The thinking man’s sexy history book.
The new Tudor dynasty has a problem: it lacks a male heir. At every step, civil war looms in the background. It’s this quest for a male heir that results in England becoming Protestant, with huge historical ramifications.Set in the court of Henry the VIII, it follows the life of Thomas Cromwell, a commoner who became the early modern equivalent of Prime Minister and basked in royal favour and riches.
Henry the VIII and his wives have now been the subject of almost innumerable histories, dramas and fictionalisations. But this era is fascinating and important-it’s the birth of the modern nation-state and science-the drama of the wives for me is secondary.
Mantel has really made this era original and unique. By focusing on Cromwell, the intrigues of the royal court are thrown into a more gritty and realistic light. Instead of Jonathan Rhys-Myers as a sexy Henry VIII who never gets at all fat or old; something like a real character is able to emerge. A king that is both strong, but insecure; powerful, yet foiled in his plans and dreams. Cromwell comes to power because he’s devious enough to start to make some of Henry’s dreams happen. He has a sort of ruthless, Renaissance air about him that makes things happen in a world weighed down by tradition, fear, and religion.
Mantel uses an intriguing writing style for Cromwell. It’s a third person style that often leads to confusing speech paragraphs where “he said” follows upon “he said”. The result is chaos. But on the whole, I like it. It pays off because the reader dwells with Cromwell, instead of merely seeing him on some sort of mental screen.
Mantel is not afraid to challenge the reader. The time and setting of what’s occurring on the page can change without warning; a tense sense with an angry Henry VIII can easily slide into a Cromwell dreamscape. We spend much time with Cromwell’s internal musings and thoughts. And while this might sound annoying, it is excellent well done.
In essence, Mantel has made the Early-Modern Period come alive. This is quite a feat, actually. Unlike the obvious romance of the Middle Ages, or the seemingly more relevant history of say 1930’s Paris with its tortured artistic genius in wine bars, the Early-Modern Period is both contradictory and complex. It’s a world that is both very medieval, and yet surprisingly “modern” in so many ways. It’s fascination because it is so unintuitive to understand. This is the time of Erasmus and Luther; it is the heights of Papal power, and yet it’s ultimate undoing. It’s the birth of science, finance and the modern nation state and yet a time brutal religious wars.
Mantel’s genius is to show us around this time. The Cromwell that you get to know is both medieval and modern; he looks to a future that we recognise. The encounters with the royal personages of history feel hauntingly accurate. This is historical fiction at it’s best: what it lacks in say academic rigour is more than compensated by a sort of historical heuristic that allows the layman to really get a real understanding of the period.
I look forward to finishing the rest of the trilogy.