I spent a lot of time with Thomas Cromwell in July, and now that he's gone away, I miss him.
My quest to read all the Man Booker Prize winners led me to Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012), both by Hilary Mantel. I'm not a big fan of historical novels in general, nor am I well-versed in the politics and romances of Henry VIII in 1520s England and Europe. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed these two books.
Mantel's portrayal of Thomas Cromwell stands out as a major factor in my enjoyment. Wolf Hall opens with a savage scene in which the teenaged Cromwell receives a beating from his father, but (fortunately for me, as I was not looking forward to any more scenes like that) the beating motivates Cromwell to leave home, launching him on the winding road of his political career. It's the first of many personal incidents that inform Cromwell's public life. Somehow, in Mantel's portrayal, Cromwell keeps a core of kindness and compassion for those closest to him, not to mention random strangers, while moving in the highest, most precarious, most vicious political circles. This humanity saves Cromwell from being just another political tool sans moral compass and these novels from being just another rehash of historical events.
Wolf Hall tells the story of Henry VIII's obsession with producing a male heir, an obsession with huge political, personal, and religious implications. Henry's insistence on annulling his marriage to Katherine of Aragon, freeing him to marry Anne Boleyn, creates ripples across England and across Europe. As Henry's advisor, Cardinal Wolsey, descends from favor, Cromwell's influence grows. It's a tribute to Cromwell's genius and subtlety that he's able to remain personally loyal to his mentor Wolsey while becoming one of Henry's most trusted counselors.
Bring Up the Bodies continues the saga. Henry has waited seven difficult years -- while his personal desires destabilize international alliances and destroy religious institutions -- to marry Boleyn. However, prize achieved, he becomes disenchanted with her rather quickly, due to the same qualities of wit and willfulness that he initially found irresistible. Even more importantly from a political perspective, she seems unable to produce a male heir. At Henry's request, Cromwell engineers Boleyn's fall, while Henry's fancy turns to Jane Seymour. Regardless of my modern-day disapproval of Henry's behavior and the power of monarchy, Mantel manages to leave me in awe of Cromwell's smooth political machinations. And he's just so darn likeable, even while using Henry's request to seek revenge upon Wolsey's enemies. Amidst the events of his political life, Cromwell's personal memories, motivations, and pleasures remain part of the story.
At times, Mantel compresses a lot of action and meaning into a few paragraphs. At other times, she draws an incident out at length, giving its implications time to sink in -- a very important skill when court intrigues are involved, as they often are. The result is a novel that breathes, expanding and contracting as the story unwinds. Domestic events in the Cromwell household intertwine with the historical record, adding contrast, richness, and depth. Mantel has a knack for making characters come alive.
My enjoyment of Mantel's storyline may have been enhanced by my relative ignorance of the details of Henry VIII's time. If I knew more about the chain of events or that era in general, perhaps I might have noticed something inaccurate. (There are certainly those who feel her work is a rehabilitation of Cromwell that he doesn't deserve.) However, Mantel is such a masterful writer, clearly in control of her craft, that I doubt she makes any significant errors. Her cultural references are effortlessly natural; she portrays the times without ever appearing to insert detail just for effect.
Others have remarked on one stylistic difficulty with Mantel's writing: her tendency to use an untethered "he," making the reading a bit difficult in places. "He" is almost always Cromwell himself, which blends first person and third person nicely when it gives the reader intimate access to his thoughts and feelings. But occasionally "he" is someone else in the very next sentence -- and that brings you up short in a passage, requiring a pause to figure out who is speaking or being described. Mantel helps sometimes by saying "He, Cromwell," an effective if somewhat clumsy method of clarification. Overall, it's not a major sticking point. Over hundreds of pages, you get used to it.
Weeks after finishing these novels, I am still thinking about Cromwell. Fortunately Mantel plans to write another novel about the remainder of his life. Whether her sympathetic portrayal is accurate or not, it's been a long time since I enjoyed the company of such an intelligent, charming, kind, dangerous character. Meeting such a person in fiction is nothing but pleasurable. Although in real life I would run fast and far from Cromwell, I look forward to seeing him again on the page.
(Crossposted from Hotchpot Cafe, where books are always on the menu but aren't the only fare.)
Excerpt, from a meeting with Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, at Cromwell's home:
The door opens; it is Alice bringing in lights. "This is your daughter?"
Rather than explain his family, he says, "This is my lovely Alice. This is not your job, Alice?"
She bobs, a small genuflection to a churchman. "No, but Rafe and the others want to know what you are talking about so long. They are waiting to know if there will be a dispatch to the cardinal tonight. Jo is standing by with her needle and thread."
"Tell them I will write in my own hand, and we will send it tomorrow. Jo may go to bed."
"Oh, we are not going to bed. We are running Gregory's greyhounds up and down the hall and making a noise fit to wake the dead."
"I can see why you don't want to break off."
"Yes, it is excellent," Alice says. "We have the manners of scullery maids and no one will ever want to marry us. If our aunt Mercy had behaved like us when she was a girl, she would have been knocked round the head till she bled from the ears."
"Then we live in happy times," he says.
When she has gone, and the door is closed behind her, Cranmer says, "The children are not whipped?"
"We try to teach them by example, as Erasmus suggests, though we all like to race the dogs up and down and make a noise, so we are not doing very well in that regard." He does not know if he should smile; he has Gregory; he has Alice, and Johane and the child Jo, and in the corner of his eye, at the periphery of his vision, the little pale girl who spies on the Boleyns. He has hawks in his mews who move toward the sound of his voice. What has this man?
"I think of the king's advisers," Dr. Cranmer says. "The sort of men who are about him now."
And he has the cardinal, if the cardinal still thinks well of him after all that has passed.