Entertaining background reading for Wolf Hall
February 15, 2015 9:15 AM   Subscribe

So I recently read Hilary Mantel's old LRB piece on holy and secular anexoria, which reminded me of how much I like her style and insights in her non-fiction pieces and made me regret giving up on Wolf Hall a few years ago. Is there something on Tudor history that would help me enjoy Wolf Hall more?

So I suppose there are two questions here:

1) If I get more familiar with Tudor history, will I enjoy reading Wolf Hall more? Or is it always something of a difficult read?
2) Are there specific books on Tudor history that are a) helpful for introducing the period to someone who knows little/nothing about it and b) are themselves reasonably entertaining? I am looking specifically for something that will help me with Wolf Hall -- not histories of the UK from Alfred to the present, nor economic histories of the period, but ideally something that will introduce me to the period's political and social history.

I saw this past question which is too broad -- books on European history generally -- and this other question, which is broadly similar to my question but focuses on the TV show The Tudors. Neither are especially helpful for my questions.

Thanks all!
posted by crazy with stars to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
I haven't read Wolf Hall, but for your second question, I can recommend Alison Weir's books on the Tudor period. She tends to focus on specific monarchs, but she also does a good job of describing the political, social, economic, and religious environments in which they operated.
posted by neushoorn at 9:29 AM on February 15, 2015

neushoorn stole what I had typed out to say - so, seconding Alison Weir's non-fiction. That said, I didn't get through Wolf Hall, either, but I have a strong dislike for books that fictionalize real historical characters.
posted by something something at 9:30 AM on February 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Julia Fox's book, Jane Boleyn: The True Story of the Infamous Lady Rochford has been mentioned favorably by Hilary Mantel and it's one of the more interesting stories of the period.

I enjoyed Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, but I think the period is tough precisely because it's been so glamorized and people are so concerned with the personalities. I had a customer in the bookstore say that her teenage daughter and her friends look up to Anne Boleyn as a kind of proto-feminist figure. To them, she appears to have powerfully taken charge of her own life! It's kind of hard to see past this weird nachleben all the major figures have. In that sense I think Mantel's books are refreshing because they make you feel as if you are inside the actual people's heads.
posted by BibiRose at 9:39 AM on February 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

Susan Brigden's New Worlds, Lost Worlds is a reliable social and political history of Tudor England.
posted by brianogilvie at 9:52 AM on February 15, 2015

I read Wolf Hall after having seen and read A Man For All Seasons. I highly recommend doing the same. They provide such interesting, contrasting takes on Thomas More, Henry VIII, religion and politics in that era. It's fiction, but I suspect it's something Mantel was particularly aware of while writing.
posted by meese at 10:06 AM on February 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

For me, the thing that bumped Wolf Hall to the top of my to-read list was Mantel's lecture Royal Bodies, which brings together Marie Antoinette, the current Windsors, Henry VIII, and the weird things we do and don't expect from monarchs. It was rather controversial because Mantel spoke explicitly about Kate Middleton, the biological facts of her pregnancy, and the media fascination with it.
posted by Hypatia at 10:16 AM on February 15, 2015

Ooooh yes G. J. Meyers' the Tudors. Compulsively readable!
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:16 AM on February 15, 2015

(By the way I could not get through Wolf Hall despite a few earnest tries. I found the Meyers book I linked to, which is non fiction but highly opinionated, infinitely more vivid and engaging and informative. It includes context on institutions the monasteries in England that one really needs to understand in order to get the significance of Henry and Cromwell's actions.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:24 AM on February 15, 2015

1) If I get more familiar with Tudor history, will I enjoy reading Wolf Hall more? Or is it always something of a difficult read?

I loved Wolf Hall (and Bringing in the Bodies, to the point of planning to reread both soon) but there is no getting around that it is a difficult book in some ways. She is an amazing writer so I am sure that the difficulties are entirely deliberate, but it is totally valid to simply not have the book speak to you and move on to something that is written in a way that you find more engaging. Knowing the history will help in keeping the characters straight and in knowing where the story veers away from historical fact, but won't help at all with the other ways in which it is a difficult text.
posted by Dip Flash at 10:45 AM on February 15, 2015 [3 favorites]

This may be far too plebian for you but my entre to the Tudors and the crazy politics of that time was Anya Seton's historical romance Green Darkness, which I read at age 13. Seton turned out to be better respected than you would imagine so I've learned not to be embarrassed by my youthful obsession with her.

However, it is true that Wolf Hall is written in a unique voice and it can be hard to sink into. I've read it 2 or 3 Times and am currently listening to it as an audiobook for the second time. You could give that a try as the narrator is terrific.

It's starting to look like Wolf Hall is my favorite book of all time and yet I have trouble with A Place of Greater Safety. Mantel has a different voice/style for just about every book she writes, so I've learned that I can't predict which will grab me and which will take work to read.
posted by janey47 at 10:55 AM on February 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

There are two different difficulties involved in reading Wolf Hall. The first (and more tractable) is the alien nature of the period. The past is, as they say, a different country, and Mantel does very little to orient the reader. If you constantly find yourself getting lost trying to remember "Who is this person? Why are people grumbling about Henry's claim to the throne? And why for God's sake couldn't anyone come up with a name other than Thomas to name their children?" then I would recommend reading one of the histories recommended by the other posters. A good solid background in the political history of England in the 15th and 16th centuries will go a long way to making those things much easier to figure out.

But the other difficulty, which is less easily solved, is Mantel's structure and prose style itself. Mantel jumps back and forth through decades, following the reminisces of her subjects. Even at the level of the individual sentence, Mantel is intentionally gnomic, often leaving a sentence or even a whole paragraph vague as to who its actual subject is. Mantel is playing with a lot of heavy ideas about subjectivity and the fragmented nature of personal experience and recollection, and working them out directly in the form of the text. The resulting work is going to be tough sledding the first time around no matter how much background you have in the historical facts.

(And I say this as someone who absolutely loves Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, and found the work I put into them enormously rewarding. But if you don't find that sort of reading to be rewarding, that's fine. Life is too short to spend hours upon hours reading books you don't like.)
posted by firechicago at 11:34 AM on February 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

You might find Phillipa Gregory's take on the Tudors to be more accessible than Wolf Hall.

While I'm a big fan of Hilary Mantel's fiction in general, I hated Wolf Hall for the writing style. I'm also fairly studied in early modern English history, and I had a hard time keeping up with what the hell was going on in the story because it was so jumpy and truncated.
posted by mibo at 11:57 AM on February 15, 2015

Nthing Alison Weir! I think you also might like Antonia Fraser's The Wives of Henry VIII and, a more scholarly but still very accessible read, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn by Eric Ives.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 1:01 PM on February 15, 2015

You definitely get more out of Wolf Hall if you know the historical background. One tiny example: when the French ambassador says to Cromwell, 'One hears you have been painted, Maitre Cremuel. I too have been painted. You have seen the result?' he's referring to Holbein's painting The Ambassadors. Spotting these historical references is half the fun of the novel -- and once you begin to recognise them, you realise that every detail in Wolf Hall is there for a reason. You don't need a PhD in Tudor history to enjoy the novel, but you do need to pay attention, and be prepared to Google anything you don't understand.

The best introduction to the history behind the novel is David Starkey's biography of the young Henry VIII, Henry: Virtuous Prince. Don't just take my word for it: here's Hilary Mantel's review of the book, written before Wolf Hall came out: 'It is brilliant, beady-eyed history, and every page of it is has an intimate fascination .. His writing is uncluttered and conversational, and he cuts through the back-story - dynastic tangles, imposters, faction fights - with grace, clarity and wit.'

Colin Burrow's review of Wolf Hall is also worth reading. Not only does he identify Mantel's source material, he also shows how cleverly she reworks and adapts it. (Fun fact: Burrow is the son of the late great Diana Wynne Jones.) And if you're still curious to know where Mantel got it all from, read her appreciation of George Cavendish's life of Cardinal Wolsey: 'It is one of the earliest of English biographies, but it reads as much like a novel as like a life story, though it was written before the novel was invented .. [Cavendish] functioned as a textbook for me: Learn to Talk Tudor. I reread him till the rhythm of his prose was natural to me.'
posted by verstegan at 1:30 PM on February 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'm going to second reading/watching A Man for All Seasons, for literary rather than historical background--Wolf Hall is taking a whack at that version of Thomas More. In addition to Ives, Retha Warnicke's massively controversial biography of Anne Boleyn is also interesting, not because it's right but because Mantel harvests some of the conspiracy theories she floats about Anne's downfall for her own purposes. (Philippa Gregory's version of Anne and her fate is straight-up Warnicke.)

One of the things I noticed when I first read Wolf Hall and its sequel is that Mantel likes to toy with the reader by not writing up famous historical set-pieces at which Cromwell wasn't present (e.g., Wolsey's death, which gets a look-in in A Man for All Seasons). Paradoxically enough, that's another reason to know something about the historical background!
posted by thomas j wise at 1:46 PM on February 15, 2015

I have come to know Tudor history pretty well and I still can't get through Wolf Hall. The style just doesn't do it for me. I want to enjoy it but just can't.

In the fiction realm, you might enjoy Margaret George's Autobiography of Henry VIII. She also does a book on Elizabeth and on Mary, Queen of Scots if you'd like some later Tudor history.
posted by olinerd at 2:08 PM on February 15, 2015

I love love love Wolf Hall, but there are a lot of people to keep in your head. Seconding suggestions to read Phillipa Gregory, to get a grasp of who all the players are. In general though, Cromwell is a kind of difficult, shadowy character, I mean he's not a nice straightforward Anne Boleyn or anything. There's a BBC production of Wolf Hall that might be helpful too.
posted by mythical anthropomorphic amphibian at 3:02 PM on February 15, 2015

Eamon Duffy's The Stripping of the Altars is a very long but very excellent investigation of the religious and social context, process, and repurccussions of the Henrican reformation. The second part of the book is a detailed history of Henry's break with Rome, and includes examinations of the roles played by all the key religious and political figures in Henry's England (some of whom are central to Mantel's novel and some of whom are peripheral), and explores the tumultuous and far reaching results of their reforms and machinations. The first half of the book, while perhaps less obviously related to Mantel's work, is a vivid and unparalleled description of lay piety and religious life (what Duffy calls "traditional religion") prior to the break with Rome, which I think might be hugely important to you if you're interested in better understanding the massive stakes (political, religious, social, and personal) of Cromwell's legal/ecclesiastical "fixing", and just how much of a rupture with a traditional worldview these changes represented for the average lay person during Henry's reign. Duffy's work paints a very rich and very sympathetic picture of late medieval/early modern devotional life prior to the Reformation, and many of the themes and questions that Mantel is playing with in her novel have their roots in the same soil that Duffy is drawing on in his history, I think.

The book is loooooong and meticulously detailed, so whether or note you find it entertaining will be a matter of your tolerance for such things.
posted by Dorinda at 4:37 PM on February 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

I agree with those that say the issue for you might be a problem with style over the historical substance. I really enjoyed Wolf Hall, but it was a slog for maybe the first 200 pages. After that, and after accepting and embracing the fact that "He" ALWAYS means Cromwell no matter what, the characters were rich enough, the plot was thick enough, and it suddenly became a page-turner for me. Maybe keep at it?
posted by oneaday at 5:46 AM on February 16, 2015

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