Posted by: ranjitratnaike | December 16, 2016

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel: Lessons for Writers

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

What can a writer learn?


I was a sad parting when I finished reading all 640 pages of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (Fourth Estate, 2009). The book shines with Mantel’s superbly elegant prose and I understand why she won the Man Booker Prize in 2009.

Thomas Cromwell, a blacksmith’s son achieves greatness through qualities, which will enrich us all.   He recognizes and measures accurately his own value, power, and that of both his friends and enemies.  He is cleverly and always polite to those he dislikes.  He has a formidable intellect and capacity for work and is unfailingly honest in his opinions.  Cromwell does not regard loyalty as a fragile virtue which he abandons for personal gain. Those who know him, admire him above all for his enduring love and respect for Cardinal Wolsey, now out of favour with Henry VIII, who is infatuated with Anne Boleyn.

Mantel’s clever ability to display in Cromwell his astuteness to judge the strength of a relationship is a fascinating aspect of this great work.
A well-published, famous  author can enjoy many privileges even with their writing style.
In Wolf Hall,  Mantel uses ‘Says’ almost always instead of ‘said’ or ‘replied.’ This  repetitiveness is irritating, tiring and would compel the reader as it did me to why she disdains, ‘said’ or ‘replied?’


She is unrivalled in describing eye movements and writers can learn much from her exquisite descriptions.

I accommodated other irritating features as I enjoyed the wonderful prose. For example, she begins a paragraph about Henry VIII who she rightly refers to as ‘he. ’ In the same paragraph, a sentence or two later ‘he’ refers Cromwell! Confusing.  Once I recognized and accepted this unusual peculiarity, I became tolerant to this ‘burr. ‘An example is on page 591, ‘He stands….’.  A recurrent distraction associated with this relentless oddity was why the editor let this pass! Perhaps mantel was stubborn or the editor asleep.  The book is 590 pages long.

The story has a vast number of characters strolling, many aimlessly, through it.  There are 95 listed under ‘CAST OF CHARACTERS.’ Apart from editors in publishing houses and professional book reviewers, most of us lack the luxury of reading a book in one sitting. Though I read the book everyday, (and not yet a victim of dementia with recent memory loss), apart from the few main characters it was tedious referring to the front of the book for information on a minor characters. Many are irrelevant.

I often wondered if the editor was over awed my Hilary Mantel and not said: 1. There are too many insignificant minor characters buzzing around and distracting the reader. 2. Do we really need to know the names of the two inconsequential ladies-in-waiting and the four gentlemen attending the king who were not distinguishable by their speech or actions?

Was it a good book? It was a great book. Would I recommend it to my friends? Only to a few! Why is it titled Wolf Hall, which is home of Jane Seymour? Perhaps a teaser to read the next book?


What can a writer learn from Wolf Hall?

  1. Editors may defer to great authors by not urging them improve what they have written. This diminishes good writing if the editor’s comments are sensible.
  2. Great authors enjoying fame and wealth and acclaim, may insist they know than an editor with a good reputation.  This may lean towards narcissism. The narcissist among other character flaws believes he or she knows more than others know and therefore scorns advice.
  3. How ever famous you are, remember that your writing style may irritate readers and there is no virtue in making your book a ‘difficult’ read.
  4.  Every character may be familiar, loved dearly by the author.  But ask yourself these questions:
  1. Why is this character included?
  2. Does he or she add to the story line?
  3. Does he or she help us understand or add ‘color’ to the main characters?
  4.  Is remembering these minor characters annoying and detracting from the joy of reading the book?
  5. Is the annoyance they generate compounded (as in Wolf Hall) because their actions and speech patterns are indistinguishable?
  6. Are these characters nonentities (defined as, persons of no importance of significance)?
  7. Must you imitate Hilary Mantel and make readers grind their molars by using ‘Says’ almost always, and perversely ignore those two most useful words, ‘said,’ and ‘replied?’
  8. Do you want to learn to describe eye movements? Hilary Mantel’s descriptions are masterly.

If you wonder why professional reviewers may not have made the criticisms or mentioned the annoyances I have, please read Hans Christian Anderson’ The Emperor’s New Clothes (1831) or view it (13 minutes), on YouTube at



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