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.

Two Excellent BBC Drama Offerings: Wolf Hall and A Casual Vacancy

Michael Gambon & Julia McKenzie in the BBC's The Casual Vacancy
Michael Gambon & Julia McKenzie in the BBC’s The Casual Vacancy

We’ve recently seen two very good dramatizations on BBC TV: Wolf Hall, and The Casual Vacancy.

Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in the BBC's Wolf Hall
Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in the BBC’s Wolf Hall

The casting was brilliant, particularly Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall, and Michael Gambon as Howard in The Casual Vacancy.

You may think think the two novels on which these dramatisations were based, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel and A Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling, could hardly be more different; one story set in the sixteenth century Tudor Court, and the other in our contemporary society. And yet I found striking points of similarity.

In the world in which the two novels are set, we see how central tribalism is to human nature. The historians I have read on the subject of the Tudor Court have emphasised how everything revolved around factions. In Thomas Cromwell’s world he had to navigate the changing fortune of the factions: when the Boleyn faction was in the ascendancy, he advanced the cause of Anne Boleyn; but when the Seymour faction  began to gain the upper hand, it was politic for Thomas to bring about Anne’s downfall to make way for Jane Seymour. After all, in that “dog eats dog” world his own life was always at stake.

In The Casual Vacancy we see how the wealthy and privileged, in our most favoured and idyllic villages, gather together and dominate the local council and influence decisions about the local community in their own favour, so that the poor and marginalised are separated from them even further. JK Rowling is showing us something of how this same principle of tribalism, is replicated in English society today:how members of one group gather together to increase their power over the other: those who consider themselves socially ‘superior’ cluster together and fend off those who are perceived as failures, the socially dysfunctional.

Humans are tribal and we see this in every sphere of our lives.

In today’s western societies we might not turn to genocide and massacres of the kind we have seen in other countries of the world in the past few decades, because our ‘veneer of civilisation’ is still strong enough to prevail; but we are certainly capable of expressing the same dark undercurrents in our hearts and minds, by using other, more subtle methods, to achieve similar ends. The same tribalism is there, deeply rooted in our psyches.

Click here and here to find my own reviews of both books.

Historical Novels versus History Books, and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall: The Power To Make You Feel You’re An Insider in the World of Henry VIII

Hilary Mantel’s  success in winning the Man Booker Prize for her novel “Bring Up the Bodies” has provoked many varying opinions of her work. For my part, I look forward to reading this second book in her Tudor Trilogy.

Hilary Mantel has opened up the life of Thomas Cromwell (photo credit: guardian.co.uk)
Hilary Mantel has opened up the life of Thomas Cromwell (photo credit: guardian.co.uk)

The other day I had a conversation with a keen reader who said, “I don’t like historical novels. I’d far sooner read a history book. If I read a historical novel, I think: But how can they possibly know?”

Of course, how can Hilary Mantel possibly know? But when I’d finished “Wolf Hall”, I felt as if I’d 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 a considerable amount of time after she’d finished it.

And certainly, reading this book changed the view I previously held of Thomas Cromwell, whose mind we are in 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 hold it strongly into the future.

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 see how wrong 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? We may think he should have stuck with Anne Boleyn, forgiven her, and patiently and with forbearance lived out his life married to her.

What actually happened? Ultimately the English Throne became strong and proud under a very long reign by the child Anne Boleyn bore him – notwithstanding the fact that this monarch was a female – a monarch who became in the eyes of many then and since, Britain’s best and most famous monarch: Elizabeth I.

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, the first novel in the trilogy, 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 stands out for me: “all that youth, beauty, grace and learning, turned to mud, grease, and charred flesh.”

Emotionally stirring, moving, shocking and instructive, what this book shows you about human nature  will stay with you.