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Thomas Cromwell: A Man For All Reasons
on 6 December 2015
I thought it was a brilliant idea of Hilary Mantel to write a passage of Tudor history through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell. Most Tudor writers seem to keep Thomas Cromwell in the background as an eminence grise – as a sinister character who ingratiates himself with King Henry VIII whilst bullying and intriguing his way to power and wealth. Hilary Mantel portrays him as a much more subtle character. She gives us a self-made man who rose from humble origins (as did Cardinal Wolsey) driven by personal ambition. Cromwell was ruthless in pursuit of the king’s favour. But he was also a cultured man who spoke many languages, who was sympathetic towards the newly formed Anglican faith and who saved a large number of Lutheran ‘heretics’ from being tortured and burnt at the stake. But he was at the same time capable of cynical cruelty and dishonesty. Hilary Mantel shows how he stage managed the trial and execution of Anne Boleyn on evidence that he, as a trained lawyer, must have despised. As an aside, in the same vein, Hilary Mantel portrays Thomas More – often regarded as a saint – as a fanatical persecutor of heretics, torturing them in his own house with his own hand before sending them to the stake.
These two books combine drama and history with a rare intelligence and absence of sentimentality. Hilary Mantel’s literary style is not to everyone’s liking – she writes in the present tense, mainly, and doesn’t always make it clear who is speaking and thinking. In that way, she shows respect for the reader’s intelligence although, judging from some reviews, she manages to irritate a substantial minority who like their writing more straightforward. Another criticism might be that she assumes her readers have at least a background knowledge of Tudor history and politics. I would have found these two books very difficult to follow and enjoy if I weren’t familiar with the basic history. One of the things I like about her style is that she focuses on people with an emphasis on dialogue and conflict. There are no lengthy descriptions of buildings or rooms. One has to use one’s imagination.
The two book Kindle version, at the time I bought it, was only marginally cheaper than buying the two Kindle versions separately. I’d advise people to check prices before deciding whether to buy this version or two independently. Also these two books are part of a trilogy, so no doubt the full trilogy will be available on Kindle in the foreseeable future.
The BBC has produced Wolf Hall as a televised drama. This is available on DVD, and includes Bring Up The Bodies. I thought it was excellent. Some prospective readers might find it helpful to see the DVD before reading the two books.