Having already confessed to being a reader of middlebrow fiction, I get occasional emails from readers asking for recommendations.
Well, there’s no disputing matters of taste, so don’t blame me if yours isn’t mine, and this particular recommendation may be too Brit-oriented for American readers, but my most recent middlebrow binge reading has been Hilary Mantel’s two novels about Thomas Cromwell,Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. World-shaking masterpieces? Nah, but they kept my attention for a thousand pages.
There’s a third book gestating, the author tells us, to finish off Cromwell’s life. There’s also a TV series from the first two, currently being shown on PBS.
Cromwell (1485?-1540) was Secretary to King Henry VIII of England. He was the king’s fixer, his chief factotum, the guy who got things done. Cromwell got some quite tremendous things done: the annulment against Papal opposition of Henry’s first marriage, the separation of the English Church from Rome, the dissolution of the monasteries, and the framing (probably) and execution of Henry’s second wife, Ann Boleyn.
Ban jun ru ban hu goes the old Chinese saying: “To attend a prince is to attend a tiger.” Cromwell’s religious radicalism was too much for the king at last, and he lost his head.
Henry’s Christianity was conservative. He would happily have stayed with Rome if his first wife had given him a son (and would not likely have believed the charges against Ann if she had). However, he was only the second king of his dynasty; loyalists and claimants from the previous dynasty were watching and maneuvering; Henry believed—probably correctly—that without a clear male successor, the horrible civil wars of the previous century would restart.
It’s a great story, and Cromwell is at the center of it. It’s not mere costume drama, either. In the lifetimes of Cromwell and Henry, the modern world emerged. Henry was born a year before Columbus set sail. By the 1530s, which Mantel is mainly writing about, millions of printed books were in European circulation, up from zero a century before. (A rather important one by Nicolaus Copernicus came out in the 35th year of Henry’s reign.)
The story of Henry, his wives and his schism, has been much told, but not previously through Cromwell’s eyes.
Cromwell has a walk-on part in Shakespeare’s 1613 play Henry VIII, positively portrayed: “A man in much esteem with th’ king, and truly a worthy friend.” His reputation went downhill from there, though. By the mid-20th century he was the amoral bully persecuting the saintly—and eventually sainted—Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s brilliant play and movie A Man for All Seasons. That is probably the definitive portrayal of Thomas Cromwell for most people today who know the man’s name at all.
Mantel’s inspiration is to tell the tale from Cromwell’s point of view, putting us inside his clever, worldly, somewhat cynical head. This involves some adjustments to our previous notions. Thomas More, for example, is drawn as considerably less than saintly. (Mantel is an agnostic; but then, so was Bolt.)
Consider More’s famous response to Cromwell when the latter argued that by refusing to swear an oath affirming the king’s supremacy over England’s church, More was encouraging others of the old faith to be “styffe” in their resistance, and was therefore in part responsible for their deaths by execution. Replied More:
I do nobody harme, I say none harme, I thynke none harme, but wysh euerye bodye good. And if thys be not ynough to kepe a man alyue, in good faith I long not to lyue.
This was said on April 30th, 1535 O.S.—480 years ago next Friday—when Cromwell and four others interviewed More at the Tower, where he was held prisoner.
We have those fine strong words from More’s own pen: he wrote his daughter a letter describing the interview. Cromwell, by More’s account, made no direct response. He seems to have been chastened by More’s sincerity; he only repeated some mild queries about the Act of Supremacy, then concluded the interview.
Robert Bolt moved those words to the trial scene, with no reaction at all from Cromwell. Hilary Mantel keeps the original interview setting, but has Cromwell making a bitter riposte:
You do nobody harm? What about Bainham? [I.e. James Bainham, a Lutheran More had interrogated three years before.] … His body was so broken that they had to carry him in a chair when they took him to Smithfield to be burned alive. And you say, Thomas More, that you do no harm?
Mantel’s portrayal of Henry is more conventional. He is strong-willed but sometimes capricious; a good judge of men, less so of women. She recycles some of the old slurs on his sexual prowess. There has been a common suspicion that Henry was sexually shy, and in his later years—he only lived to 55—impotent.
We can’t know the truth about this. Henry bedded many women and fathered several children. Modern historians, weighing the circumstantial evidence, seem to agree that he was sexually normal. King of England is a heck of a thing to live up to, though. It’s easy to imagine how an episode of performance anxiety, carelessly (or maliciously) remarked on by a playmate and broadcast by the twittering bevies of court women, might linger in the popular mind for a few centuries.
Some Amazon reviewers have found Mantel’s style indigestible, and the cast of characters hard to keep track of. The author actually addresses the second point with lists of dramatis personae at the front of both books; the first is a matter of taste. I personally found her easy reading, with some memorable images:
Sir Nicholas Carew comes to see him. The very fibres of his beard are bristling with conspiracy.
The TV dramatization is pretty good, but I think strictly for people who have read the books. I don’t see how you could follow it otherwise. (My wife, who hasn’t, couldn’t.)
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