This Booker Award-winning novel is based on the life of Thomas Cromwell, a commoner who rose to become a trusted advisor to Henry VIII. After running away from his abusive blacksmith of a father to become a soldier, Cromwell learns accounting, diplomacy, and many languages as he moves among the capitals of the various European empires. He becomes a lawyer and eventually a protégé of the powerful Cardinal Wolsey. Wolsey sets him to investigating and sometimes closing monasteries where corruption—the selling of indulgences, fathering of children, etc.—has run rampant. Cromwell is interested in the new religious reform movements, believing for example that everyone should have access to a translation of the Bible, but he has no hatred for the Catholic church, only for corrupt priests.
Most of the narrative is concerned with the period when Henry has become obsessed with Anne Boleyn. In searching for a way to marry her legitimately, he turns to Cromwell who has the extensive contacts, the balance sheet of favors given and received, and the shrewd insight to manage the people around him. By focusing on Cromwell's thoughts, plans, and feelings, we see how he manages with a delicate twitch upon the reins not only his employees and contacts, but also the Boleyn/Howard clan, the royal household, and Anne herself. A cautious man, he knows how to count the costs, how to balance his desire for revenge on those who made Wolsey’s downfall so humiliating with his recognition that today’s enemy may be tomorrow’s ally.
It is a fascinating ride, following the gradual hardening of this man, who starts out merely practical, loving learning and his family, and yet becomes the monster who haunts the history books. No single step seems so very bad. I’m reminded again of the children in The Diamond in the Window, one of the first books I discussed on this blog, and how their small choices in one game led them to quite different personalities than they expected or wanted.
Although some family trees and a cast of characters are provided, knowledge of the historical context is assumed. You don’t need to know it to enjoy the book. You can read this book simply as a novel about an interesting man and a perennially popular time period. You can read it for insight into how it is possible for someone to become as lost to human compassion as those we see in our own day prosecuting wars for their own personal benefit and inflicting torture on the powerless.
However, knowing Cromwell’s later fate as Henry struggles to rid himself of wife #4, Anna of Cleves, adds poignancy to Cromwell’s reaction to Wolsey’s downfall and to Cromwell’s attempts to bridle the king, who wants what he wants. Knowing about the later reigns of Henry’s two daughters makes their childhood influences more striking, such as Mary losing her title of Princess and being required to wait on her baby sister. Knowing the roles they will later play makes some of the minor characters more interesting, such as Anne’s musician Mark Smeaton and her pale lady-in-waiting Jane Seymour.
Cromwell’s huge accomplishment in having Henry declared head of England’s church is presented as one small step in a long string of diplomatic negotiations, as it undoubtedly was, no matter how much it may seem to us like a cataclysmic explosion. The religious controversies of the times are certainly part of this story but not the main thread, as they are with so many other novels of the times.
The strength of the book, aside from the character development, is in the details—of ordinary life as well as court life. Mantel’s research is so well integrated that it is only in retrospect that I can appreciate how extensive it must have been. Emotional detail, too, caparisons the story, as in the subtle changes in Cromwell’s relationship with Anne Boleyn and the gentle teasing from his daughters that he not only endures but cherishes. He is not a man who gives himself away; his opinions and feelings are hidden from us yet we learn to read the signs and come to understand this most complex man.
My one frustration with the book was that the dialogue is often not attributed, forcing me to go back over several pages of dialogue to untangle who said what. The pronoun “he” does not reliably refer to the last-named person, as we have been trained to expect. While this stylistic choice is consistent with Cromwell’s reticence and tendency toward self-effacement, it more than once made me throw down the book in disgust. But I always came back, wanting to immerse myself once again in the world of 16th century England and Cromwell’s ride into history.