He Cromwell

A reprise of my review of Hilary Mantel‘s trilogy.

I have finished The Mirror and the Light. It’s huge, deep, intricate, mesmerising and probably a marmite book – you’d either love it or hate it.

I loved it, although that sounds too bland for my response. It took me a while to read it, not just because it’s incredibly long, but because I read it in small doses. With any other book, my readiness to put it down after a dozen pages would be a sure sign that it’s not really gripping me. In this case, however, it was because… well, I am still struggling to get my head around my reactions to this book, or rather this trilogy.

I know how my gut reacts, but not my head, which is ironic because our hero/anti-hero, he Cromwell, is purely cerebral. Most books, whether narrated in the first or third person, focus on one character, the protagonist, through whom we get to share actions, thoughts and a full gamut of emotions. But he Cromwell doesn’t emote. Not directly to us. We are firmly planted in the thoughts of a highly rational, highly intelligent, highly competent man, and we share those thoughts, but not his feelings. We know the feelings exist because his thoughts respond to them. We know he cries because his thoughts take note of the fact that he is crying, or other people point it out to him. We realise what loves, loyalties, griefs and desires drive him because his thoughts direct him to act in response, but his deep-down emotions are his alone, kept private, not for us to share. We know he’s haunted by Anne’s death, by Wolsey’s fall, because images spring into his mind or fill his disturbed dreams. We can imagine what he is feeling at the end, but what we read are his thoughts telling him “I can do this.”

I think the reason why I found it easy to read it in small bites, rather than being glued to it into the small hours, is that it is an entirely new reading experience, so I didn’t read it like a book. In fact, did I read it at all, or did I live it? The whole trilogy excited me. Not because the story is exciting. Everything about the Tudors is so well known that there’s little excitement left in the facts. We all know what happened. We all know how the story is going to end, although I was curious to see how it would be… I was going to say, how it would be executed, but let’s say how it would be related (answer: painfully). My excitement was closer to the dimly remembered excitement I felt when I first mastered reading and discovered I could disappear into whole worlds by looking at pages. With Mantel’s trilogy I felt as if I stood on the brink of an entirely new phenomenon. Is it reading or something else?

Of course it’s just a book, but not like any other. Historical fiction, since it’s about real historical people, brought so vividly to life they don’t seem historical at all. It casts a complex light on an age when everything was changing but not everyone appreciated it. The Tudor period begins, with Henry VII, in the Medieval era. It ends, with his granddaughter Elizabeth, firmly in the early modern era. Henry VIII’s reign was the tilting point. He Cromwell, he Lord Cromwell, Essex, Cremuel, Crumb, is a modern man, which is why the book feels more contemporary than historical. He is as low-born as they come, abused and beaten son of a Putney blacksmith, pugnacious enough to seek his fortune abroad as a mercenary soldier, before his true gifts as clerk, banker and administrator come to the fore, first in Italy, then in the Low Countries. Then he returns to England as a lawyer, tactically but contentedly married, raising a family, making a fortune, at home with his natural comperes, the protestant merchants of London and Europe.

He’s intelligent, he’s competent, he’s determined. He’s not an intellectual scholar like Thomas More, but a man who absorbs whatever is needed, sees what should be done, works out how to do it and does it, because the world now needs people like him rather than noble-born thugs. In the modern world he’d probably rely on a political party to help him rise. In Tudor England, he needs a patron in the establishment. He has learned “choose your prince” and he has chosen Wolsey, another man of “vile blood” who has risen to pre-eminence through his own abilities. He Cromwell serves Wolsey ruthlessly to the end – even beyond the end, but when Wolsey falls, he chooses to serve the king instead, because that is the means to get things done.

All power comes from the King. The King is the light and all else are merely mirrors of that light. The King can make anyone and break anyone. He can make and break queens. He Cromwell knows it. His opponents, the loud, feudal aristocrats, thick as two short planks as they strut in their noble entitlement, haven’t grasped it at all. They are still stuck in a medieval era that is already sinking without trace.

In the first two books, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, he Cromwell rises inexorably in the service of the King, fighting tooth and nail and defeating his opponents, whether they be scholars, prelates, noblemen or queens. But in The Mirror and the Light he has won, he is there at the top, and every day is now an exhausting battle with uncertainty, insecurity, cabals and disastrous illness, because he knows his only ally is a King whose affection for him, as everyone, is founded solely on his usefulness. Fall short of Henry’s expectations by just a fraction and you’re thrown to the merciless wolves.

Henry is very convincingly portrayed as a man who, in other circumstance, would be just a man, with virtues and vices, occasionally loathsome, occasionally likeable. But he isn’t a man, he’s a king. There’s such divinity doth hedge a king. It’s a divinity that allows him to demand whatever he wants like a spoiled child with the power of life and death and without taking responsibility for it. It’s a divinity that makes his virtues and vices monstrous.

I am glad that Anna of Cleves is given the treatment she deserves. She may not have been the best educated or informed of Henry’s wives, but history has cruelly labelled her the Flanders mare, too repulsive to be bedded, whereas it’s obvious that she wasn’t the repulsive one in the marriage. Just a victim of court intrigues and royal petulance, like the King’s secretary who arranged the match.

He Cromwell is not a saint in these books. He’s single-minded, ruthless, disgracefully acquisitive and vindictive in his loyalty, but wholly human and I shall miss being inside his head, whether attached to the rest of him or not.

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