Book Reviews: Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell Trilogy

Having just finished reading the third in Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, rather than posting one review here, I thought I would bring together my three reviews, each originally posted online soon after I read the book.

Hilary Mantel, Man Booker Prize-winning author of Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, and The Mirror and The Light

Book 1 – Wolf Hall

Now I’ve finished Wolf Hall, I feel as if I’ve been an insider, in the world of Henry VIII. I bought the book following a friend’s recommendation. She said she found it so powerful that she couldn’t read anything else for quite some time after she’d finished it.

And certainly I’ve changed the view I previously held of Thomas Cromwell, whose mind we occupy throughout the novel. Upon reading Hilary Mantel’s account of this man, I admire him and can understand his role in relation to Henry, and his extraordinary gifts as he navigated Henry’s changing whims.

As to Henry himself… what was his prayer? That he might have a healthy, long-lived, legitimate male heir to take over the English Throne for the Tudors, and carry their dynasty well into the future. Of course, in the end, his dynasty only lasted for 118 years, considerably less than the Plantagenet dynasty which had gone before.

I can imagine now how he must have felt each time Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn miscarried a child. He felt professionally devastated and personally anguished; frightened that he had incurred the displeasure of God; afraid that after having been in his hands the throne would go where he did not want it to go; afraid his hopes and dreams would never be fulfilled; afraid that this was God’s punishment. After all, the English Throne was his professional business, his livelihood, his calling.

Now, of course, with historical hindsight, we can judge him as wrong and foolish and deluded, if we wish: see he was wrong to have Anne Boleyn beheaded; and wrong to have various people brutally slaughtered for not agreeing with his divorce, and for not thinking the right things at the right time about religion, and for thinking he, Henry, was wrong.

But what should he have done instead, according to us with our historical hindsight? Some may think he should have stuck with Anne Boleyn, forgiven her, and lived out his life married to her.

What actually happened? Ultimately the English throne became strong and proud under Elizabeth I – though she died childless and thus failed to extend the Tudor dynasty, she is still considered by many to have been England’s greatest monarch

So we may well say that God answered Henry’s prayer – but not in the way he expected.

This philosophical rumination has been inspired by Wolf Hall simply because so many of us are familiar with the Tudor story – but in fact the narrative of this novel only goes as far as the execution of Sir Thomas More leaving the downfall of Anne Boleyn still in the future.

Perhaps the thing that most fascinated me about Wolf Hall is the way the reader follows through delicate, graceful, civilised conversations – gentle, balanced, measured… and then out of them comes a decision to burn someone alive, or have them hanged, drawn and quartered.

One sentence in the book goes as follows: “all that youth, beauty, grace and learning, turned to mud, grease, and charred flesh.”

Emotionally stirring, moving, shocking and instructive, what you learn here of human nature will stay with you.

Book 2 – Bring Up the Bodies

When it comes to the art of making momentous decisions on the basis of throwaway remarks, idle boasts, gossip and loose talk, the Tudors gave us a masterclass. But isn’t this in some measure the story of our own lives, though we never know how momentous any of our decisions may be? Perhaps that’s part of the reason why we are so fascinated by the Tudors.

In language sometimes poetic, elegant and stylish and at other times crude, ribald and cruel, to match her subject matter, Hilary Mantel continues to chart Thomas Cromwell’s course through the treacherous marshes of Henry VIII’s bizarre emotional and mental life, to the downfall and execution of Anne Boleyn.

Whilst reading Mantel’s compelling narrative, I felt as close as I possibly could be to the personal experience of “Master Secretary” Cromwell himself. (In fact I wondered if he ever suffered burnout or stress from working for an unstable boss like Henry.) In such an environment, the news that you’ve got your own final appointment at the Tower must almost come as a blessed relief.

I look forward to being guided through Cromwell’s journey to that final appointment in the next novel in Hilary Mantel’s Tudor trilogy.

Book 3 – The Mirror and the Light

A highly satisfying conclusion to the trilogy: from my experience of Hilary Mantel’s skills as a storyteller, I had come to expect the most lyrical, musical and graceful writing, covering all registers, along with the horror, spiteful gossip, cynical manipulation, brutality, paranoia, religious extremism, lies, betrayal and twisted thinking.

Yet I also felt moved and touched by Thomas’s relationships with his loyal lieutenant Rafe Sadler and his son Gregory. (Afterwards I couldn’t resist looking up all Gregory’s many descendants, from his marriage with Elizabeth, Jane Seymour’s sister). In this book I particularly enjoyed Thomas’s conversations with Ambassador Eustache Chapuys, who always speaks his mind about Henry; he cannot be a traitor to this king but only to his own master, beyond England’s borders.

Sadistic cruelty, jaunty chat, razor-sharp observations: all is recounted, and intermittently we are uplifted by the most fluid, entrancing, poetic prose, which somehow draws the events from micro to macro, rippling backwards and forwards in time, as the high stakes, the pity, and the terror stalk these pages along with the merciless, paranoid king.

Hilary Mantel’s genius is to make us feel sorry for Henry as a human being, whilst his monstrosity is plain to us; and also we feel compassion for Thomas Cromwell himself, navigating the power games and political marriages; and even for the Lady Mary, daughter to Henry by Katherine of Aragon, despite the fact that we know what her future held for her.

The story is told ‘looking over Thomas Cromwell’s shoulder’. In the final part of the book, recounting the Anne of Cleves crisis, the reader feels such a sense of impending doom as Henry behaves like a spoilt, dangerous child, whilst Thomas Cromwell and Hans Holbein try so hard in good faith to make this all work. But Thomas is now on his inexorable downward slope, finally toppled by his refusal to promise anything he does not believe he can deliver, and criticised for not being firmer with Henry when the king shares his plan to take a disastrous course of action.

Henry is described in various places as ‘mutable… mercurial…. impulsive.’ Yet, at times of greatest peril to those he once loved or counted as friends, when a word from him would save them, he remains hard and stubborn.

I feel that Hilary Mantel has done great honour to Thomas Cromwell in telling his story as she has – with such grace, wisdom and discernment.

Finally, two examples of her inspired turns of phrase:

Thomas moves close to his moment of execution:

He feel netted by the past, suspended in some high blue instant, strung up in air.

And this, as Thomas, incarcerated in The Tower, takes his leave of The Queen’s Lodgings, to be transferred to the grim and austere Bell Tower: He says goodbyes to the goddesses, a last flitting glance over his shoulder. No trace of Anne Boleyn. He remembers her saying – was it in this very room ? – ‘Be good to me’. He thinks, if I see her again, perhaps this time I will.

Author: SC Skillman

I'm a writer of psychological, paranormal and mystery fiction and non-fiction. My latest book, 'Paranormal Warwickshire', was published by Amberley Publishing in November 2020. Find all my published books here: https://amzn.to/2UktQ6x

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