Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,
Nicholas
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The Thomas Cromwell trilogy, by Hilary Mantel

I got The Mirror and the Light for Anne's birthday earlier in the year, and before tackling it directly myself, decided to go back and read the two previous books in her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. That of course became quite a big reading project, at the same time as I was reading Alan Moore's Jerusalem (1300 pages, to the 1800 pages of Cromwell) and an SF mini-project of similar length which I'll write up tomorrow. It took me about seven weeks to reread the trilogy, but it was well worth it.

The second paragraph of the third chapter of Wolf Hall is:
‘Forget where you lived?’
When I first read it in 2010, at the same time as The Other Boleyn Girl, I wrote:
In Mantel's hands Cromwell becomes a fascinating character, carrying the baggage of a brutal London upbringing, always mindful of his family away from court, ascending the greasy pole of power rather in spite of his own best instincts. She really summons up the smell and feel of Tudor London, and the alarming sense of fragility of life - not just from the king's displeasure, but from illness, violence, or accident. The novel ends with Cromwell's ascent to full power; I believe a sequel is brewing which will cover the last five years of his life, and I will certainly buy it.

After reading this and The Other Boleyn Girl, the one person who I really ended up wanting to know more about was Anne Boleyn. Only Mantel explores her character at all positively - she is the villain of Gregory's book, and the depiction of her as the court flirt in The Tudors goes back at least to Shakespeare and Fletcher. But she kept Henry chasing her for years (from their first encounter in 1525 to their marriage in 1533), which is pretty impressive considering that he could basically have had any Englishwoman he wanted. It's also strongly suggested that she was genuinely Protestant in sentiment, which would make her a rather advanced thinker and would perhaps give her an extra motive (besides the obvious personal one) for wanting the Church to be under direct royal control.
The second paragraph of the third chapter of Bring Up the Bodies is:
From the amphibian mouth, a juvenile chortle. ‘Simon. Merry Christmas, sir, how do you?’
When I first read it in 2013, I wrote:
This is the second of Mantel's acclaimed trilogy about the life of Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to Henry VIII. Like Wolf Hall, it is intensely told in the present tense, but it concentrates on a much briefer historical period, the months leading up to the execution of Anne Boleyn in 1536. Again Mantel is very good at getting us into Cromwell's head, but I found it a less satisfying book than the previous one; there is much less variety of setting for Cromwell to react to - it is entirely about the sexual politics of the court, though rooted of course in the wider European context; and the most interesting person in this story is clearly Anne herself, and it is a shame that we do not really get to hear her voice (in this book or indeed in most books about the period, fiction or non-fiction). However, "not quite as good as Wolf Hall" is still pretty good.
The second paragraph of the third chapter of The Mirror and the Light is:
Early July, the grandi hold a triple wedding, combining their fortunes and ancient names. Margaret Neville weds Henry Manners. Anne Manners weds Henry Neville. Dorothy Neville weds John de Vere.
Rereading the first two books, I think I must resile a bit from my complaint that we don't get enough insight into Anne Boleyn. Actually, given that she is a women liviing a dangerous life at a dangerous time, we get pretty close to her, and the disintegration of her relationship with Henry is captured tremendously well. Wolf Hall has her rise (and the fall of Cromwell and More), and Bring Up the Bodies has her fall. And I think it's pretty clear that she drives the ideology of the King's new approach to religion, until he decides that she can't provide what he really wants, which is a son.

I also now recognise the theme of dynastic fragility throughout all three books. When Henry came to the throne in 1509, he was the son of a usurper who had ruled for less than 25 years, his only brother was dead, one sister was married to the King of Scots and the other engaged to the future Empereor Charles V, which effectively took them and their children out of the succession. (Of course, 94 years later, the English throne did go to Henry's great-great-nephew, uniting the Scottish and English thrones.) So the need to provide heirs for dynastic and social stability was imperative, and other claimants, more closely related to the Plantagenets, were ready to move if the situation developed in their favour; meanwhile the other great families, Norfolk/Howard, Suffolk/Brandon, Seymour, all put their eligible girls in the king's line of sight.

Cromwell, having switched from Wolsey to the king at an early stage, and with no dynastic capital to spend at first, dedicates himself to maintaining the regime. But he seems to me always conscious of two things: first, that he is a smarter and better operator than the King, and second that it could all end rather rapidly; every few pages someone is burnt, hanged or beheaded. One subplot from the second book that I didn't pay enough attention to first time round is Cromwell's rescue of the eldest daughter, Mary, from potential disaster; and by the end of the trilogy it's reasonably clear that Henry is set to rehabilitate his two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, both of whom had been declared illegitimate at the point that their mothers' marriages were annulled. And of course we know that they did both inherit the throne in the end; but Mantel shows us that there was nothing inevitable about it.

I thought the third book a tremendous capstone to the other two. We know how the story is going to end; but until we get to the dramatic denouement, Cromwell continues to consolidate power around himself, and juggles the demands of Henry VIII, the other lords and the foreign powers, not to mention the women in Henry's life - the book is very much centred around managing his third and fourth marriages, and the fifth takes place at the very end (and the future sixth wife is hovering around the edges of the scene as well). There's also a great sub-plot about a long-lost Belgian daughter, and the dead Thomas Becket and the live ambassador Chapuys are fascinating characters too.

The single most powerful scene is in fact reported indirectly - when Anne of Cleves first sees Henry, who against Cromwell's advice has approached her incognito, and reacts badly. The witness is Cromwell's son Gregory (who has incidentally married Jane Seymour's sister); it's very well described. And the blow to Henry's ego because of the failure of the Anne of Cleves plan is enough to end Cromwell as well. His fall was suddent and dramatic: he was made Earl of Essex and Lord Chamberlain on 18 April, and three and a half months later he was dead.

As noted above, it took me a while to read, but the pages came close to turning themselves at various points. I'm also storing up impressions of the Tower for when I finally write something about my ancestor Sir Nicholas White, who died there in 1593. Really memorable stuff.

The Mirror and the Light was my top unread book acquired in 2020. Next on that list is Utopia For Realists, by Rutger Bregman.

You can get Wolf Hall here, Bring Up the Bodies here and The Mirror and the Light here.
Tags: bookblog 2020, writer: hilary mantel
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