This is the second instalment in Hilary Mantel’s thoroughly fascinating trilogy about Thomas Cromwell; his humble beginnings, his rise to power and ultimately – but not in this book – his downfall.
The story in this book starts in the summer of 1535. Henry XIII is on tour in the country with most of his court including his Chief Minister, Thomas Cromwell. It is while the King is visiting Wolf Hall that he first pays real attention to Jane Seymour, a young woman who is the complete opposite of Henry’s wife, Anne Boleyn. Where Anne is strikingly beautiful, outspoken and brazen Jane is unremarkable, quiet and shy. Henry, who has lost interest in Anne now that she is his wife but is not producing the male heir he yearns for, is taken with Jane and soon convinces himself that all would be well with him, his legacy and the country if only he could marry her. But with Katherine still alive in exile and Anne officially married to him, Henry’s path to happiness is littered with roadblocks.
It will be up to Thomas Cromwell to make sure that the King gets what he wants. And so Cromwell finds himself having to take on the family whose rise to power made his own career possible. When Katherine dies one obstacle is removed but in order to also remove Anne, Cromwell will have to turn to rumour, scandal and innuendo. Making use of old jealousies, internal competition between families and the selfish desires of all in the King’s court to look after themselves no matter what the cost for others, Cromwell will find a way to give the King what he most desires. But it is a process that will, maybe for the first time, reveal to him how fragile anybody’s position at court is. Depending on the whim of an unpredictable and spoiled King is not a safe way to conduct your career or safeguard your life.
This is a fascinating and multi-layered story. Of course, it is also a story everybody is, up to some extend at least, familiar with. Which makes it all the more remarkable that Hilary Mantel manages to completely captivate her reader and make them feel as if they are reading about these characters for the first time.
This story is very much told from Cromwell’s point of view, even if he is referred to as “he” or “him”. This means that we don’t get an impartial narration of events. In fact, a lot of the time it is hard to see the main character as anything but a victim of his circumstances, an obedient servant of his King, doing only that which is required of him. It is only at certain times that the mask slips and the reader gets glimpses of Cromwell’s plotting, of the way in which he hoards and cherishes past slights and relishes in the opportunity to get his own back. This is the result of the way in which this story is told and language is used - both are beautiful and deceptive. It is so easy to like Thomas Cromwell. Even while he is plotting someone’s downfall and threatening others into doing and saying what he wants them to, he is made to sound friendly, trustworthy and honourable. To get to the depths of what he is doing the reader has to interrupt their reading and think about what has just transpired on the page. But there is also the other Cromwell; the man who lost his family and treasures those who share his life. The man who comes to the realisation that:
“His whole career has been an education in hypocrisy.”
And finally he’s the man who has to face the fact that those he helps make their way upwards through the ranks at Court may very well be the very people who will one day cause his own downfall.
With one more book to come in this trilogy, and Cromwell’s fate well know I still find myself waiting for the rest of this story with bated breath. Not because I don’t know what is going to happen, but because I can’t wait to see what those events will look and feel like when experienced from Cromwell’s perspective.
As far as I’m concerned there is no reason not to give Hilary Mantel a Man Booker Prize for this book as well.