The Woman in the Shadows – Carol McGrath introduces her new novel about Elizabeth Cromwell

Carol McGrath

In her recent Reith Lecture Can these Bones Live, Hilary Mantel speaks about the balance of facts and invention in historical fiction. It is a significant subject for all thoughtful writers. I listened to it just after my new novel The Woman in the Shadows was published on 4th August. Since The Woman in the Shadows looks at Thomas Cromwell from the perspective of his wife, Elizabeth, and explores their marriage, I gave close attention to all Hilary Mantel said on the subject of fact and invention. And, as ever, she was eloquent on the subject. For me, it was extremely close to the bone.

I hoped that I had put flesh on Elizabeth Cromwell’s bones. There are few recorded facts about Elizabeth and fewer about the Cromwells’ marriage. As Mantel advocates in her lecture, I aimed for a shape for the novel I wrote using the facts I could excavate. As I delved and wrote. the novel dictated its own form and rhythm.

I focused on creating a texture of ‘a lived experience’. I aimed, indeed, to activate the reader’s senses, aiming to expose a lover of the period to the London the Cromwells would have inhabited, the world of the Tudor merchant class. It is intended as a sensory novel and one that is not entirely linear in structure. Its narrative returns periodically to a beautiful and happy Midsummer’s Day in 1526. As it does, my narrative reaches back, and then further back into her story as Elizabeth moves about rooms in their final home, known to History as ‘Austin Friars’. My aim was to write about Thomas Cromwell’s early career, the relationship this couple may have enjoyed and to create a possible story and identity for Elizabeth. It was to bring an unknown woman out of the shadows.

Much of the narrative drive had to be based on informed speculation using the following facts— that Thomas Cromwell never remarried after Elizabeth’s death; that he had three living children with Elizabeth; also that he may have had a love child conceived during their marriage. Jane Cromwell (her maiden name) is mentioned in his will. In the 1530s she married one of his employees in the north; Thomas asked Elizabeth in a letter to keep him informed about callers and his various businesses when he was absent. Clearly, he trusted his wife; his friends sent Elizabeth gifts; Elizabeth was a cloth-man’s daughter and came from Putney as did Thomas; she was a widow, allegedly well-off. She had a sister and brother; her mother, Mercy and probably, when living, Sir John Pryor (Mercy’s second husband) lived with the Cromwells after 1525. There are few facts relating to Elizabeth, though plenty relevant to Thomas Cromwell’s career, to his family and close friends. 1513 until 1527 were the dates I selected as my perimeters.

As Hilary Mantel rightly points out, the writer is recreating a past world where she wants her reader to ‘hear the whisper of linen, feel the weight of brocade, experience the sway and clink of keys on a girdle, the sounds that feet might make on flagstones, or the squelch of boots trapped in mud.’ What would the past feel like? Mantel also speaks in this lecture about the vistas a character notices, and which through the character’s senses— her nose, sight, hearing—will reach the reader. I aimed exactly to recreate this sense in The Woman in the Shadows. It was the only way I could keep faith with history.

The characters in The Women in the Shadows are ignorant of the future. I hint at that future by building a tension between Thomas and Elizabeth over what existed within their inner world that could have been informed by events in the outer, wider world than that of home. I suspect, for example, that Thomas Cromwell harboured quietly observed reformist leanings from around 1517 onwards. This is early. He read and learned by heart in 1517 Erasmus’s recent translation of the Bible from Greek into Latin. It was new. The centuries old Vulgate Bible was long in need of reform. But ‘new’ was frowned upon in some religious quarters. Thomas, years later, was responsible for the placement of a Bible translated into the vernacular in Churches in the late 1530s, despite King Henry’s reluctance. Thomas Cromwell was a humanist. He would have discussed and questioned older histories and documents. He was different to Thomas More, also learned and a humanist, but a man who was exceptionally conservative in religious belief.

I portray Elizabeth as conservative, not wishing her husband drawn into dangerous religious thought, then considered heretical. This Elizabeth is distrustful of Thomas Wolsey and wary of the high nobility. The latter, to her mind, are full of whims and shifting ambitions. Evidence suggests that she supported her husband’s career. I do not depict the Cromwells as perfect hero and heroine. I look at Tudor London through Elizabeth’s eyes. The Cromwells’ London was a City filled with ambition, new ideas some dangerous, trade and the rising merchant class. Early in the novel, Elizabeth trades in fabulous new fabrics, having inherited a business from her first husband. This is speculative. I do not know if she inherited this business, but her family was in cloth and often marriages were brokered to family advantage.

And so, I discovered my story. I made choices and I hope that these were plausible choices. Yes, of course, I wanted to leave a reader hungry for more about the characters who inhabited this book. Yes, I hoped to discover a private meaning in Thomas Cromwell’s early career and I hope, too, that I immersed myself in Elizabeth’s wishes, dreams and desires. These notions, as Mantel says ought to ‘hover over the text like guardian angels.’

Finally, I want readers not to view this novel as in the shadow of Hilary Mantel’s wonderful Wolf Hall but, rather, as a story with its own rhythm and its own remit. It is a novel about a Tudor marriage and what it could have been like for Elizabeth to live in the shadows of a man, who was exceptionally innovative, if ruthless. Elizabeth, I felt was powerful in her own way; wielding softer power, a lady of independent spirit, whilst supportive of her ambitious husband’s burgeoning career. So ‘can her bones live?’—I like to think so.

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