Author: Hilary Mantel
Type: Fiction, novel
Part of series: Thomas Cromwell Trilogy (#2)
I read it: November 2014
This is a conversational review between Laura Byers and me. It was originally published on Levi & Laura.
“It is no small enterprise, to bring down a queen of England.”
Yet this is the job of Thomas Cromwell. And the large enterprise of Hilary Mantel is to tell Cromwell’s story–and by extension, the story of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn–like no one before her. The scene was set in Wolf Hall, where Cromwell became the king’s go-to man and arguably the most productive person in all of England. He already replaced one queen. In this second book of the series, he must keep up with Henry’s appetites once again….
Levi: This book has a bit of setup, but on the whole it hits the ground running. Cromwell, Henry, and the rest emerge fully formed from the first novel, and the protagonist has a singular goal which really gives the book its propulsion. It almost felt like a completely different type of story, yet I knew we were right back in the rich interior and exterior worlds of Mantel’s creation.
Laura: (Break to finish glass of wine and grab bread from the oven.) Part two of Cromwell’s career in the court felt even more lively and riveting. Now that we’re used to Mantel’s writing style, we were able to jump right in instead of scrambling about to get our footing, like in Wolf Hall. Speaking of her writing style, I want to bring up
Levi: I remember that from the first book, and it’s a very interesting writing choice. It does cause me to pause on the page, and it seems like there would be ways around having to do that. But it’s so deliberate that I search for a good reason. It kind of brings an essence of control to any scene. It feels like Cromwell reasserting his place amongst all these important male figures, even though they will always consider him an outsider (because of his low birth). Or like Mantel herself is saying “this is Cromwell’s story, this is Cromwell’s story” over and over again. It’s a bit intrusive, and kind of manipulative, but then again, don’t those words also apply to the protagonist?
Laura: It also makes me think of He, as in God, and Cromwell playing God of England by manipulating everyone at his or the King’s will. It does make him seem larger than the King and larger than life. Don’t you just imagine a massive Godzilla-sized Cromwell stomping around London, squishing the soul out of every ill-fated fellow he meets? Which makes me wonder where his motivations truly come from. Is he trying to be a good public servant, or is he more interested in exacting revenge when the opportunity calls? It’s interesting that he refuses to live at court and to become a lord, even though many mistakenly call him ‘Lord Cromwell’. He wants so badly to please the King, but for what reward?
Levi: For the reward of staying alive, I would guess. And for the reward of constant, fulfilling work. Ha, I love the Godzilla Cromwell image. Though he’s more of a finesse guy. In a moment of reflection (these are kind of rare, because he’s a man of the future) he says, “I think I have been training all my years for this” and realizes his “whole career has been an education in hypocrisy.” He destroys, and builds up, and tries to keep a small bubble of immediate safety around himself and a select few others. What was that one part you liked, when he observes his wife braiding hair? He realizes he just has to stay in the zone or it will all fall apart.
Laura: I loved that. He was recalling a memory of his wife braiding some string and he asks her to slow down so he can see how it’s done. She replies back saying that she cannot slow down, otherwise she wouldn’t know what she was doing. Let’s move on to a new topic–the women of the story. I found it fascinating how educated, high-class women were worse off than the laboring women. The poor had more choice, were able to marry for love, and the women were able to find ways to leave their dead-beat husbands. Put well, “A young married gentlewoman has no way to help herself. She has no more power than a donkey.” Would you agree that the women’s issues were voiced more in this book because the author is female, and because it’s 2014?
Levi: Probably. They say a book says more about the time it was written in than the time it claims to be written about. It’s impossible not to let modern views slip in, and of course consideration of the females is hugely important in this historical drama. You’re right, these books make it seem like regal women are destined to fail. What could they do against the divine right of kings? Henry can justify anything given a few nights of worrying. He says “I can do as it pleases me. God would not allow my pleasure to be contrary to his design, nor my designs to be impeded by his will.” It’s an echo chamber of self-justification, and with no male heir at the ready, Anne suffers. Henry has eyes for Jane, who is painted as a supremely plain and soft-spoken person to contrast Anne’s sharp spirit. On top of all this, you have Anne accused of treason, adultery, even witchcraft. Some men are charged too, as tragic formalities, but it’s the queen’s crimes that really matter. And wow, this is some tawdry stuff. Some of those pages are on fire in your hands because they turn so fast.
Laura: Why would anyone but a half-wit want to marry King Henry VIII after he ruined two of his wives? But after all, these high-born women have little choice in the matter. Once Henry decides who he wants to wear the poisoned ring, they are doomed. I’m very much looking forward to the next two queens that we can anticipate for book three. I wonder, did he actually love Katherine or Anne, and did either of them love him? It’s difficult to gather from what we know “for sure,” and I wonder how much of it is just Mantel’s imagination. Let’s get real though–is the woman guilty of the charges against her or not?
Levi: Ah! Who knows?! Thomas Cromwell could make a person believe anything. Including this reader. If you’re going to give me the rack until I answer then…yes, I bet she had liaisons at least once with at least one person. Because, big freaking deal. And no, she never loved Henry. Why would she? Thing is, the truth is kind of intriguing, but also not at all relevant. If she had affairs but birthed a bunch of boys, then no harm no foul. Cromwell is digging up old laws and writing new ones as soon as he needs to. Which makes me wonder, how much of England’s history would be what it was without him? The guy was a marionette with a hundred strings. And he has some jobs ahead. He thinks of Anne’s end as a new start. Always something else to do.
Laura: As Cromwell states in the last few sentences, “There are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings. Here’s one.” Knowing that Cromwell’s career eventually takes a drastic turn for the worse, can we already see the tides turning against him? And just for fun, what do you think Anne’s last words would have been had there not been any consequences?
Levi: “Screw you assholes,” probably. I mean your death is a spectacle, how could you possibly handle it? How will Cromwell handle it? He is about to slip into the gears of his machine. I’m sure it will be told with power and elegance, like those last couple paragraphs of this book. I’ll venture to say this is some of the best stuff I’ve read in recent years. Such a wonder built only from words on a page. The lawyer Thomas Cromwell would be proud.