is an amazing book: Mantel's research is overwhelming to say the
least, and the book is filled, not only with facts and historical
characters but also with hundreds of small incidental details that
set the book well apart from many other books on the subject.
main subject is Thomas Cromwell and the period is early sixteenth
century. The story is well known - there are few surprises in store.
The book looks at Cromwell's relationship with Henry VIII and the men
at the top of the power pinnacle. It describes Cromwell's rise to
power; it outlines his thoughts, his anxieties, his hopes; it hints
at what is likely to happen sometime in the not-too-distant future.
book is not only well researched it is also well written. My only
comment would have to be Mantel's unusual use of the third-person
singular male subjective pronoun. She uses 'he' as a substitute for
Thomas Cromwell, and she uses it in many cases where 'he'
grammatically should be referring to another person - for example, the
person speaking or being spoken about, not necessarily Thomas
Cromwell. Initially, I found this extremely confusing; however, after
one hundred pages or more I accepted that this is possibly one of the
ways Mantel keeps Cromwell front and centre at all times.
Hall turns many other histories of Thomas Cromwell on their head,
breaking through the wall of assumed facts to the man behind. He is
an ambitious man, but he is also intelligent and, in many instances,
compassionate. The unlikeable character, as portrayed in other
descriptions of the period, is not to be seen. Instead, the reader is
very aware of Cromwell's propensity to balance situations and, at all
times, to be several steps ahead of the scheming nobles surrounding
him - not unlike a game of chess. Cromwell is adept at what he does,
but even he knows that the complicated dance steps he must master may
eventually trip him up.
book gives the reader an insight into Cromwell, the man, as well as a
more sympathetic understanding of the king himself. King Henry, the
man who cast off two wives and executed two others, was also, if we
are to believe Mantel, thoughtful, if somewhat easily led. Henry
became simply a pawn in the hands of the much more powerful nobles
all of whom were ambitiously vying for more power, more wealth and
more status. He was even an unsuspecting pawn in the hands of Anne
Boleyn, a manipulative, power-hungry woman who, in turn, was the
product of her very obnoxious family.
the twenty-first century it is no longer possible to know with
conviction what these people from the sixteenth century were really
like and/or which version of the period contains the greatest
percentage of truth. Nevertheless, I feel that, on the whole, Mantel
has presented a number of different perspectives (historically
correct or otherwise), which manage to render the main characters in
this story more human, if not always as humane as we would like.
Photo of Thomas Cromwell from the BBC.