Oh boy. This book took me a LONG time to read! I think I finally understand why people with full time jobs struggle to read any books. This one seriously should not have taken so long, it was much shorter than Wolf Hall.
This was really a fantastic book. I kept reading through and being struck by how wonderful her writing is. She is so clever, so witty and it comes through clearly. As with Wolf Hall, Mantel gives Cromwell such life, personality and colour to make him relateable, sympathetic and likeable. He loves his family and cares for them so tenderly. He is in awe of Rafe and the man he is becoming, and is so touchingly protective of his son Gregory. I think perhaps a reason it took me so long to read this book was because I had this sense of impending doom. I don’t want Cromwell to die and yet I know he does, and horribly so.
She also does a beautiful job of giving humanity to Henry, a figure that is so often depicted in film and tv. She covers such well trodden ground in this planned trilogy, yet by looking at the events from Cromwell’s perspective it is fresh, vibrant and unexpected. Henry is vulnerable, confused and verging on addled in his mind. You get a real sense reading this book that power during this period was so very tenuous, brought most clearly into perspective when Henry is knocked off his horse and the attendants think him dead. This passage was so fast paced and exciting and the reality of life without Henry is quickly and starkly depicted. And it is a terrifying vision for many of the characters that we grow to be fond of.
I really enjoy her writing, and I find it really frustrating trying to convince people to read these books. They are truly so much more than just books about Tudor England or Thomas Cromwell,. “England in winter: the pall of sliding snow, blanketing the fields and palace roofs, smothering tile and gable, slipping silent over window glass; feathering the rutted tracks, weighting the boughs of oak and yew, sealing the fishes under ice and freezing the bird to the branch.” I love how she describes the scene so beautfully, yet she never resorts to cliches. It is almost as though the words glide across the page.
The events in the novel shift in the smallest movements. There are rarely sudden jumps when she shocks you with some revelation or another, but subtle movements that build to a massive whole. At the beginning of the book Anne is firmly the Queen, safe in her position although slightly weakened by the King’s attentions towards Jane. By the end she is dead. Bereft of her head, the men entangled in her circumstances also decpitated. The following passage is a good example of these shifts. Before this passage Anne was firmly the queen, and following this passage the movements shift further towards her death.
“It seems he will not name her, Anna Bolena, La Ana, the concubine. So, if she harms the king, would it be the act of a good Englishman to remove her? The possibility lies between them, approached but still unexplored. It is treason, of course, to speak against the present queen and her heirs; a treason from which the king alone is exempt, for he could not violate his own interest.”
So often I was just amazed at how wonderful a writer she is. She doesn’t really go for the shock and awe kind of writing, but is very much about the subtle workings of Cromwell’s mind. The following is from the trial of George Boleyn, where Cromwell dislays his tactical intelligence and his sense of place in a courtroom.
“Certain words are written here, which the queen is said to have spoken to you, and you in your turn passed them on. You need not read them aloud. Just tell the court, do you recognise these words?’
George smiles in disdain. Relishing the moment, he smirks: he takes a breath; he reads the words aloud. ‘The kind cannot copulate with a woman, he has neither the skill nor vigour.’
He has read it because he thinks the crowd will like it. And so they do, though the laughter is shocked, incredulous. But from his judges – and it is they who matter – there is an audible hiss of deprecation.
George looks up. He throws out his hands. ‘These are not my words. I do not own them.’ But he owns them now. In one moment of bravado, to get the applause of the crowd, he has impugned the succession, derogated the king’s heirs: even thought he was cautioned not to do it.”
I can’t say that I am really looking forward to the next book, as it brings us closer to Cromwell’s death. But I am really fascinated to see how she deals with the final stages of his life. Hilary Mantel is funny (I love how she has Cromwell name Wriothesley ‘Call-Me’), so in tune with Cromwell as a real person and as a writer, she just keeps getting better.
Now reading: Game of Thrones (predictable but true)