Author: Hilary Mantel
Type: Fiction, novel
Part of series: Thomas Cromwell Trilogy (#1)
I read it: September 2014
This is a conversational review between Laura Byers and me. It was originally published on Levi & Laura.
Levi: Hear ye, hear ye! Let it be known that Mssr. Levi and Mdme. Laura completed a lengthy tome on the nonce! Should we do our whole review like that?
Laura: I concur!
Levi: I don’t know if anyone would read past this next line, so I suppose we’ll play it straight. The book isn’t even Olde English anyway, is it? I’m not good with my historical eras. But the author did have kind of a dense prose style. Did you think the writing took some getting used to?
Laura: Indubitably. Mantel’s style required some effort, but I appreciated the unique rhythm after the first half. I may not have understood what was going on for a good chunk of the time (which Thomas is speaking? to which Duke of which country?), but it grew on me. I like a challenge.
Levi: I remember you started off pretty wary of the book, while I liked the opening parts about Thomas’ young life. You said you were waiting to get to page 100 before you decided whether or not to go on. I think that’s a fair maxim for any book. Then the tables kind of turned and you got in the groove while I struggled a bit. I have to say it was one of the most challenging books I’ve read in a while. I was determined not to lose the flow once I got going, for fear of putting it down and not picking it back up again.
Laura: Very true. I picked up a different book while in the middle of this one (a mistake), and was unwilling to change pace so drastically. I may have found the beginning of the book so-so, but it I think it was necessary to study the details of his childhood after all. It was difficult to judge his character throughout the book, but knowing some tidbits of his rocky upbringing helped piece things together. I heard you compare Cromwell to Petyr Baelish at one point. Do you stand by that, and would you declare him as an evil person or merely selfish in his ambitions?
Levi: So, Thomas Cromwell. He’s made out to be a sympathetic character, if perhaps a bit callous at times, a bit opportunistic. He’s far less evil than Petyr Baelish (or Frank Underwood, which was another passing comparison), but he does know how to climb that ladder. He says how the important changes in history occur between two men in a dark room, or over the transactions of a bank counter, instead of on the battlefield. It seems like a Baelish type of outlook on life. If you come from low birth, you have to use your wits to place yourself amongst royalty. Had you heard of him before this book?
Laura: I had, but I wouldn’t have been able to place him. I would have guessed him to be some lord or bishop, but it seems his role was much more complex. I agree that he was certainly a scheming fellow (even if that’s all I see in comparison to those other characters). He once made a comment to his son about what good was planning for the far off future if you don’t have a plan for tomorrow. It was as though a game of chess was being played, and instead of him being a piece, he was the player, advancing one move at a time. And who better to compete against him but the formidable Thomas More?
Levi: Wow, Sir Thomas More (he of Utopia fame). What an ass! I had no idea. He was all about torture, the strictest type of guy you could imagine. Thought himself on a righteous path of course. Cromwell mentioned, “This is what you forget, this vehemence,” if you let your guard down around More. These two played the long game against each other. Yet for all their rivalry, there was some admiration between them as well. It seems like More was respected in a lot of educated circles, so maybe Cromwell grew up knowing him as a respectable guy. More increasingly becomes a bigger part of the book, and it plays out all the way through to the end.
So let’s get to some other core people in the huge cast. The names can get really tricky when they repeat. Henry, Mary, Anne, Thomas (“half the world is called Thomas”). There are multiples of all those, but I suppose the important ones are Henry VIII, Mary Boleyn, and Anne Boleyn. What do you think of that crew? What did you think of them before Wolf Hall?
Laura: Oh, Henry. I was most surprised by his portrayal as a likable, humble guy who had merely fallen in love with Anne Bolelyn and wished to marry her at (almost) any cost. He was not nearly as much of a self-righteous horn-dog as I grew up believing him to be. At least, not in the years written about in Wolf Hall. He seemed to have some desire to do right by England and his ultimate ruler, God, before Cromwell worked his magic by convincing him to declare himself head of the church. Anne Boleyn is a totally different story — what do you think made Henry so susceptible to Anne’s seductions, when everyone else could see right through her tricky, snake-like ways?
Levi: I couldn’t begin to fathom the mind of a king. It’s got to be a lonely existence — never physically, since you have chamber assistants who are there to hand you toilet paper — but because you can never truly confide in anyone. Then you have the stupid rule-by-succession thing which has everyone praying for sons. So Henry’s in the middle of this mess where he has the weight of an entire people on his shoulders, plus his own desires to be a good king (and be a good king = keep it in the family name by having a male heir). Add to that the religious burden, and I’m surprised he doesn’t jump out of a high window. Good thing Cromwell is there to take Cardinal Wolsey’s place (another Thomas!) as close advisor. He basically does all the king’s work for him, like try to keep Anne in line. I don’t really have any particular opinion about Anne, though it’s hard to comprehend a woman’s life back then, even a royal one. It seems like you’d always be a step away from complete failure, so I can see why you’d be ready to seize the moment.
Laura: She was absolutely the most interesting character to me. She was the catalyst that drove Henry to totally reform the church with the flick of her eyelashes. But more than that, she was cold and calculating. You wonder if she ever had any true affection for anybody but herself, and poor Henry Percy. She was so close to being discovered as “soiled goods” when Percy revealed their romance to the court, but he was as good as swept under a rug once Cromwell got a hold of him. How ridiculous to think that the topic of a woman’s virginity once had a place in the court. Before I go off on a tangent, let’s get back to Cromwell. Let’s not forget about his relationship with Cardinal Wolsey, which occupied much of the front half of the book. Why do you think Cromwell was so attached to Wolsey right up until his death? I wonder if he thought of him more as a father figure than a client. Which also makes me wonder — who did Cromwell love in his life, and do you think that his losses made him more or less sympathetic in his affairs in the court?
Levi: Cromwell and the Cardinal, what a pair. Listening to them talk was like hearing the two cleverest people in the room trade words, while also being entirely devoted to one other. Cardinal. Where does that sit? Higher than bishop?
Laura: Isn’t a Cardinal right below the Pope?
Levi: Sure, I guess. All I can think of is the Cardinal Zins wine we found while reading this book. Anyway, it seems Cromwell was meant to serve. He liked to be useful, and he was great at what he did under Wolsey, and Wolsey wasn’t cruel, so it made for a good living. He probably loved both Wolsey and Henry to some degree, but I think Mantel made it clear that he also loved his wife (second wife?) and children. They didn’t all get a lot of time in the book, but he seemed to care for them.
So yes, I think Cromwell learned some sympathy. He was a great people reader. He didn’t seem overly malicious. But definitely manipulative when he needed to be.
Laura: Interesting. I would argue that he is less sympathetic after the tragedies of his home life. Later in the book, after he has lost almost everyone he loves, he ponders, “What is life but affairs?” and realizes that his home is where there is business with the king. So what is Cromwell’s ultimate goal? To realize a personal vision of some sort, or simply to please the king? I suppose that is what we have to look forward to in the next book of the trilogy.
Levi: Are you prepared for two more books of this density?
Laura: Have at me. Can’t wait to see who loses their head next!
Levi: Or who ends up in the Tower! Well, the next one is called Bring Up the Bodies, so I doubt you’ll be disappointed. I’ll tag along. I’m becoming a bit more enamored of English stories these days.
Laura: By the time I’m through with you, you’ll be a full on Anglophile like myself. Let’s start saving up for those tickets to London…
Levi: They do pounds, right? I still have a lot to learn. We need an accountant like Cromwell to shift some figures around, then we’ll be off.