I knew how it all had to end and in the end I knew it was the journey that would make all the difference. And what a journey. Such an impressive body of work, the saga of Thomas Cromwell as articulated by Hilary Mantel. I watched one of her talks, on Youtube, entitled I Met A Man Who Was Not There. And felt enriched with insights, all hers, as I approached this final novel in the series. I could say trilogy when describing the series but in truth it all feels like one big book to me, the book of a life which cannot speak for itself, not without it becoming a "Oh, that Cromwell" type conversation. His story is not one a person can be indifferent to, the weight and heft of history being what it is. C'mon in and let Hilary Mantel invite you to a meeting you will not quickly forget.
It is a tale that by now has been translated into many different languages. None more slippery than English. A language made for cat dancing, all that is Orwellian working best in Anglo Saxon and its derivations. It can make poetry and song immortal as well as give an insult impressive shelf life. Yet can it throw a net wide enough to encircle and capture a life so full of Cromwell shaped gaps..Damn, she gives it a good try. Making imaginative use of the biographical married to the historical she weaves the threads of a tapestry as detailed as a Holbein but loose enough for an impressionistic take on matters we think we know all about. Its a literary hubris of course, look at the complete arse we make of recent events much less historical ones hundreds of years past. A dog's dinner pretending to be a Prince's feast.
I found myself not wanting chapters to end, pouring over words as though I were conversing with someone over a dinner table or in the corner of a smokey pub. The shadows thrown about the walls of the pub a shadow play of mirrors and light. Not a use for the title of the book Hilary Mantel intended but one that goes someway to articulating for me the shadows thrown by history and times past.
As I said, what a journey. To see the world through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, or at least to piggy back that vision. By no means an easy journey but not as serpentine as taught history would lead one to believe. For me it was more Erasmus than Machiavelli, good grounded sense and pragmatism in the face of international intrigue and skullduggery ( Probably explains why I would not have only lasted minutes at the court of Henry.) I suppose all historical narration is bogged down in perspective, the varied perspectives of the long dead and their equally varied agendas. When I think about the tangled roots of recent political scandals, how difficult it is in the present to get to a truth, even with the weight of photographs, video recordings, taped confessions, now factor in four hundred years of history. Especially when even the notion of a recorded history could only be carried out by a select few, with the ability to read and write, and they were by no means partisan, shaping events to suit themselves. how does one know what to take as gospel, and what aloaded expression that is, and what would be considered political spin? you can perhaps read and learn as much as you can and view it all through the prism of what you consider to be the unvarnished truth. You can try....
Hilary mantel is delicately aware of the complexities of the characters and times she has chosen to write about. And as such I believe she may possess the courageous hand s and eyes of the surgeon you might trust best to carry out an operation. She does not write people as good or bad, just as people capable of good and bad.Tudor England was a tough place to try getting by in, patriotism and fear walked hand in hand, with those closest to The King at most risk, with the occasional stumble from favor ending on the scaffold. Which off course was the fate of Thomas Cromwell, and when he stumbled he fell fast and hard.and even know ing this I found the moment quite shocking, perhaps having spent so much time in his company I hoped for a skewed circumstance, not to be off course. I actually found the humiliating assault upon his person quite harrowing, it was a crafted cruelty, a calculated attack where the stakes were as high as could be and those involved knew it had to be all or nothing. The Cromwell they assailed was not a man they knew would forgive and it took a cabal to bring it off. Considering this volume began with the visceral dispatch of Anne Boleyn, with her traumatised hand-maidens skidding in the gore as they attempt to afford the fallen queens body some dignity. Lacking a coffin they lifted it into a drawer intended for arrows, the placement of the head proving awkward. Yet the jackal like attack on Cromwell's person was terribly affecting.
Anyone reading this will have grown up in an era where it is suggested that with the right determination we can become anyone we wish to become, to climb to any height we may aspire to. As though reality is as fluid as intent. Yet Thomas Cromwell did climb , through a world where social mobility was practically unthinkable. The caste systems immutable and any attempt to break free of its constraints was reckoned to be ungodly hubris, and punished accordingly. His mentor, Cardinal Woolsey, was also the off spring of a working man,both dared to bump elbows with their betters, neither of their tales ended well.
But then neither did Henry's, although his was a much more protracted and torturous decline, from Virtuous Prince to sickness ridden royal petrie dish, virtually rotting within a fleshy cage formed by years of indulgence.
All these big historical figures had their time, they lived their lives in the moment. Their positions, by virtue of circumstance and birth, affording them princely perspectives to the feast, shaping the worlds they lived in as opposed to being shaped by them.
It was their world, everyone else just lived in it.
Hilary Mantell has gifted literature a magnificent body of work. Hans Holbein gave us an eye to the past, that which may have been lost to us takes on a relative modernity when viewed, as does Hilary Mantell's entirely humane reimagining of of a wondrous strange time.