The Woman in the Shadows

Written by Carol McGrath
Review by Edward James

This is the story of Elizabeth Cromwell, wife of Henry VIII’s minister, Thomas Cromwell, famous for dissolving the monasteries. But hasn’t Hilary Mantel already covered Thomas Cromwell, to great acclaim? Indeed, but Elizabeth died before Thomas started work for Henry, and there is little about the king, the Reformation, or Anne Boleyn in this book. This is the story of an upper middle-class lady with little interest in politics and a lot of interest in the cloth trade.

In her Author Note, Carol McGrath tells us that she wanted ‘to give a sensory portrait of London during this era… a sense of birth, marriage and death rituals… inclusive of the major festivals’. This she achieves magnificently. The clothes, the jewellery, the furniture and the food are presented in all their texture, shine and taste, and we share in all the feasts, parades and celebrations.

The author livens the narrative with an arson attack, a swordfight, a malevolent former suitor and a suspected infidelity, but true to the title, this remains the story of a woman in the shadows. McGrath succeeds brilliantly within her self-imposed limits, and if you are looking for a complement to the high drama of Court politics, this is it.