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Book Review: Wolf Hall Trilogy

Michael Athey on how Mantel’s Cromwell Trilogy executes the Tudors to perfection

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Image Credit: Picador, 2010

For many, when they hear the name Thomas Cromwell, a villainous brute comes to mind. After all, that is the historical interpretation that has been passed on for years. Yet, in Hilary Mantel’s work of historical fiction, depicting some of the most crucial years of the Tudor dynasty to magnetic effect on the reader, Cromwell comes to life in a different way. Through Mantel’s supreme ability as a novelist she paints over the blanks of history like a canvas.

If you follow her vision through Wolf Hall, Bring Up The Bodies and the finale The Mirror And The Light, you will be rewarded with an intense character portrait of Thomas Cromwell as an empathetic protagonist, shattering preconceived images of him. To mould a reinterpretation of a historical figure to with such a triumph, alongside weaving themes of power, fate and human frailty, is proof that the buzz around Mantel’s writing is justified.

Cromwell is an elusive anomaly in the Tudor world. It is bewildering that Cromwell, the abused smithy’s boy from Putney, would undergo such a meteoric rise to be the centrepiece directing policy in the King’s council. This feat of social mobility seems fantastical in the modern day, never mind the 16th century, where status was acquired through old family names not the tenacity of your own skill. The conundrum baffles Cromwell’s contemporaries in the Tudor court too, best evidenced when the Duke of Norfolk exclaims in irritation, “Damn it all Cromwell, why are you such a…person?”.

But, perhaps this is how Mantel makes Cromwell a character you champion. He is complex, layered and certainly defies being placed in one box. A realisation you’ll undertake as Mantel merges moments, memories and musings along with ghosts, demons and dreams into one stream of narrative. By the end Cromwell’s mindset feels an extension of your own.

Furthermore, it is easy to champion Cromwell because we all love a story about overcoming the odds and as he proclaims, “godamn the man who says I didn’t earn it”. Watching him rise from rags to riches as he navigates, like a pragmatic chess master, the perils of the chess board that is the royal court; as well as utilising the physically enforcing presence remaining from his time scrapping in the gutters of Putney and as a mercenary in France, is satisfyingly crafted to say the least. Mantel proves “person” is the right word.

Although there may be some readers who were unaware of Thomas Cromwell before reading, it is unlikely that they won’t be familiar with Henry VIII. Mantel in some ways gives Henry a similar treatment of sympathy to that of Cromwell. Just as she highlights Cromwell’s abusive upbringing at the hands of his drunken father, and the loss of his only wife and daughters; Mantel details Henry’s burdens of guilt from inheriting the kingdom through the death of his brother, whose ghost still visits him in dreams. She also notes the fact that the kingdom he inherited is still unstable from the War of the Roses. Providing context to the volatile Henry that history remembers, and Mantel describes.

Like a small child Henry can be placid but then abruptly erupt into a temper tantrum; the difference being he is a King, holds all the power, and the tantrums are resolved when heads roll. A fact that frustrates Cromwell, who says, “It is time he grew up”. But the paradox of Cromwell being vulnerable and eternally indebted to the King despite being more competent is a fascinating one. It builds a dichotomy through which to explore Cromwell; Cromwell, a man who achieved his status through tenacity and skill, and Henry, a man who through luck was born into divine right status. Watching him be expected to attain a perfect outcome from an imperfect situation everyday reveals his character more and more as he continuously succeeds to complete the impossible.

However, as anyone who is aware of Cromwell’s history will know, he cannot fulfil the impossible forever. Mantel uses the devilishly simple technique of giving the downfall very few pages in the context of the lengthy trilogy. Combined with the fruition of Mantel’s other excellent authorial decisions, it allowed an unparalleled amount of anticipation to fester, so much so that the fear of Cromwell’s demise began to bleed into my own dreams.

But, then it happens. The downfall is shocking and sudden. At this point Mantel has enveloped you in Cromwell’s mindset, it blindsides you just as much as Cromwell as the chessboard turns on the chess master. I found myself fighting history. It is a real testament to Mantel’s work of fiction, to have me pleading for a different fate for a man whose real fate was determined centuries ago. It was painful seeing Cromwell reduced from his riches back to rags, especially because even trapped in “The Tower” he is pulling strings to care for his remaining family and friends. Although I desperately hoped he could once again pull those same strings to get himself out of trouble, Mantel highlights that even great people can be reduced back to their frailest selves. Plus, Cromwell himself makes no such lies: he knows the scaffold beckons.

Hilary Mantel’s interpretation of Cromwell as a pragmatic “person”, that she has captivatingly forged into life, will undoubtedly challenge History’s interpretation of him as a villainous brute and for many will shine brighter than this too.

Mantel has already won the highly prestigious Booker Prize twice for her previous works; and with a nomination already secured for the finale, The Mirror And The Light, a historic third win – a feat that no writer has ever achieved - could be on the cards. If anything, the finale is her best book and therefore if she is ever to be  most worthy of the prize, it is now.

Although, I would be satisfied regardless of if she didn’t win, with the award potentially  going  to a diverse new writer who could benefit more, and at this point a third prize is almost arbitrary given the overall success of the trilogy. If she does win though, just like Cromwell, “godamn the person who says she didn’t earn it”.

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