savour the language, and the historic detail, which you will recognise from the history books.  Enjoy the "inside" knowledge which you are gleaning, ostensibly from the mind of the person there at the time, Thomas Cromwell, but in fact from works of history and the benefit of hindsight.  Enjoy this god-like feeling of both knowing what is going to happen next, and having an imaginative insight into the thoughts and feelings of those present at the scene.  This is where Hilary Mantel really excels.  Her imagination recreates scenes with such realism, but simultaneously with such emotion and feeling - the latter qualities of course are  completely absent from sixteenth century historical records.  It is this skill which, I think, is what makes people feel sad when they have finished the book, and thirst for more.

As I did after finishing "Bring up the Bodies".


  1. Oh I am so glad to read this today. I tried another page of WH today and am determined to finish it at some point. I do enjoy it and have tried over and over again to get back into it...but sometimes I just seem to ......come adrift! It is on my kindle/phone/bookshelf so I must persevere. I also have the hard back BUTB which was a Christmas present last year from my daughter, so we shall see if I can 'do them both' at some point!

  2. I do recommend reading BUTB first! Good luck with project anyway x

  3. I'm afraid you've both confirmed me in my view that I shan't try! Pathetic I know, but I read for pleasure and page turning...

    1. Oh don't worry. I have owned the book three years before feeling ready to open it!

  4. What interesting advice! I have WH but haven't even attempted to start it yet. Perhaps I'll delay and do as you suggest.

    I've been enjoying looking at your blog - your story of the ruined Christmas cake made me laugh and reminded me of when we'd recently moved to our first house. We were very poor, but I made a special angel-food cake for my husband's birthday, and put it on the top shelf of the larder to hide it from him until we were ready for it. During the evening an ancient pipe burst upstairs and the larder ceiling fell in on the cake...

    1. Welcome! and I am pleased you enjoyed visiting. Your cake story does indeed sound very similar to mine - common themes being poverty and ancient houses!

  5. Thanks for the advice. It is as you referred to some saying, very difficult to follow. Ive had to put it down as I’m not in the state of mind to really focus. Maybe will read “Bring up the bodies first”