I’ve been agonizing over how to rate this novel. I think I’ll give it 3.5 stars. Before reading the novel I had seen the BBC Wolf Hall series and would say that I enjoyed the TV show more than the book.
Mantel does a great job in convincing readers (me included) that historians probably didn’t do Thomas Cromwell justice in painting him in a dark villainous light. She tells a believable story about Cromwell’s love-starved childhood that is caused by his abusive, alcoholic father, and how he, in spite of it, forges a life of success and fame for himself and manages to rise from strength to strength in his political career, first as a an aide to Cardinal Wolsey during his last days of glory and then as a favorite courtier of Henry VIII’s. His childhood scars are a blessing in disguise and transforms him into a strong-willed, self-sufficient and goal-oriented go-getter. It is a totally plausible rags-to-riches life story.
What bothers me is that in her narrative, Cromwell’s character is drawn as being the opposite (or superior) to that of Thomas More, who is portrayed as vain, hypocritical and cold-hearted. I find it hard to stomach that Cromwell, whose opportunistic drive to climb to the top is borne out by his calculating and self-serving schemes, can be such a whole lot different from (better than) More, as Mantel tries to make him out to be. If those traits of Thomas More carry any grain of truth, then Cromwell, who is just as subservient and sycophantic to the despotic King Henry, cannot possibly claim any moral high ground. It can be said though, that they are both victims of the times, when lives are expendable at a monarch’s whim, but at least More has the gall and dignity to die for his principles.
In the Afterword, Mantel implies that her inspiration for the novel came from George Cavendish’s (Wolsey’s gentleman usher) memoir about Wolsey. Mantel’s meticulous research does shine through the novel. One gets good insight into the rancorous power contention between monarchial and ecclesiastical hierarchies in Europe, as well as the religion-related intolerance and thought-oppressive violence of the times.
As for the writing, I admit that at times I had to go back a few lines to decide who “he” is. I had the feeling that I had to constantly solve riddles. At some places, the disjointedness threw me off. But there’s also no lack of beautiful prose, though it sometimes gets a bit cumbersome. Here are a few samples of delightful lines:-
“He will remember his first sight of the open sea: a grey wrinkled vastness, like the residue of a dream.”
“He never lives in a single reality, but in a shifting shadow-mesh of diplomatic possibilities.”
“….she must have teased from her silver saints some flicker of grace, or perceived some deflection in their glinting rectitude…..”
“You can have a silence full of words. A lute retains, in its bowl, the notes it has played. The viol, in its strings, holds a concord. A shriveled petal can hold its scent, a prayer can rattle with curses; an empty house, when the owners have gone out, can still be loud with ghosts.”