As in the first part of her series of novels on the royal career of Henry VIII’s advisor Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s successes lay as much in the depth of character she presents in her main protagonist, as in her unique handling of such famous narrative. As the familiar story unfolds, watched through the eyes of this most cunning and circumspect of courtiers, we walk with the Queen-maker, share his innermost fears, bridle at his deepest grudges, and reach out with his softened blacksmith’s hands to the comfort and pain of his allies and foes.
The story of Anne Boleyn and how she became a number in a rhyme about a medieval king’s roaming eye is well known and, as Michael Gove wills it, will probably become a GCSE in its own right before long. Bring up the bodies should be required reading in such a case, as Mantel unfurls the story of the decline of queens, beginning by having moved the court along some years, with Henry’s bloating form, and Anne’s bitterly frail appearance, accompanied by the ghost of the exiled queen-as-was Katherine, declining in the grim and grey countryside of 16th Century England. The regents serve as a smooth comparison for the stark conditions many of the king’s subjects found themselves in and reintroduces us to Cromwell, the blacksmith’s son, who sees the destitution and suffering, and as a member of parliament determines to provide sustenance on the back of large infrastructure. Roads and civic works are his route to the salvation of England, and his planned legislative works hover regularly just off-stage. Not for the only time does Mantel draw chilling parallels between 16th and 21st century political life, when Cromwell considers how parliamentarians aren’t yet ready to understand the needs of the common man.
For all the wider context, however, Cromwell’s prime motivation is one of revenge, and the story pivots on his political machinations to facilitate it and the consequences thereof. What unfolds is the tale of his encircling of the men who persecuted and ridiculed his beloved former master, Cardinal Wolsey, and of the woman whose rise facilitated those men to do so. It soon becomes clear that Cromwell – never one to forget much, let alone an injury such as that inflicted by George Boleyn, Henry Percy, Francis Weston and lowly Mark Smeaton when re-enacting the cardinal’s demise before the court – has foreseen Henry’s dissatisfaction with his new queen, and of course works it to his advantage in eliminating these enemies. With relish he stalks his prey, allowing them to buffet him as their confidence rises, and within which their own loose tongues provide him with the ammunition he will need later, when bringing the queen’s adulterous ways to justice for his irascible king.
Throughout this second book of her Cromwell trilogy, Mantel continually reminds us of the theme running throughout the first two books, and which will presumably be neatly resolved in Cromwell’s final outing, next year: What has been made, can be unmade. He – Cromwell – sitting in positions of power afforded him by his own design and to ensure that all the business of state crosses his desk, is still the fearsome and robust character of Wolf Hall, but here, and with old age ensuing perhaps, we hear more references to his lowly status of blacksmith’s son, see further moves to civilise his own son Gregory in the staff of fine gentlemen, and watch as his long term ward, Rafe Sadler, joins the court in his own right, as well as to the advantage of his master, of course. His reluctance to trust even the breadth of his own sphere of influence, and that of the empire he has built within the court and England at large, however, flecks the story with the uneasy knowledge that, like Anne, one day Cromwell’s luck will run out. This self-doubt and visceral loyalty to his allies humanises him, and when we read those innermost of thoughts, we become this most circumspect and unflinching politician, laying in the light of a single candle and unable to sleep for the ghosts sitting at the foot of the bed.
Before his execution, George Boleyn, puts it to Cromwell: “What makes you think it will be any different with you, that are not the equal of any of these men?” We know the answer, because Thomas Cromwell knows it, and that is Mantel’s greatest achievement in these books: The making of the familiar, so revelatory.