Decent, Respectable & Empty

Checking in with Thomas Cromwell

Rarely has a sequel excited such eager anticipation as Hilary Mantel’s follow-up to her bestselling and Booker Prize–winning Wolf Hall, her novel of the court of Henry VIII and England’s break with Rome. Bring Up the Bodies (which also recently won the Booker Prize) continues to chart the rise of Thomas Cromwell, one of the chief architects of the English Reformation and keeper of his monarch’s—and his own—best interests, a sharp-eyed fixer in the “vast dripping web of court patronage.” Wolf Hall began with a brawl in the dust outside Cromwell’s blacksmith father’s workshop and ended with Cromwell facilitating the marriage of Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn and the ensuing break with Rome, having slickly seen off his enemies, including Sir Thomas More. Bring Up the Bodies takes up the threads of the story, this central narrative of English history, three years later: Cromwell is in his prime, having become Master of the Rolls, Master Secretary to the King and Chancellor of Cambridge. As he says himself: “Show me a heap and I’m on top of it.”

This novel, like its predecessor, is a masterpiece of atmosphere conveyed by the accretion of detail, layer upon layer, like geological strata. The opening scenes show Cromwell, out hunting with the king, guiding his hawk back to his wrist with pin-sharp accuracy: watchful, enigmatic, beady-eyed, he is a man of velvet and steel. Domestic details are so vivid as to make one gasp in recognition—in Thomas Cromwell’s home, “kitchen boys swarm about him, frosted and dripping,” and the description of Anne’s execution on Tower Green, her skinny little fingers pulling pointlessly at the ribbons on her cap, makes almost unbearable reading. The labyrinthine court, where nobles and hangers-on jostle for power and influence, I found far more lucidly presented than it was in Wolf Hall, partly because the time-span is shorter and the central plot—the downfall of Anne Boleyn and the rise of the house of Seymour—is tighter.

If Thomas Cromwell is the novel’s main figure (and it would not be overplaying it to say that he is a hero in Mantel’s telling), the centrifugal force around which events unfold is King Henry VIII himself—contradictory, spoiled, clever, charismatic, easily bored, susceptible to sex and to flattery, both virile and vulnerable, ruthless and self-indulgent, needy and self-deluding. Henry’s court is a magnet for the ambitious and self-promoting, all dangling their wives, sisters, and daughters as bait to snare the attentions of the king. We meet Henry rarely in the novel, Thomas Cromwell being his emissary, but we are constantly aware of the charisma, the heat, of political power. As Cromwell wonders, “What is there without Henry? Without the radiance of his smile? It’s like perpetual November, a life in the dark.”

We are only at the beginning of the long story of the wives of Henry VIII. Anne is a deft and hard-boiled coquette who has tired of the King’s heavy lovemaking and has failed to produce an heir. Locked in Kimbolton Castle, the former queen, Katharine of Aragon, broods on her mistreatment and wallows in a histrionic piety that Cromwell finds distasteful; her daughter Mary crouches in the wings plotting vengeance. Emerging from the shadows is the young Jane Seymour, on whom the king’s attentions, bruised by the indifference of his clever queen, have fallen. She is the blank slate on which her family will etch their ambitions. Just three years after securing the annulment of Henry’s first marriage and throwing the country into turmoil, Cromwell is charged with seeing to the annulment of his second. This is a task he does with some urgency, as Anne Boleyn, once his ally, has come to hate and mistrust him—and in the Tudor court, you were well advised to dispose of your enemies before they disposed of you.

Mantel’s Cromwell speaks to his modern reader with a particular directness not only because he is our guide (it is his thoughts and movements, notwithstanding the outer parameters of an omniscient narrator, which take us through the action of the novel), but because his creator has cast him in a particularly modern mold. He might be a well-intentioned member of Parliament, a capable bureaucrat with a flair for efficient modernizing. For this Cromwell, the monasteries are dens of pointlessness, corruption, and sexual abuse: “These days the good Christian lives out in the world.” He has a praiseworthy concern for the betterment of society, for the building of new roads and the promotion of employment schemes and apprenticeships. He is a master of temporal power but ambivalent on the nature of God’s power; when his conscience pricks, it is squeamishness rather than an awareness of sin. When Katherine of Aragon derisively wonders in what language he makes his confession, Cromwell’s answer is that he feels no need of an intermediary with God: “No need for language, either, he thinks: God is beyond translation.”

This is a man who, for all the extraordinary, brilliant complexity in which Mantel has imagined his historical context, speaks with the voice of the secular twenty-first century. It is one of Mantel’s many achievements in this novel that she has created in her Cromwell a man for our time, one who is both entirely enmeshed in his own era and yet also stands with her readers beyond its historical boundaries. The pleasure of reading this novel is not of course dependent on finding Cromwell sympathetic (a reader’s emotional response to this fictional Cromwell may depend to an extent on her wider religious sympathies), yet the novel does appear to invite us to imagine him on our side of a crude historical divide that separates modern man from a dark, brutish, and unenlightened religious past. At times it reads as though Mantel is making a case through the fictional Cromwell for the historical Cromwell’s defense.

In the run-up to the publication of Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel, formerly a Catholic, caused a minor stir in the British media when she expressed the opinion that the Catholic Church, with its views on sexuality and its sexual-abuse scandals, could no longer be considered a place for “respectable” people. Leaving aside the odd idea that the ideals of respectability and Christianity were ever compatible, it seems to me that this view sheds some light on her portrait of Thomas Cromwell. For Mantel’s Cromwell is respectable: we are told many times of his kindliness to his family; he exhibits a distaste at the spectacle of capital punishment; he is concerned, for the rule of law, or at least for the maintenance of its appearance; with a resigned pragmatism he presses where possible for the medium way, the solution that, if not ideal, causes the fewest deaths. By the standards of his time and ours, he is in many ways a decent type for whom the mysteries of religion are neatly boxed in by the more pressing challenges of worldly affairs. That Bring Up the Bodies is also, perhaps unintentionally, a portrait of his absolute moral emptiness makes this gripping novel all the more fascinating.

Published in the 2012-11-23 issue: 
Tags

Lucy Lethbridge is a freelance writer and former literary editor of the Tablet.

Also by this author
A Man for This Season

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Books