First off, I find the whole notion of the monarchy - any monarchy - absurd. And also, despite being a citizen of a Commonwealth nation with Her Royal Majesty's mug plastered all over my bills and coins, the Union Jack incorporated into my provincial flag, and a mom who dragged me out of bed at 4 a.m. to watch Lady Diana, Princess of Wales walk to her doom - err, groom - I am not, nor have I ever been, a monarchist.
I honestly don't remember what kind of history I was taught in school, but the Royal Lineage (aren't you supposed to capitalize everything to do with Them? or is that just God?) wasn't, as I recall, on the curriculum or more likely, I wasn't paying attention if it was.
So - entering this book - tea-soaked brain and lover of the superfluous 'u' in labour, favour, rigour, honour aside - I was a blank slate. All I know of Henry VIII is that he had and had killed a lot of wives and you need a big ole' turkey leg as a prop if you're planning a Hallowe'en costume.
I loved Wolf Hall
. And, I'm going to talk about why, but let me start with the caveat that Simon E's review
(which convinced me to read this) and also Clif H's
and David G's
will give you more and better insights into a lot of what makes this book so fabulous, i.e., the nuance and energy of the writing, the detail and precision of it, and - in short - what it's about.
'Coz all that is important, but while I cared about it (and especially, the knotty problem of the non-specific third-person, which I *will* comment on shortly), that's not what mattered to me.
Thomas Cromwell mattered (matters) to me.
So I'm going to talk about character - and specifically Thomas Cromwell - and that's pretty much all I'm going to talk about because for me: he was the book; the book was him. It's as though Mantel had to wrestle him onto the page, he's so big. I totally understand - as pointed out in The Atlantic's
recent blurb about Bring Up The Bodies - why she decided to extend this book into a series - and ended up needing three books to get through his life.
She can't leave the guy. And I didn't want to, either.
Now - here's where my lack of English history comes in: I have no idea who he is, who he really is (does anyone?) nor have I read anything else about him, biographical or fictional. Although I was provoked to learn more about him at about the point where Mantel started to hint around at him getting remarried and I wondered, to whom? among the lucky dames swirling about him, all of whom seemed eager to get a piece of the mighty fine Mr. Cromwell, even though he "looks like a murderer."
Mantel portrays him as a man of massive charisma, a 16th-century James Bond, smooth, suave, eminently capable and a little dangerous, his vast knowledge stemming from sources unknown but slightly shady. Cromwell can judge the quality of a Turkish rug, spatchcock a songbird, and kill a man with a single knife twist all before cocktail hour and without breaking a sweat.
In terms of seeking more in the way of biography (with some need to reconcile Mantel's portrayal with reality - but, I now think, why?) I only went as far as wikipedia. There, I learned with some sadness what eventually became of him. Ceridwen said somewhere about reading books about The Plague that it's always so horrible because you know how it's going to end, that everyone is going to die, but it still hits you like a ton of bricks when they do.
But Cromwell doesn’t die here, nor does Boleyn, although a lot of other people do – and in some pretty horrifying ways. Burning, disembowelling – Mantel doesn’t flinch when presenting the many and gruesome deaths – and more to the point, she has her readers contemplate them in the same way that the condemned are: showing us scenes of anticipation and preparation that are gut-wrenching (e.g., the fellow - I forget his name, starts with a B - and the candle in the Tower), but which are also necessary to put us in the middle of this world, and feel for these characters deeply; to understand how a thoughtless word, a loyalty held too long, a momentary lapse in correctly sensing the shift in weather and whim can lead to ruin.
And, in the process, making Cromwell’s accomplishments all the more stunning.
With the single exception, perhaps, of Cromwell (who sticks out like a sore thumb; he's somehow different
than the rest of these people; more 'modern'), it doesn't matter who you are, how hard you work, or what natural abilities you possess. None of these bears a direct correlation to fame, fortunes or outcome. It only matters who you are born to, whose favour you curry or attract, and what role the powerful want you to play in their chess game.
What Mantel is showing us is the rise and fall from power of each of the most significant characters during this volatile time. The opportunities seized, alliances forged, compromises made on the way up – and how they unravel on the way down.
Politics. Whether power is obtained by divine right or democracy, the humans at the heart of it – across time – are the same creatures, with lusts, greed, principles and passions for money, for sex, for respect, for domination.
This is politics and history lifting off the page through the most extraordinary characterization – humanization, really. This is absolutely the best that historical fiction can be.
Let me also talk about dialogue just a bit: it, too, is almost anachronistically modern. It’s especially so when it comes out of Cromwell's mouth. It's modern in the sense that it is dry, ironic, sarcastic, humorous and most of all egalitarian. When Thomas has a conversation with someone – but especially his wife and children – he is listening
. He is listening with his heart and head wide open to other people’s feelings and desires, and with an empathy born out of his own abusive past. That is if not the
key, certainly a
key to understanding his personality.
He has a psychotherapist’s ability to understand motivation: what people want, why they want it, how far they’ll go to get it. And then, he has an opportunist’s ability to insert himself in exactly the place he needs to be to help them do it.
This dual- (tri, quadri-?) sided, chameleon-like personality – will the real Thomas Cromwell please stand up? – is Mantel’s incredible, extraordinary accomplishment here.
He made me nervous. I had my sociopath-sniffer on full alert. He reminded me, at times, of personalities I’ve encountered in the corporate world: snakes in suits. All charm and manipulation and laser-like, greed-headed, power-seeking opportunism. They disguise their lust for power behind facile arguments about “win-win-win” and “trickle-down” scenarios and "their employees being their greatest assets," when really, they'd sell their own mothers for a shot at a C-level title and all the accoutrements that come with. They manage up and abuse down.
But Cromwell – largely by virtue of the brain-busting non-specific third person POV that Mantel uses to bring us inside his head – is not a sociopath. Yep – he’s an opportunist. Yep – he’s a manipulator. But he’s not cruel. He does not use his extrasensory perception about people without compassion or kindness. Mantel shows us a Cromwell trying to get everyone what they need, help them position themselves appropriately - but some can't be saved. Some are going to be casualties of the bigger shift he sees coming.
Also: he loves - really loves - children and animals (showing him with all those little dogs named Bella is not accidental).
When Cromwell wins, it actually is true that a whole bunch of other people win – and those who don’t (Thomas More, e.g.), are not just on the wrong side of the power elite, but on the wrong side of the wave that is about to swamp this society: a reformation of manners, morality and social structure that will, eventually, triumph. As Cromwell envisions.
There is a clear, strong sense here that Cromwell does not do what he does for personal gain (or at least, not primarily for that – that’s a happy artifact), but because he’s pursuing that vision of a meritocratic democracy in which beat-up little boys and used-and-abused little girls can grow up and get a share of the nation’s massive wealth (throughout much of his own lifetime, held by the Church).
Ok, maybe that’s overstating it. His own vision, while expansive, while prescient, may not have been that progressive. But ... then again ... in both subtle and overt ways, we see Cromwell who is a man out of his own time, a notion that Mantel deliberately heightens through his style of dialogue, and his very thoughts which we are privy to via that third-person POV.
He wanted to wrest the wealth away from the Church so the King could have it – but he ALSO realized that transferring the full weight of power previously held by the Church onto the King would be like cutting off your nose to spite your face. Instead, he wanted the power of the King to be supported by the will of the people. He foresaw not only the religious reformation that had to occur, but the political one: that together, these were the seeds of a constitutional monarchy that would rule only through the political will of the people.
It is as though Mantel reverse-engineered the guy. I feel she must have said to herself: what kind of man would be able to engineer a precedent-shattering divorce for Henry VIII, the English Reformation – oh, and while we’re at it, the beginning of the English Parliamentary system? She knew it wasn’t Henry VIII himself – that someone else must have been the man behind the curtain, and that someone was Thomas Cromwell.
So she built him – layer by layer, scene by scene. Starting on the first page, where the first paragraph shows him being beaten viciously by his father. We start with Thomas Cromwell as an abused child.
I cannot emphasize this enough. He is an abused child who grows up to have deep compassion and exhibit remarkable kindness in a world that is, to our modern eyes, inconceivably cruel. The psychology of that can play out in any number of ways, but the horrific abuse and abandonment that Cromwell experienced is the crucible out of which his personality and all his later acts were forged.
He is a man deeply in love with his first (and only?) wife, whom he treats as an equal.
He is a tradesman, a businessman and a believer that, like him, all men have within them the same abilities. And so he is also a mentor and a teacher to them. (There is an extraordinary scene of him with a young boy that Thomas More had horrifically abused, breaking down with Cromwell. It is brilliant. I forget the character’s name now, maybe he was someone who went on to do something great in history. Or maybe he wasn’t; doesn't matter. It is Cromwell's connection with him that matters.) How many young men, pseudo-sons, does he take under his wing - orphans, ruffians, of low birth just like him?
He’s a self-made man whose lack of rank in this society presents a constant hurdle but also offers him the ability to see an alternate reality.
He’s an accountant, a lawyer, a biblical scholar. He follows the money, he makes the laws and he outreasons the priests and bishops with superior knowledge not only of scripture, but of how to use it to galvanize the masses. Calling him a ‘renaissance man’ – a descriptor Henry VIII claimed for himself – would be underselling him.
What he is not: a liar, a bully, a thief, or a sociopath.
And also what he is not is principled: he really doesn’t have any of his own. Loyalty, maybe; but not at the cost of his own skin or fortunes. He was absolutely tortured by the downfall of his mentor Cardinal Wolsley, but he also cold-bloodedly extricated himself from going down with him despite the personal trauma it caused him.
And that is where Thomas Cromwell differs from most of us: he serves whichever master will enable him to execute his own vision, almost entirely BECAUSE he has no dogma of his own (Groucho Marx: “Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others.”) He is surprised when, twice, he offers condemned traitors (including Thomas More) a way out, and they don’t take it – standing firm on their own dogmatic allegiance to principle. This is Cromwell’s biggest blindspot – also, the thing that enables him to survive.
I have Bring Up The Bodies sitting right in front of me. I don’t know how long I’m going to be able to delight in the anticipation and delay my gratification.