review – magnificence must have an end
Thomas Cromwell’s final rise and sudden fall made vivid in a masterpiece
How, then, to incorporate an element of thriller to an end we already know? It’s all in the how: you just can’t believe, for most of the first 600 or so pages, that a man of Cromwell’s supreme, ever-doing eminence could fall. Only in the queasy replay or recap of events as his accusers turn his actions against him in the penultimate chapter (“Mirror” before the final “Light”) do you realise how much envy and scheming must have been going on the while. Because Mantel is, as she put it in the excellent television documentary on the phenomenon, behind Cromwell’s eyes nearly all the time – there are a few startling departures, like the one before Jane Seymour’s shockingly sudden death following childbirth – and we see only what he does and thinks. Certainly he’s guilty of one sin – hubris – and sends many to the end he himself meets; and yet even that is offset by a consciousness of always being the king’s discardable thing of service, with no way out.
Chronological events might make it difficult for a novelist, as opposed to an historian, to structure and shape the final years. Mantel (pictured right in a still from the recent BBC documentary) does so with her familiar literary dramatist’s gift, one which already gives the cue to the next TV series and stage adaptation: having started with the vivid aftermath of Anne Boleyn’s execution, a superb way to plunge the reader back into the Tudor world in all the phenomenal detail the author extracts from it, Mantel proceeds in the long chapter called “Salvage” to lead us towards Cromwell’s crucial confrontation with Henry’s elder daughter Mary, in essence saving her life by persuading her outwardly at least to recant her Catholicism. Then there’s the gripping progress of the northern rebellion, from the sardonically defined beginnings to the shilly-shallying, the conflicting messages, the surprising subsidence which seems true to life. The interlude of “The Bleach Fields” introduces a tender but never over-sentimental note with the brief but memorable invention of Jennike, a daughter arriving from Antwerp.
Jane’s abrupt tragedy gives way to the initial comedy of finding another wife for the king without any meeting in person. Holbein plays his part again, and Cromwell has to pull all the strings, possibly the cue for his ultimate demise. The scene where Henry steals unexpectedly in on Anna and repels her is the last flicker of amusement before the ritual turns queasy (Mantel makes much of the Cleves Princess’s hard winter journey and its outcome: “she left the ship as Anna. Then there’s the giddying juxtaposition of Cromwell’s final elevation as Earl of Essex and his plunge. The last two chapters take us on a final roller-coaster ride with a look back on the previous volumes’ principal relationships – with Wolsey and then with More – and last glimpses of a past as the son of a brutal blacksmith which has so often surfaced, along with the ghosts Mantel is always so adept at summoning.
Masterly as always are the meetings with the slippery king, inside whose head as divine regent we are briefly allowed to enter. But for all that, Henry remains monstrously capricious, “like the shrike or butcher bird, who sings in imitation of a harmless seed-eater to lure his prey, then impales it on a thorn and digests it at his leisure”. There are passages of lyrical reflection in between all the doing and being done by: I know of no more perfect writing in a novel than the paragraphs on reflection in twilight which begin “Don’t look back, he had told the king” (pages 249-251).
For Cromwell’s imprisonment and execution Mantel summons her supreme eloquence, mixed in with the pith of the outrageous accusations. Yes, reader, I shed a tear. And it’s so typical of this writer’s imaginative precision that even the epigraph, “author’s note” on the aftermath and acnowledgments are utterly original. Beautifully produced and proofread (I spotted only one typo), the hardback may be hard to hold but it’s a physical pleasure to read.
Where next? I need to read Diarmaid MacCullough’s historical biography for a perspective on Cromwell’s full achievement – lucky indeed that he has a sense of style too – and I can’t wait for the third volume of what can without tackiness be described as “the Estonian Wolf Hall” inasmuch as it deals with another real historical figure of the 16th century caught between the worlds of his commoner past and elevated status, Jaan Kross’s Between Three Plagues trilogy (originally tetralogy – published between 1970 and 1980, it has only recently been translated into English by Merike Lepasaar Beecher; MacLehose Press is due to publish the final instalment this summer). As for Mantel, we can now only wait for the fresh astonishment of where her rigorous imagination will alight next.