Hilary Mantel is everywhere at the moment; there’s a documentary on the iplayer and Wolf Hall is back too, the series comprising the first two novels of the Cromwell trilogy. But it’s the third volume that I’m concerned with here. I’ve finally got my thoughts together to give you that long-promised review, so here it comes. Is it any good? Yes. Is it brilliant? Yes and double-yes. Does she deserve to get yet another Booker, making it a hat trick? Well, it’s a hard thing to pull off and it depends on the competition but I’d say she’s earned it, so yes again.
Why is it so good? Well, first of all there’s the character of Cromwell. Mantel has set herself a huge challenge here, to make us love the ostensibly unlovable Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s fixer who at first sight seems to have the morals of an East End gangster. Son of a thoroughly abusive blacksmith, Cromwell is taken under the wing of Cardinal Wolsey, whom he serves till the Cardinal’s downfall. Then, through a mixture of guile, bluntness and sheer hard work, he becomes Henry’s fixer, engineering his marriage to Anne Boleyn and then to his two successive wives.
The novel opens with Anne Boleyn on the scaffold, kneeling in prayer as she awaits the axe; and it continues in the same vein. It is strewn with brutal state-sanctioned murders of which beheadings are the most benign, followed by hangings, then hangings-drawings-and-quarterings and finally burnings at the stake, which can be better or worse depending on the type of wood used and how dry it is. Cromwell witnesses his first burning as a child and it marks him for life.
So how does Mantel get us to love this singularly unlovable character? She does so by making him a democrat; an egalitarian. Cromwell has risen from lowly surroundings and although in serving the King he serves his own ambition, he is generous to his social inferiors, promoting those with ability, treating women as his equals and allowing his daughters to marry whom they wish. Tragically both wife and daughters die early on from a fever, another reminder of the omnipresence of death in Tudor society. Cromwell’s democratic instincts also lead him to passionately promote Tyndale’s New Testament, a dangerous undertaking which challenges the authority of the priests. Cromwell may be modern but he is not modernised: he believes strongly in God and wants people to be able to read His word in their own language.
We know the main thrust of the story of course: divorced-beheaded-died-divorced-beheaded-survived is imprinted on our childhood memories. But it’s the details we don’t know: the small beer drunk for breakfast, the prayers said at noon and at dusk, the Lenten fast, the stinking rivers, the rushes on the floor thrown out and renewed daily; the smell of the privy and the stench of Henry’s infected leg. But one of the most fascinating details for me was the HA-HAs: not the sunken hedges so popular in the 18th century but decorations with Henry and Anne’s initials intertwined. These had been put up in all the King’s houses like Christmas tinsel and of course they all had to be removed on her death, down to the very last one. Henry cannot be reminded of his murdered wife, now that he hopes to court another.
The first part of the novel deals with the machinations needed to bring Jane Seymour to court and Cromwell’s attempts to reconcile the King to his daughter Mary. He is successful in both these endeavours and as we know the King marries Jane Seymour. But the marriage only lasts a few years as she too dies, so off Cromwell goes once more to seek another suitable bride. What is clear from these machinations is not only the religious contortions necessary to reconcile Henry’s actions with church doctrine (these would not be out of place under Stalin) but also the way women are traded and moved about like pieces on a chess board purely for the purposes of breeding. It’s a genteel world on the outside but brutal on the inside. Speaking of Stalin there’s a moment reminiscent of The Death of Stalin where Henry collapses and appears to have died and Norfolk unwisely goes about shouting and proclaiming himself as heir. ‘Me! Me!’ It’s a farcical, almost comic moment – and by the way, if you haven’t seen The Death of Stalin I urge you to rectify that omission immediately. I think it’s still on Netflix.
After a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing involving painting of portraits by Holbein so each could see what the other looked like (no Tinder in those days) the King is induced to select Anne of Cleves as his next wife. Unfortunately illness spoils her looks and careful contriving is necessary to present her properly to the King. But Henry ruins all by his impetuosity; he rides out to meet her on the way and bursts in to surprise her. The meeting is not a success, and neither is the marriage. Soon another divorce is in the offing.
But does Henry blame himself for being so precipitate? Of course not, he blames Cromwell; and from the moment of that unhappy meeting Cromwell’s days are numbered. He is taken to the Tower and questioned to prove some sort of heresy as a pretext for his murder; questioning to which he submits calmly, only asking as to the manner of his death. Thankfully it is beheading, the most merciful of all the options – but even so he remarks as he ascends the scaffold that the executioner appears drunk. Not a good sign.
And so ends Cromwell and the trilogy.
And this review. Go read the book; available at all good outlets. Just don’t give Amazon any more money because I think they have enough.