The story of the courtship and marriage of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn is the stuff of legend. I could not imagine it being done again, and done with indescribable talent, until I read Hilary Mantel’s version.
Thomas Cromwell, Putney-born and a blacksmith’s son, has the brilliance, wit and savvy of the most enlightened man of his age, exceeding even that of his rival, Sir Thomas More. Where Cromwell’s life is full of energy, love and learning, More is circumscribed by his warped religious intolerance, culminating in the torturing of heretics right under his family’s noses at Chelsea. Cromwell has seen plenty of death and loss since childhood and has carried those memories into adulthood, utterly rejecting this earlier deprivation yet hardening him to the reality of Tudor life.
Cromwell is a pragmatic man, charming and astute. A consummate politician, he knows the follies and foibles of court politics – and how to keep his head on his shoulders while all around him are losing theirs. As Cromwell’s fortunes improve, and his political aspirations are met and exceeded, he becomes Henry’s closest ally and supporter. It is by Cromwell’s maneuverings that Henry marries and crowns his heart’s desire – Anne Boleyn. It is also Cromwell who breaks the logjam of opposition to Henry and Anne’s marriage – by defeating the power of More, Queen Katherine and Princess Mary, all of whom Mantel paints as full-blown people, not simply caricatures. Even they can’t help liking this fellow.
The recipient of the 2009 Booker Prize, this is a remarkable book told in a unique and compelling voice. The reader experiences Cromwell on the most intensely personal level, his humor, equanimity and brilliance shining through. Mantel’s use of language is almost musical, and I found myself rereading passages just for the lyrical enjoyment of the words. An amazing journey that must be experienced.