[I am reading this 2020 novel in manageable sections. So far I have read Parts 1 and 2, and written about them.]
7 March 2020
Part 1—I, Wreckage (I) and most of II, Salvage
Having read 100 or so pages, I’m struck by how much more dense this is than the previous books in the Cromwell trilogy. The style is the same in every other respect—the continuous-present third person narration, the unremitting focus on Cromwell’s point of view, the subtle use of speech marks to indicate which of Cromwell’s thoughts are spoken and which he keeps to himself—but Mantel has set herself the task of covering a four-year period in less than 900 pages. It might sound straightforward—authors can cover years in a page or two if they choose—but all these novels focus on the moment-by-moment working out of carefully presented conversations or the minutiae of Cromwell’s mental stocktaking of recent events. One of the latter becomes a kind of set piece, almost a tour de force, as he tries to sleep after a dinner with Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador we’ve met before. It’s a week or two after the execution of Anne Boleyn, and Mantel needs eleven pages to show how his encyclopaedic mind ranges over the evening’s conversation and recent events. She’s always thorough—and there are a lot of days in four years.
So, a lot of the density is down to Mantel’s fastidious rendering of the workings of Cromwell’s mental machinery. But something else is the sheer complexity of the way Anne’s death has skewed the political and religious dynamic. To help us through, Mantel has a five-page list of characters, divided into sections, and family trees for the Tudors and Plantagenets. It’s already become clear why the second of these is needed: descendants of Richard III’s elder brother Clarence are still living, and one of them, Reginald Pole, has just sent Henry a long and highly provocative explanation of a) why he will only ever support Mary as the heir to the throne, and b) why England must return to Catholicism. I’ll come back to that, because it’s just one of many headaches facing Cromwell in the early summer of 1536.
In that night-time mental stock-take—or was it the grinding gears of insomnia?—and at plenty of other times too, Cromwell remembers conversations from the recent past. Several of them are with Anne’s co-defendants before their trials and executions, as Mantel both reminds us of some of the key players, and gives us an insight into how Cromwell constantly carries all this stuff around in his head. Part of his reputation is based on the fact that he seems to remember everything. In this novel, as in the earlier two, not only is knowledge power for him, but he wants people to think he knows absolutely everything. He plays little tricks to keep his own mythology going—to the extent that when Henry gets his unwelcome missive from Pole—it’s 300 pages, in fact—he’s not at all surprised that Cromwell appears to have been expecting it. This is great… except, now that we’re in what Cromwell himself has decided is the seventh stage in his life, there might just be cracks appearing in the total trust Henry has always placed in him. If Cromwell knew what Pole had in mind, the king wonders why he didn’t warn him. Or get one of his agents to put pressure on him….
What Mantel is somehow able to convey is not only density, but the understanding that the density we’re experiencing is part of the texture of Cromwell’s mind. Maybe it’s this that makes reading her historical fiction unlike any other author’s. We know, for instance, that while Cromwell is talking to Chapuys, who has trouble with English pronunciations, if his own name is ever mentioned in the narrative stream it’s ‘Cremuel.’ It’s slipped seamlessly into the idiolect of the narration, just as Cromwell slips easily not only into different registers—you should hear the way he can become a Putney street boss in the blink of an eye—but different languages. He’s a European as well as a local, and only speaks French to Chapuys. And the fluid, encyclopaedic narrative style, as though we are looking at the world through his eyes, has a knock-on effect for the reader. As other people, council members or lords with an axe to grind, attempt to assess a situation, we feel vaguely sorry for them. They can try—and they might well know a lot more than we do as readers—but we know they don’t know the half of it. Only Cromwell knows.
However. There’s already been a lot of talk between him and the toffs about how precarious his own position could become. He remembers what a shock it had been when Henry had been close to death after falling at a tournament in Bring Up the Bodies. Then, he hadn’t been able to think of a single person who would have both the power and inclination to offer him safe passage away from England. But now, as Chapuys had been teasingly reminding him during dinner—and as we see soon after—it’s the unpredictability of the king he has to worry about. Cromwell had been instrumental in bringing about Anne’s death—that’s what those interviews before the trial were all about—but the fact of her beheading has been unsettling for everyone. If the king is capable of contemplating such an end for his wife, a queen, nobody is safe. There’s more of a mood of fear in the court than at any time before, everybody choosing their words as carefully as they can, and Cromwell knows he’s really got his work cut out for him to stay safe. Those powerful men have him in their sights….
Leaving aside the question of how powerful they are, what is it they want from him that will keep him safe? I mentioned the skewed dynamic, and a lot of it is to do with the fact that Anne Boleyn, the arch Protestant, is gone—and some of the men who think they were vital in Cromwell’s success in getting rid of her want a return to the old order. Which means, during this hiatus before anybody knows whether the Henry’s new wife will produce him a male heir, that the favourite as future monarch is Mary. This is anathema to Henry. Both his marriages have been annulled, so the order in which his daughters were born—the ailing Mary and the squealing toddler Eliza—is irrelevant. Neither will ever rule, a line that is official court policy. We hear not only the apparatchiks but also people like Cromwell’s far from brilliant son Gregory spout the party line that Katherine of Aragon was guilty of incest and Anne Boleyn would sleep with anybody.
But Cromwell also has to deal with people who don’t toe the party line. Nobody is blowing a trumpet for Elizabeth but, amongst the lords like Norfolk who want a return to the Catholic status quo, Mary is the favourite. He’s used to dealing with them, but it’s more complicated now. And it doesn’t help that Henry’s acknowledged bastard son Fitzroy, a callow young man with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement, assumes that primogeniture will give him the throne. Cromwell is glad that only he is listening to Fitzroy make his case—his speculations about a time after Henry’s death would count as treacherous in law, as we discovered in the time before Anne’s trial.
Described baldly like this, it might sound as though all Cromwell has to do is a bit of juggling. But in the day-to-day working out of the fallout from Anne’s execution, it’s far more complicated. All the time, Cromwell is interested in avoiding conflict because he knows that nobody’s agenda quite matches anybody else’s. They are talking amongst themselves all the time, and he has never been so aware of the fact that he isn’t party to every conversation. And over all of it, Henry seems even more volatile and subject to changes of mood than he was before. We know that he’s only focused on the possibility of a new heir, but things like that 300-page manifesto from Pole, safe in Europe, have knocked him off-balance. Why, he wonders, hasn’t Cromwell sorted out Mary’s supporters yet?
One complicating factor is that Cromwell isn’t a machine, he’s a human being. He’s known Mary a long time, sympathises with her plight much more than he ever sympathised with the self-serving Anne Boleyn, and… and he has a lot to sort out. He often delegates negotiations to his little cohort of proto-civil servants like his trusted nephew Rafe Sadler. He sends him and Thomas ‘Call Me’ Wriothesley to sound Mary out—it’s a matter of some urgency that she signs an oath of allegiance to the new order, rescinding her own rights, and she’s not happy about it—and they come back feeling bruised. He isn’t surprised… but they have to learn how to deal with things like this—and, besides, as was always the plan, now she knows what his agenda is.
This is why his working days are sixteen hours long, and why he might sometimes spend a sleepless night trying to square about a dozen different circles in his head. He knows he’s as indispensable as ever, but he turned 50 in Bring Up the Bodies and he knows how hard it will be to stay in favour. His memories are often to do with how he learnt his political skills, and they continue to serve him well. But who would want a boss like Henry?
Part 1—the rest of II, Salvage; and III, Wreckage (II)
Among other things, I’d oversimplified how Cromwell was setting things up for a workable outcome with regard to Mary. It was never going to be simply a matter of softening her up so he could move in with his own charm offensive. With Mary, it’s all about principle and she believes that to make the oath, she would have to go against everything she believes in. So the rest of the second section here, Salvage, shows how Cromwell brings Europe into play. He spends another evening with Chapuys, because his boss, Charles V of Spain, is one of the few people who could persuade Mary to believe that making the oath would not compromise her. He could get the Pope to agree, at this time of great diplomatic upheaval—i.e. when there’s a real danger of war if agreements can’t be made— that it would not endanger Mary’s immortal soul to give her father what he wants.
Mantel makes a lot of the actual setting of the conversation with Chapuys. It’s in an airy garden tower at Austin Friars, Cromwell’s place on the edge of London, and—and what? We’ve visited the National Trust properties, we’ve seen the TV versions of the books…. It’s easy for us to imagine we can see what these two men see, right down to the low-angled late evening sun of mid-June. Chapuys picks suspiciously at the strawberries on offer—we cook these in tarts, he tells his host—all adding to that sense that what we’re getting here isn’t the usual fare of historical novels. It’s more of a virtual reality evocation, like time travel, and that’s exactly what Mantel wants.
Later in this same section, after Cromwell has succeeded in persuading Mary—I’ll come back to that—there’s the set-piece, staged reconciliation scene between her and Henry. It takes place in a house Cromwell is living in temporarily as he oversees its refurbishment for Henry—Mantel tosses these Cromwell-as-fixer details in from time to time—and it goes as well as it possibly could. As we’ve seen in earlier novels in the trilogy, the focus is all on fabrics, brocade, needlework, starting with a tapestry that Rafe’s wife Helen comments on. She is very much an uneducated commoner—Rafe’s love-match with her is charming enough for it to have passed even into Henry’s romantic personal lore—and Cromwell explains all about Artemis and her story. Is Mantel, having kindly had him remind us how Artemis removed the heads of her unsuccessful suitors, daring us to draw a parallel with any of her characters? Or is it just about the self-mythologising habits of these people, prone to draw their own parallels because that’s how arrogant they are? Whatever, the Artemis story it’s all about the imperatives of sex, with a young woman at its centre….
Cromwell’s meeting with Mary had been one of the best set pieces of the novel so far. They have a history, including a promise that Cromwell had found himself agreeing to with the dying Katherine. He would look after the girl, then a sickly fifteen-year-old, and Mary has always known that he is on her side. But it’s a complex relationship. When they are in the same room, she looks at him constantly, as though knowing that all her fortunes are likely to be decided through him. And… and he lost two daughters in the plague some years back, is used to thinking about how different it is for girls to negotiate their way through the world compared with boys. His elder daughter, also Mary, had inherited a lot of his own qualities of quick intelligence, and he had been wondering what best to do for her when she died. Now… here’s Mary, not like his daughter at all—she’s naïve, clumsy and stubborn—but with qualities of her own he wants to help her to exploit. But she has a very long way to go, and after the reconciliation meeting he’s very happy that she’s going back to Hertfordshire, away from danger with her painfully, howlingly teething half-sister and the ladies in waiting.
And then comes Wreckage (II). What was I saying about sex and young women? It’s only a few weeks since Anne’s execution, and here’s another close relation of the king’s, his niece Margaret of Scotland, bringing new headaches. She’s lived in England most of her life, in the same sequestered house as Mary (I think), amongst the women. Cromwell is used to dealing with women, as we saw in Bring Up the Bodies—although the ladies who felt he trapped them into saying too much about Anne and her comings and goings are now wary of saying anything at all in his presence. He’s often frustrated by their fluttering, fussy responses to him, but at one stage, one of the ones he respects—it’s Reginald Pole’s mother, of all people—tells him not to underestimate them. I don’t think he does, having learnt a lot from having his elder daughter around, and when one of the sensible ones wants to speak to him about ‘Meg’, he listens.
Oh dear. A very minor player—so minor he hasn’t even got his own name, being Thomas ‘the Lesser’ to distinguish him from his half-brother Thomas Howard—writes appalling poetry and is a bit of a joke. But he’s the one who’s inveigled his way into Margaret’s affections, and her bed, her waiting-women keeping a lookout as if the experiences of the past months have taught them nothing. This is the problem with sequestered worlds, Cromwell thinks—they have no idea of how an unedited version of this news would erupt into more trials and executions if it were to leak out. Even as he talks to Margaret, he’s rewriting it. She considers herself married before God, and there’s no doubt at all what’s been going on—but, as Cromwell attempts to demonstrate to her, all that’s been exchanged are promises. No, she tells him. Yes, he replies. (I’m paraphrasing.)
I realise now why Mantel had Henry being all sentimental about Rafe’s love-match with Helen. Commoners are allowed to see qualities shining from lowly places—and it happened in the house of Thomas Cromwell, the personification of quality shining from a lowly place—but, as soon as the aristocracy is involved, it couldn’t be more different. This is what Meg doesn’t understand. Thomas the Lesser, ‘Tom Truth’ as he’s known, is from one of the noblest families in the land. What’s the problem? Silly girl. In Cromwell’s world of Realpolitik it’s a catastrophe. The niece of the king of England, choosing her own husband without consulting his wishes? We’ve been in this world long enough now to shake our heads in a kind of exasperated pity at her naivety, and before you know it she and Tom Truth are in the Tower. Cromwell has already drafted the Act that will forbid any such marriage and, at the end of Part 1, that’s where things stand. Henry is huffing and puffing, but he’s also feeling his age—that old leg wound is still troubling him—and he isn’t hurrying to heap the weight of more deaths on to his immortal soul.
Henry had been on a honeymoon trip to Dover, but he’s back now and other matters are pressing. By the end of Part 1, Fitzroy isn’t one of these—having become ill in about May or June, he’s dead by late July. It does become another worry for Henry, in fact, as one of his three supposedly illegitimate children dies to leave—what? Only the possibility that there will be a happy outcome from nights spent with Jane. But, after a dark night of the soul near the end of this section, Henry wonders whether God simply does not intend him ever to have a male heir who survives into adulthood. Fitzroy had been seventeen, only outlived, so far, by Mary. Henry’s mood is another concern for Cromwell, and he shields him from the view of the courtiers until the dark mood passes. It doesn’t help Henry that he’s had to give up riding for the time being, the long-awaited summer of hunting having to be confined to his waiting for others to chase deer and boar into his sight. Where’s the fun in that?
This novel is the last of the three, of course, and the reader knows what none of the characters do about Cromwell’s long-term prospects. Mantel is keeping him uncomfortable and (I suspect like most readers) I don’t know if it’s any of the problems now arising that will lead to his downfall in four years’ time, or something that hasn’t appeared yet. One thing that’s certain is the contempt some of the aristocrats feel for him as a commoner. Mantel reminds us of it from time to time, as when he visits Fitzroy’s house to check that Henry’s orders are being carried out for a quiet removal of the body. They aren’t, but the galling moment comes when he speaks to the older Thomas Howard, now the Earl of Surrey. Having been rude to him for about two solid minutes, Surrey sobs. ‘He was my friend. But you, Cromwell, you would not understand it—the friendship that is amongst men of ancient lineage and noble blood.’ What’s a Putney boy to do? Nothing at all—except to notice that Surrey’s nose is running ‘like any stable-lad’s.’ Only the rich think they are different. Everybody else knows better.
Other headaches. There’s suddenly been a rumour put about that Cromwell has designs on Mary, planning to marry her and, in that way, attaining the throne of England. We know as well as he does that it’s nonsense. Only non-aristocrats could ever believe he would come withing a million miles of such a goal, but it’s still a worry. Other people don’t understand things as he does, can’t see what nonsense such a rumour is. But life goes on, and he has conversations with the people he needs to. Reginal Pole’s mother, long reconciled to the Tudors and having lived comfortably on a royal pension for years, tells him she has no knowledge of what her son thinks he’s doing. She might be telling the truth, he thinks, but she’s also going to protect him as best she can. Which, of course, won’t save him. Henry has made it clear that he would like to hear of Reginald Pole’s death, and Cromwell has the means to bring it about….
He talks to the new queen, liking her unselfconscious, unobtrusive ease with him. There had been talk at the start of the marriage that she had been surprised by Henry’s demands as a lover—Anne, the story goes, had taught him plenty—but nobody’s talking that way now. Why does Jane want to talk to Cromwell now? Reassurance, mainly. These are just people, trying to make sense of their lives in times that are never certain—especially with anyone as volatile as Henry in the picture. His health is a frustration, his sense that God is against him is a worry for Cromwell—and the members of the Privy Council are starting to become unsettled by his unpredictable ways. When he stands behind them, so that they have to get up and kick away their chairs or stools… are they supposed to turn to face him and kneel? Cromwell thinks that would possibly be best—and, when challenged, explains that he doesn’t because he’s always with the king and wasn’t trained to kneel all day. He’s not Wolsey.
Wolsey. He’s never far from Cromwell’s thoughts, just as he wasn’t in Bring Up the Bodies. Part of his motivation in that novel was to avenge his death, as he checks off the men who had brought him down. Now, it’s more complicated. Some men who dragged Wolsey down are still living, but Cromwell isn’t contemplating any continued vendetta. But they are a constant reminder to him of how fortunes can go up as well as down. He discusses with somebody, maybe one of his own men or maybe one of the women, different proverbs relating to the Wheel of Fortune. He dismisses the old clichés, but he’s seen the truth of too often to rest easy. These are very uncertain times, and the ghosts in the walls are no real comfort. Stitching gets unpicked, stonework bearing Henry and Anne’s intertwining initials gets replaced, but there’s a limit to how much history can be excised. There are too many people, living and dead, clamouring to be remembered.
Part 2—I, Augmentation, II, The Five Wounds and III, Vile Blood
All three section titles have double meanings. One refers to the national politics that are always Cromwell’s main concern, and the other is personal. Augmentation, for example, is about the increase of revenues from the gradual selling-off of Church properties and land, but it’s also about the augmentation of Cromwell’s own power and range. Because for a while—it turns out to be a very short while—it’s business as usual. The backwash from Tom Truth and Meg’s little caper is no longer on Cromwell’s ‘to do’ list, although they must still be in the Tower as Part 2 opens…
…so he has time to repay a few old debts for services rendered to Henry. For this short section, Cromwell is at the top of his game. He’s at the top of everything, despite the way the aristocracy might chafe, dividing up confiscated lands and properties as he sees fit. There seems to be very little that isn’t in his gift—OK, it’s in Henry’s gift really, even if to the casual observer like you and me, that amounts to the same thing…. Except if there’s one thing we’ve learnt, it’s that there can be nothing casual about anything. Does Cromwell ever forget it? He’s only human, after all, and he has grown to like his little comforts. Or not so little. He doesn’t go in for showy dress—he won’t need to buy a new outfit for an upcoming funeral in the next section—and he doesn’t have an army of servants. But he likes nice places to live in, and a warm fire as summer shades into autumn.
As I said, his peace is short-lived. In The Five Wounds he’s brought up short with a terrific jolt. I can’t be the only reader who’s forgotten all about Wolsey’s illegitimate daughter Dorothea, in a nunnery and now floating to the top of Cromwell’s consciousness. Why does he go to see her? I forget, beyond the fact that he needs to make sure she’s going to remain safe no matter what happens. He often does this, arranging things for women left stranded by circumstances beyond their control. He had been to see Bess Darrell in Part 1, the woman left pregnant by Thomas Wyatt, the only one of Anne’s possible lovers who survived to tell the tale—not that he would dream of telling any tales at all now. It now turns out she was ‘mistaken’ about the pregnancy, but that’s OK. She’s sorted, and she’s something else ticked off his to do list….
Dorothea Clancey, as she’s known, is a different story. Cromwell goes to the convent at Shaftesbury where she lives, taking books and a handkerchief with St Dorothea-related motifs and flowers embroidered by Rafe’s wife Helen. And he slowly starts to realise that she has a big problem with the whole idea of a meeting with him at all. It turns into my favourite set-piece encounter of the novel—until the next one—for all kinds of reasons. To begin with, there’s Cromwell’s growing disorientation as he realises he’s speaking to someone who seems to hold a diametrically different opinion of him from what he had expected. He doesn’t start to splutter, but he finds himself saying things he didn’t intend. In particular, after she’s rejected the idea of suitable marriages to different men he names, he puts himself forward. Oh dear. By the time he’s doing his best to back-track—’you find my person defective’—it’s already much too late. ‘Your person is not defective. At least, not so defective as your nature and your deeds.’
We’ve never seen this before. It’s as though Cromwell’s never seen this before either, and he’s so completely wrong-footed he has no idea how to deal with it—especially once he realises what the problem really is. He has mentioned how her father understood him fully, and it’s her cue to come out with the hammer-blow: ‘He understood everything. He understood you betrayed him.’ What? What? She thinks he, Wolsey’s good and faithful servant, was responsible for bringing about the cardinal’s death… and it’s hard for the reader not to feel a certain degree of sympathy for him. It’s Mantel’s masterstroke in this scene. What is Cromwell’s proof, in his own mind, that he loved Wolsey as a second father? Why, those men he hounded to their deaths when it was expedient to do so in order to bring down Anne Boleyn. We remember the way he had ticked them off, paw by paw, as the men who paraded the pantomime monster of Wolsey as a hell-bound beast, revelling in his downfall. Well, they’re not revelling now—and nor is the musician Mark, ‘a feeble child’ as he remembers him now, the one he had thought of setting free.
After Dorothea has given him back the books and the handkerchief—he had been proud of the embroidery before being made to feel her dripping disdain—Rafe is shocked by how bad he looks as he leaves her room. As Rafe tries to comfort him, Cromwell carries on ticking off his proofs to himself that she has grievously wronged him—and, because we’ve been not only his mind but his mindset for so long now, we’re with him. This is the man who, by his own admission, sent a ‘child’ to his death because… because what? Because, as he muses on it now, ‘I thought, no, it is his turn to suffer.’ Did he do it all out of the kind of loyalty that means something? Well, yes, and we get that. And we also get that in the moral scheme of things, it’s meaningless.
And yet. Mantel not only knows we’re on Cromwell’s side, she knows we’re not sure about this. Without any prompting from her, we’re questioning what the moral compass is, standing alongside Cromwell as he muses on his own sinfulness. It isn’t a matter of his knowing he does wrong. He keeps England afloat, he bears the taunts of men who are inferior to him in every way except birth, he looks after the king… and what credit does he get? It’s enough to make a grown man weep. His humiliation is on a domestic scale but, in its way, it’s devastating. If he could be so wrong about what Dorothea thought of him—he understands almost immediately that none of his proofs of loyalty are worth a hill of beans to her—what else might he be wrong about? It’s another question that doesn’t get asked directly, but it’s hanging in the air. We’ve known for a long time that there are no certainties in his world and, as if we needed it, here’s further proof. And then suddenly…
…the scale of events isn’t personal or domestic at all. For the first time in the novel, we’re a long way outside the closed, tapestried interiors of Austin Friars or Whitehall—and a long way from Cromwell’s consciousness—as the scope widens to include the whole of England. A rebellion in the north is going to exercise everybody’s wits for the rest of Part 2 and beyond—but Mantel is a tactful enough author not to recalibrate the scale of the narrative too quickly. She starts it small, in ‘alehouses,’ as a rumour spreads that Henry is dead. This is Lincolnshire, where the drinkers ‘claim that the councillors are keeping it a secret, so they can continue to levy taxes in the king’s name.’ Rafe, reporting it to Cromwell, doesn’t even try to stifle a yawn—he’s been busy with the king for night after night, because nobody sleeps until Henry sleeps.
And, for a couple of pages, it’s as though nothing’s really been happening in Lincolnshire. The conversation ends as Cromwell has planned to meet Chapuys, and he downplays the King’s troubles in the north as they come to another of the thorns in Cromwell’s side, Mary. Henry could solve that little problem, and nip any rebellion in the bud, Chapuys suggests, with a carefully selected match for her. Selected by Chapuys’s boss, that is…. But that isn’t going to happen and, in that way this author occasionally has, we’re off and away again. What voice is this she’s using? ‘You know those nights, in market towns. A little money jangling in the pocket…’ and soon the young men are ‘daring each other to leap a ditch or break into an empty house. If it rained they’d go in.’ But it doesn’t rain, they don’t go in all night, and next day… and so on. The rest of this section is about how in London everyone begins to take it seriously. Archbishop Cranmer is worried for his own safety—he, like Cromwell, is seen as a traitor to the former status quo of a pre-Protestant golden age that never existed—and there are murmurs of local dissatisfactions a long way from Lincolnshire….
Who to send north? Henry has to be discouraged from setting off to show the rebels he’s as alive as they are, and Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk is put in charge. Norfolk is champing at the bit, and the meeting Cromwell has with him, helped by Wriothesley, Richard Riche and Gregory, becomes a comic set piece. They have to tell him he isn’t needed, partly because Henry hasn’t forgiven him for getting Fitzroy’s funeral wrong and he’s a great one for bearing grudges. The comedy is mainly about Norfolk’s total inability not to bring up the subject of Cromwell’s low birth, and fail even more miserably not to be totally crass about it. He isn’t as bad as his son, but you can see where Surrey gets it from.
Before that, Henry had been defending Cromwell among the councillors, because he’s one of the bogey-men for the rebels. He’s the one who is taxing them, stealing Church property, persuading Henry to do terrible things…. The king is so annoyed he goes too far in defending him. ‘If I say Cromwell is a lord, he is a lord. And if I say Cromwell’s heirs are to follow me and rule England, by God they will do it, or I shall come out of my grave and want to know why.’ It’s not hard to imagine how he would have used Twitter if it had been around in the 16th Century…. But Cromwell hates that kind of talk, and the inevitable innuendoes it leads to. It’s no accident that when the rebels’ banner is referred to—the Five Wounds of the title—Cromwell lists the pains he has suffered. ‘Five wounds. Wife. Children. Master. Dorothea with her needle, straight between his ribs.’ That’s only four, so far. ‘One withheld? A man might survive them if there were evenly spaced, and he knew the direction from which they would come.’
And then we’re into Vile Blood.
I just re-read this third section of Part 2, and… I’m becoming more and more impressed. I think what I like most is the way Mantel makes use of a range of authorial voices, and I’ll come back to those in a minute. But there are multiple narratives going on now, which Mantel feeds us in packets, usually of about three or four pages each. There are the events of the last few months of 1536—each named section has dates attached—which are mainly concerned with the rebellion in the north, and European interest in how this might influence any decision about what to do with Mary. Cromwell, of course, is finding a path through these difficulties, and Mantel’s presentation of him and his duties only gets better. But he’s also having to deal with the impossible position he’s in, a commoner who is a hate figure not only amongst the aristocracy but also, for his ‘vile blood’, in the rebels’ imagination. He is certain he is doing as good a job as anybody possibly could, commoner or not… but that doesn’t stop him being assailed by vivid memories, usually as he tries to fall asleep, of the coarse realities of his childhood. Meanwhile…
…as Henry is the subject of preposterous rumours both amongst rebellious peasants and European royalty, we’re getting reminders of how, in the 16th Century, kings really were perceived as a race apart. Mantel knows all about the myth-making that went on—I remember how in Wolf Hall she presented us with ‘An Occult History of Britain’ going back millennia, offering the kind of mythic context the Tudors loved—and kingship is at the core of it all. She’s a clever enough author to also remind us—I think it’s during a conversation Cromwell is having with Chapuys—that this particular king is only on the throne because of the actions of a rag-tag force of a couple of thousand. It’s no coincidence that Henry still measures the worth of the nobility and their families according how they performed at the Battle of Bosworth. After all, God was clearly on the side of the Tudors. More about kingship later…
…but I was thinking about those different voices that Mantel calls on, almost different authorial personas. We were getting something new in the previous section as we were offered that first inkling of trouble ahead: ‘You know those nights, in market towns….’ It’s the first four words that set up a new relationship between author and reader: ‘You know those nights’—Do we know? Which nights? Who’s speaking to us here? Who are we, that, for the sake of the story, we know about the way things are? It’s as though Hilary Mantel is going back to the first principles of novel-writing. She assumes the role of urbane person of the world, somebody who knows what’s what. Cervantes did it in Don Quixote, Henry Fielding did it in Tom Jones, this show of ease as the author lets us know that we’re in safe hands—he (or she) knows the score, and lets us know we’ll know it too if we go along with it. ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged…’ writes Jane Austen, and we’re captivated by the confident tone. This author knows what she’s talking about.
It’s an unusual style for a contemporary author, except when using the voice of a first-person narrator—and I don’t think that accidental. The sense we get from Fielding or Austen of an easy, relaxed agreement about how things are, often lightly overlaid with irony, doesn’t sit well in a literary world in which it’s a long time since there’s been an easy consensus about anything. Serious writers don’t write like this any more… unless they want to explore some new possibilities. Somehow, Mantel is incorporating conventions that we associate with first-person narrators into her usually strict third-person (very) limited narration. She seems to be moving beyond what has become her favoured idiolect for describing her sixteenth century world.
The two-page package of information we get at the opening of Vile Blood doesn’t really sound as though it’s been written by a 21st Century author. It sounds as though one of her politicians is saying it, perhaps Cromwell himself. ‘Aske: he is a petty gentleman, but the king places him at once….’ That’s the opening line. The next paragraph opens with ‘We have all grown up on tales of Jack Straw and John Amend-All….’ The next: ‘In those days the king of England was a child…’ then ‘It is a hundred and fifty years since that broil…’ ‘The common folk of England live on songs and tales and alehouse jokes….’ And so on. 300-odd pages into the novel, Mantel is consolidating what we’ve sensed from the start. This inclusive-sounding, consensual viewpoint doesn’t feel like the consciousness of a single mover and shaker in 1536, but like the mindset of all of them.
Does this happen again during Vile Blood? More than once, but the scene that stuck in my mind comes near the end. Things are winding down for Christmas, and Cromwell is spending a little time at home. Mantel has got into the habit of marking the passage of the seasons through carefully-placed references to nature, and it’s time for the pruning of the apple-trees—but not before this: ‘At Stepney, hedgerow berries are humble jewels, bright as beads of blood.’ The image could be straight out of a 16th Century poem. Then Cromwell is out with his gardeners: ‘Do you stand back, sir, and watch the shape as we cut.’ At first, ‘we’ are the gardeners, ‘the sweat running in channels inside our jerkins.’ Then they have finished, and hope for a good result from the north, where Cromwell’s nephew Richard is with those leading the forces representing the king. ‘Please God all our builders and our cooks will be back with us for the feast, and Richard in his glory.’
But that ‘we’ starts to become ambiguous. ‘Indoors, we unlock the room called Christmas, with its costumes…. We fit together the spikes of the great star that hangs in the hall.’ Who is this ‘we’ now? Straight after, the narrative is definitely from Cromwell’s point of view, as memorable moments occur to him: ‘What survives of the year past? Rafe’s garden at midsummer’ and maybe four or five other little epiphanies. I can’t think of another living author who would even attempt that segue from the ‘we’ of the gardeners, through a collective ‘we’ and right into Cromwell’s mind, all in the space of a few lines. Other writers aim to create a believable historical world, but Mantel wants us to think about actually being a person living nearly 500 years ago.
I remember what I’d liked best in Wolf Hall was her ability to get inside the mindset of the time. The way Cromwell, in particular, had to come to terms with age-old Catholic precepts being suddenly deleted was genuinely moving. Before, he could imagine his wife and daughters in Purgatory, and that prayers would help. Suddenly—gone, with nothing left for him to offer, and therefore no hope…. Now, in Vile Blood, Mantel is going for something almost as ambitious with regard to that 16th Century idea of kingship. Henry is a man, albeit one with uniquely regal expectations, so we get separate sections detailing the routine of his being undressed and put to bed at night, and being got up and dressed again in the morning. There’s even a quite extraordinary paragraph in which, as he chooses to visit his wife’s bed, the gentleman of his bedchamber ‘try not to think of the maidenly queen, her blushes and sighs, and the king, his grunts of pleasure, his sweat while he ruts.’ Thanks for not thinking about that, guys.
But this isn’t prurience, it’s Mantel revelling in the paradox at the heart of kingship as the Tudors understood it. Henry’s physical, corporeal humanity, from the nagging pain in his leg to his grunts of sexual pleasure, is what we have to understand categorically does not define him. This, Cromwell states explicitly, is what Anne Boleyn got wrong. She thought she was only dealing with a man. We see the man, all the time—there are running jokes about his vanity, his naïve belief in his own wisdom, his almost childish restlessness when things become dull—but Cromwell tells Rafe and Wriothesley that kingship really does make a human being into something different. He wonders how this happens, this mystic change at the moment he is anointed at his coronation. Anyone who has lived in England all their life knows about this as a kind of traditional superstition, but even for a complete pragmatist like Cromwell in 1536 it’s simply the truth. That’s how Mantel presents it. No questions asked, Henry is much more than just a man.
I don’t know how many different metaphors there are in this section for what defines a king, but it’s often at the heart of what Henry wants to talk about. This means Cromwell has to play an extraordinary, endless game of keeping one step ahead. He can’t let up for a minute, constantly has to deal with the behaviour of this vain, needy man whilst acknowledging, even insisting upon, the mystical basis of his power. If ever he catches himself forgetting it—he realises on one occasion that he has given an automatic, almost absentminded reply to one of Henry’s points—he immediately takes steps to put it right.
Two of the other things that are going on give these ideas of kingship a particular context, the rebellion in the north and Cromwell’s ever more insistent memories of his own childhood. ‘Vile blood’, a term from alchemy, refers to Cromwell’s supposed use of the dark arts to beguile Henry into bad policies—but, more tellingly, it’s all about his low birth. We’ve seen it often enough from Norfolk and his son—and plenty of others over the course of the three novels—that the son of a blacksmith cannot ever stand on the same level as the nobly born. There will always be vile blood in those veins, however clever a politician he might be. The dense interweaving of prejudices and more other motives, personalities with their own agendas, fast-moving events that Cromwell has to deal with hour-by-hour—when recent news is unreliable and old news is stale—can be mind-boggling. It’s why I had to read it twice.
But that’s enough of all that. What’s actually happening? Most importantly is the rebellion—which, in terms of popular feeling, isn’t entirely confined to the north. At one point someone, possibly the narrator, muses on how it is possible for a rumour at one end of the country can be heard at the other end more or less straight away. But the immediate military problem is that the rebels can be numbered in their tens of thousands, far more than the number of men that can be raised from the nobility’s own armies and the general population.
Eventually, Henry bites back his current dislike of Norfolk and allows him, finally, to march north, but by this time the most urgent matter is how to avoid direct fighting. The seasons are on the king’s side. November is cold, the momentum of the early days has all gone, and the leaders don’t really want to fight anyway. For them, the issue isn’t the day-to-day hardship of life, the ones that lead to the dusting-down of folk-heroes like Jack Straw and John Amend-All, but political and religious. Aske sees himself as a petitioner, and has sent messengers to London to make this clear. Norfolk might be champing at the bit, but he isn’t making any of the decisions. Despite the several urgent messages he sends to the king every day—carefully vetted by Wriothesley, who is becoming more and more a key Council-member—he is not going to be allowed to start any fighting.
Even before winter sets in, cynics have been remarking on how it will end in the way these things always do, with the gentry being let off after pleading that they were forced to take part by a mob that would have had their blood otherwise, and with a few commoners hanged. The stories of the ringleaders of earlier revolts are trotted out, how they were drawn and quartered, their body-parts distributed around wherever they originated from. By the time Cromwell is assembling his Christmas decorations the reader, like the politicians, assumes this one will end like all the others.
But it’s been a scare for Henry, brought him face-to-face with all his insecurities. He might be surrounded by men who tell him, sometimes genuinely, that they believe in all the changes that have come about since the break with Rome. The Pope is no more than a foreign prince aiming to extend his territory and his revenues—this is always how Cromwell describes him to Chapuys—and most Catholic priests and monks are sinful and greedy. This is received opinion now…. But it doesn’t stop Henry having his doubts. He remembers frankly his love for Katherine, ponders ruefully on how he has ‘bastardised’ two daughters, can’t help but wonder if he’s always done the right thing. It’s Cromwell’s job, of course, to keep these unhelpful thoughts under wraps. As he tells Rafe and Wriothesley, when Henry is in a dark mood it’s soon over, so long as you don’t engage him in conversation.
And whilst some of these figures are definitely the central characters now—we look forward to the next cynical dinner with Chapuys or the next head-to-head with Norfolk—there are plenty of others that Cromwell has to deal with. Like the queen and her ladies-in-waiting, every one of whom seems to have her own agenda. She, the queen, makes an impassioned speech to Henry, in public, about the rebels’ cause—but, for obvious reasons, it’s easy for Cromwell to bring the king round to the idea that it’s all down to her compassionate nature. Meanwhile, inevitably, he wonders who might have put the idea in her head…. Meanwhile, the scions of the Plantagenets are starting to scent blood, however much they pretend otherwise, like Pole’s mother the Countess of Salisbury. Robert Barnes, a cleric who has contact with the condemned Tyndale—is he still alive, or has he been finished off yet, somewhere in Amsterdam?—has to put in the Tower for his own good after he gives a radical sermon at the funeral of a murdered friend. And so on, and on. The murdered man had been shot only five minutes from Cromwell’s own house then, at Christmas-time, two innocent Frenchmen are attacked on the street and only one survives.
There’s plenty more, but… enough. More than enough.