- The Good: Rapid rise to power of Thomas Cromwell
- The Bad: Unengaging
- The Literary: Five years research ensures historical accuracy
In early 1500’s England, a fifteen-year-old Thomas Cromwell runs away to escape his drunk and abusive father. He does whatever he must to survive, and after a rowdy youth of soldiering in France, becomes a lawyer, a married father of three children, and the assistant to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Henry VIII, king of England is without a male heir, and wants to divorce his queen of twenty years to marry the young Anne Boleyn. Most of Europe opposes him, including the pope.
This historical novel is the first installment of an extremely successful and award-winning series. Thomas Cromwell’s early life is full of hardship, generating much sympathy for this poor boy who makes himself out of nothing. But Cromwell’s life takes a downturn—personally when his wife and two daughters die of the sweating sickness, and professionally when his beloved Cardinal Wolsey is ostracized and forced to leave London when he can’t negotiate an annulment between King Henry and Queen Katharine.
Unfortunately, I find the novel tedious for many reasons. Let’s start with the prose. The language is simple and no-nonsense, but combined with the distant perspective, it’s easy to feel detached from the story. In order to be as historically accurate as possible, Mantel created a card catalog by character, and that’s exactly what the writing portrays. It’s almost as bad as a middle-school history textbook, full of places and names and dates that are exacting but don’t tell an interesting story. Not to mention everyone in this book is named Thomas, and each is referenced as such, including Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Wolsey, Thomas More, Thomas Boleyn, Thomas Howard, and Thomas Cramner.
That’s not to say I don’t enjoy parts of the book. Henry VIII, Katharine, and Anne Boleyn’s story is by far the most interesting. Henry seems bipolar in his moods, more often terrifying than sensitive. Katharine is stoic and strong, and fights to stay married, even writing love letters to Henry well after their separation. Anne Boleyn is skinny and plain and cunning and strategic in a way that makes you want to root for her.
So why write a book about Thomas Cromwell? Well, his rags-to-riches story and rapid rise to power is fascinating. Cromwell manages to gain the ear and favor of nearly everyone he meets. eventually becoming an advisor to Henry himself, who calls Cromwell the cleverest man in England. He is the man who solve a legal entanglement your family has been dealing with for generations, convince your daughter to marry someone she doesn’t like, or keep you quiet.
So here’s the rub. I have no idea what Cromwell wants. Or if he ever regrets his actions. He’s strangely loyal to Cardinal Wolsey, but the reader is never shown why. Henry is a brute but Cromwell carries out his wishes with precision. Does Cromwell seek personal power? Does he want to give his kids the chance in life he never did? Does he want what’s best for England? Is he carrying out God’s plan? Or is he just the King’s errand boy? I don’t understand why I should care about Cromwell as a character.
Lots of people love this book, but it’s not for me. I’d suggest reading a short passage to see if it grips you.