This book has sat on my shelf, unread, for years. It’s curious, because it’s so lauded a historical fiction of a time period that I love reading about, so I can’t figure out why I hadn’t picked it up before. But the recent publication (and Women’s Prize short-listing) of the final book in the trilogy, along with a well-timed #bookstagram readalong for #MantelinMay that I came upon, conspired to, finally, prompt me to start.
“But the trouble is, maps are always last year’s. England is always remaking herself, her cliffs eroding, her sandbanks drifting, springs bubbling up in dead ground. They regroup themselves while we sleep, the landscapes through which we move, and even the histories that that trail us; the faces of the dead fade into other faces, as a spine of hills into the mist.”
This is, of course, the start of a three-book series about the life of Thomas Cromwell, an advisor first to Cardinal Wolsey and, after, to the quite famous Henry VIII (he of the six wives). The book opens with a bit about Cromwell’s childhood, focusing in on the abuse he received from his father that prompted him to run from England, and his time abroad as a soldier, businessman and, later, the time period’s version of a lawyer. It then covers his time in service to Wolsey (both while Wolsey was “in power” and then his continued loyalty even after Wolsey lost favor). And finishes up following the beginnings of his direct service to Henry VIII and his rise in the king’s favor and influence, as he helped bring to fruition Henry’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon (and, thus, the Pope/Catholic Church) in preference to Anne Boleyn. Simultaneously, the novel covers quite a bit of in depth exploration of the politico-religious arguments and complications of the time, the rise in religion for the “regular man” with Protestantism and Martin Luther and the (violent/deadly) lash-backs from the powerful church leaders, led in major part by Thomas More. And last, to add some nuance to the story by being more than just a historical re-overview and retelling, there is the private and family life of Cromwell himself, his children and fosters and lady interests, that is included (as would make sense, as this is a trilogy focused on Cromwell’s story and perspective of the time).
As historical fiction goes, let me just start by saying that this is a dense one. Like, I want there to be no illusions or misunderstandings as you read through the rest of my review (which, I must say, will be primarily positive), that this novel is an undertaking. It was not light nor fast nor easy to read. I had both a physical copy and the audiobook on hand while reading, the first to use as reference and the second to keep me moving. And I do not think this reading experience would have been nearly as positive with just one or the other. It’s fiction, in the sense that of course the dialogue and many of the individual interactions must be embellished for the sake of the “story” from limited primary source material, but the overall emphasis for me, fell strongly to the historical side of historical fiction. And one legitimate complaint I had (which I have heard from numerous sources is addressed in the next two books) is that there were so many times that “he” was used with incredibly unclear antecedents. I was quite confused and frustrated by that at first, as I was a bit with Mantel’s writing style in general. But I found, with time, that that is a book to get lost in. I needed to find long stretches of reading time (this is not a “15 minutes here and there” type novel) and let the book take me away. That helped both with the density and the confusion I was feeling. And in fact, it not only helped…I actually found myself getting totally lost in Mantel’s recreation of Cromwell’s world. It became tangible in its reality and her dry, witty writing and incredibly smart dialogue swept me away for hours on end. I absolutely would argue that the struggle at the beginning was worth it, but I also recommend knowing what you’re getting into and being in the right mindset for it before starting, because otherwise it probably won’t ever click.
As far as the story itself, if you are a legitimate historical nerd, you will love it! This is clearly a stage-setting sort of novel, as all first books are. (That impression has been supported by the many people who say the “action,” as if were, picks up a lot in book two). But even with a “slower” plot, I was into it. The unfolding of Cromwell’s humble beginnings and his family life really were fascinating to me. It’s a very “rags to riches” type story and I can’t say I was really expecting that. In addition, I love this time period of history, as I have said. Henry VIII has always fascinated me, so reading this perspective of him as a king and person and a more general look at his reign was very new and I enjoyed the experience. And the way this book introduces the social and political and religious “setting” for itself and the rest of the trilogy is thorough and well done. I will say that having a general background knowledge of this time period before starting was very helpful. There are a lot of characters/players (so many of whom are named Thomas!), and between the number of characters, their multiple titles/nicknames, and the many unclear uses of “he,” I would have been lost without my prior knowledge. So I would say that, if you don’t know much about this time, make sure to have a physical copy (there are some character lists/trees for reference at the beginning) on hand, as well as access to the internet so you can google as needed.
I was very, very impressed with this novel. It was a lot of effort at the start, but evened out, at least for me, as I continued reading. It was so smart, funny in good measure (in a correct, dry, British sort of way), historically insightful, with complex characters and relationships and a clear depth of research on the side of the author to bring it all to life realistically, accurately and in an entertaining way. Mantel is such a wordsmith, but the subtle way she weaves her literary spell won’t catch every reader – I get that, it’s all a matter of preference. However, if it catches you…wow, be ready for the way you’ll disappear into the world (the land, the people, the history) she re-creates. I plan to wait for a bit to let this one settle, but I absolutely will be continuing/finishing this trilogy.
A few quotes that I marked as I read:
“But we could not know how she would rise and rise.”
“I suppose once it’s gone it’s gone. I suppose fortune, when it’s lost, it will never visit again.”
“There cannot be new things in England. There can be old things freshly presented, or new things that pretend to be old. To be trusted, new men must forge themselves and ancient pedigree […] or enter into the service of ancient families. Don’t try to go it alone, or they’ll think you’re pirates.”
“It is the only honest thing to be done: look after your children.”
“He wonders again if the dead need translators; perhaps in a moment, in a simple twist of unbecoming, they know everything they need to know.”
“You can calculate the actions of unprincipled men. As long as you feed them they’ll run at your heels.”
“I have written books and I cannot unwrite them. I cannot unbelieve what I believe. I cannot unlive my life.”
“…it was never really silence, was it? It was loud with his treason; it was quibbling as far as quibbles would serve him, it was demurs and cavils, suave ambiguities. It was fear of plain words, or the assertion that plain words pervert themselves; [his] dictionary, against our dictionary. You can have a silence full of words. A lute retains, in its bowl, the note it has played. The viol, in its strings, holds a concord. A shriveled petal can hold its scent, a prayer can rattle with curses; an empty house, when the owners have gone out, can still be loud with ghosts.”