Here’s a fun game: try saying the title of this novel three times out loud, quickly. Still, for an unpronounceable book, it’s done pretty well; it must be one of the most successful and talked about publications of this millennium. Like all good phenomenons, it has sparked a debate about the ‘respectability’ of historical fiction, with many claiming that what used to be a lowly genre now has literary chops, whilst historians like Anthony Beaver get to grizzle about ‘histo-tainment’ and ‘faction-creep’ as corrupting forces on the purity of proper historical writing. I’m in the camp that believes fiction creates its own kind of truth, different to that embodied by the archive, but no less powerful. For me, Mantel’s novel does a brilliant job of bringing the past up close through its unusual structural choices.
I imagine that most people know now that the novel is about the resolute rise of blacksmith’s son, Thomas Cromwell, to a position of power in the court of Henry VIII. He manages this despite the enormous setback of his mentor, the cunning and sophisticated Cardinal Wolsey, falling out of favour. It’s a salutary lesson to the young Thomas, who is more than aware how sharp his skills of diplomacy need to be if he’s to survive the shark-infested waters of regal politicking.
The issue of the day is Anne Boleyn. Henry wants to marry her – if he’s to bed Anne, she’s insisting on nothing less than a binding contract – but he unfortunately happens to be married to Katherine of Aragon, and he’s already pulled a bit of a fast one by marrying her when his brother’s death left her widowed. The main problem is that Katherine has failed to provide a son, and Henry is quite desperate for an heir. The motivation, beneath all the jostling surface reasons, is that Henry believes kings should be allowed to do anything they want. However, in this particular case, the ‘anything’ involved means turning the laws of the Catholic Church on their head and entirely rewriting England’s relationship to religious doctrine. To achieve the impossible requires a very special kind of lawyer – and so enter Cromwell, a man who has been a foot soldier in his time and has no fear of a dirty fight.
The magnificence of this novel resides in the character of Cromwell and the strange and unique way Mantel brings the reader inside his head. Cromwell is a tough man, but a fair one, intelligent but grounded, ruthless but tender. Most endearing of all is his drily ironic sense of humour which bubbles up around even the most fraught situation. You can’t help but love Cromwell because he loves his job, he genuinely admires the King, and, unlike just about everyone else around him, he never abuses his power. He has the courage of his convictions without the savagery of those who believe the end justifies the means.
The way the character is narrated is highly unusual, as the reader skips in and out of Cromwell’s head, presented with his outer tough guy image through the eyes of those around him, and then swiftly transported into his sympathetic mind and heart. There are no signs to indicate the transition, though; Mantel leaves it all to the implications of the narrative to let the reader know where s/he is, and this becomes, in the eyes of some, the problem of the unattributed ‘he’ in the text. ‘He’ mostly always refers to Cromwell, apart from the times when it doesn’t. And you’ve got to work that out for yourself. I think that Mantel adopts this almost intentionally confusing device because it makes readers keep their wits about them. As I was reading, I noticed my mind had that restless, darting quality that must characterize dangerous political times, when you have to take note of who said what, and when, and who is tugging at the hem of power. It felt to me like a very subtle way of taking us quite deeply into the mindset of Cromwell, and the shifting, tricky climate he lives in. You have to sit up and pay attention to this novel or it will run completely out of hand.
This is also true because it is a novel with a huge cast and an enormous quantity of events. As Cromwell grows in stature, so he comes into contact with the royal court, with the clergy, with the businessmen of the city, with the pretenders to the throne, with the heretics, with the powers from overseas. A vast web of relationships creates ever widening circles, and plucking a thread unleashes a chain of uncertain consequences. Cromwell is in the centre of a dangerous game of chess, with the smoking stake outside his window to remind him of the cost of losing.
As I was reading, I was surprised by what felt initially like a lack of depth to the novel. We skate precariously over the surface of so many events, barely has one finished than something else kicks off elsewhere. This happens, then this, then this… and so on. But it occurred to me as I read on that the exercise of absolute power reduces all human event to its mere surface. Henry’s great aim is to undermine the sanctity of his marriage – to claim those twenty-some years never properly happened, and to do this he must make a nonsense, not just of the passage of time, but of the religious precepts that have long been understood to be the repository of all meaning. Inconvenient people are reduced to ciphers. Life and death become of little matter, a footnote to the bulldozing sweep of power as it hacks down a path across time. But in contrast to this majestic obliterating force, Mantel offers us pockets of stubbornness in the form of the so-called heretics who are agitating for the acceptance of the bible in English. I wonder whether the success of Mantel’s novel is due in part to the historical and cultural shock that comes from reading, in our most superficial and self-centred of eras, about men and women who would die horribly for the sake of a belief. There’s something so rich and redolent of valour in this story, about an age where everything matters hugely, where change is feared and demanded, and where power, as ever, is all about being able to argue that black is white and get away with it. I’m so looking forward to Bringing Up The Bodies.