I discussed this book during my coverage of the 2010 Tournament of Books, but, until now, had not posted a stand alone review. This book was too good to pass by without my writing a full review, notwithstanding that there are already numerous, excellent reviews on the web. Forgive my self-indulgence.
The story is that of Thomas Cromwell. When we first meet him he is still a child suffering under the tyranny of his abusive father, Walter. Neither Cromwell nor the reader remain with Walter for very long.
What is clear is his thought about Walter; I’ve had enough of this. If he gets after me again I’m going to kill him, and if I kill him they’ll hang me, and if they’re going to hang me I want a better reason.
Mantel’s dark wit suffuses the book, providing welcome relief to the tense struggle for power and survival in Henry VII’s England.
The narrative picks up when Cromwell has returned to England and is beginning his upward climb through the Royal Court. Cromwell serves Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, another very ambitious man. Of course, Thomas More is an enemy and the clash between Cromwell and More is central to the book. Mantel takes her time in getting us to that crucial point, though. Her deliberate speed is offputting to some, but the prose is so well written and the suspense so carefully, steadily built that I quite enjoyed it.
History has been more kind to Thomas More than to Cromwell. Mantel brings some balance to the comparison by heavily favoring Cromwell. The reader is brought inside the mind of this man of (relatively) low class birth as he strives to achieve on merit alone. Because of Cromwell has to earn his social status, his wealth, and his power, he is a very practical man. Where Thomas More takes pride in unbending adherence to religious duty, Cromwell values efficacy.
The conflict between Cromwell and More is not just that between a practical man and a principled one. Cromwell is more than an opportunist. Mantel has created a true Renaissance Man. Cromwell and King Henry discuss Renaissance author Baldassare Castiglione’s idea of “sprezzatura”; it is clear to the reader, if not to King Henry, that Cromwell is the embodiment of Castiglione’s ideal. Cromwell is reputedly able to quote the entire New Testament, he speaks multiple languages, he is a fearsome fighter, and he is knowledgeable about textiles, packing, falconry, canines, and people. He exercises that “dignified public restraint” urged by Castiglione, openly asserting himself only when necessary.
Cromwell himself places less stock in his “sprezzatura”. He does not believe his graceful excellence in a breadth of fields is what allows him to succeed where lesser men fail.
You don’t get on by being original. You don’t get on by being bright. You don’t get on by being strong. You get on by being a subtle crook…
So is Cromwell the good guy or a crook? He is both. He is easily the hero of this book and, in fact, is painted with perhaps a bit too much humanity (e.g. the scenes of caring for animals, children, and/or the elderly where others are more cold-hearted). He sees himself as a “subtle crook” and he is. He is a crook like Robin Hood. Those he swindles are the powerful, the overbearing, and the undeservingly rich in either wealth or esteem. Cromwell’s crookery is heroism. He beats the bad guys at their own game.
The re-imagining of Cromwell as the good guy and Thomas More as the bad guy is not just a charming story of a bad boy hero, but corresponds with a shift in cultural and moral standards. Thomas More’s dogmatic religiosity is disfavored in today’s society, whereas a modern reader will almost certainly laud Cromwell’s rise on merit and his questioning of received wisdom. Mantel most clearly defines the contrast between the men in this paragraph in which Cromwell attempts to understand More:
Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, “Purgatory.” Show me where it says “relics, monks, nuns.” Show me where it says “Pope.”
While I may be particularly situated to appreciate Cromwell’s aversion to received dogmatism, Mantel is tapping into a vibrant strain in current culture. In important ways, Mantel is telling us more about our world and our century than she is about the 16th century. This is a narrative about the England of the 1500s, but the questions it poses are modern ones.
Mantel manages the large themes well and supports them with sometimes stunningly intricate details. For an example, take the scene in which Cromwell and Rafe Sadler, Cromwell’s son by upbringing if not by birth, play chess.
For a long time they sit gazing at their pieces, at the configuration which locks them in place. They see it coming: stalemate. “We’re too good for each other.”
“Perhaps we ought to play against other people.”
“Later. When we can wipe out all-comers.”
Rafe says, “Ah, wait!” He seizes his knight and makes it leap. Then he looks at the result, aghast.
“Rafe, you are foutu.”
For those who know little about chess, the scene works excellently, I suspect. Rafe tries too hard to win and goes from a draw to a loss, a tempermental difference also shown by their relative interest in playing other people. Rafe is eager where Cromwell is cautious to wait until sure of his advantage.
I tend to waste far too much time playing chess, so the details of literary descriptions of chess games interest me. Books so often get chess wrong.
A stalemate is a very specific type of position which modern rules declare a draw. Wikipedia has an excellent article on the technical definition of stalemate with this accurate explanation of the circumstances in which it generally arises:
During the endgame, stalemate is a resource that can enable the player with the inferior position to draw the game. In more complicated positions, stalemate is much rarer, usually taking the form of a swindle that succeeds only if the superior side is inattentive.
What initially bothered me about the scene is that the implication is that both players see the stalemate coming and cannot avoid it, proving how equally matched they are. “Draw” would work, at first glance, better than “stalemate” in the scene because a draw without stalemate is the much more likely result in the case of evenly matched opponents, particularly in complex positions. Specifiying a stalemate invites the chess-literate (obsessed) reader to speculate as to what sort of position has arisen. The position must not involve a swindle or they would not both see it coming. The position must be complex. In a simple position, even a moderately experienced player would not try to avoid a stalemate if the only alternative were an losing move because it would be easy to see the alternative move was losing. It is extremely difficult to imagine a position where both sides have equal material and equal advantage but the game is headed to an inevitable stalemate absent error. “Draw” is less jarring than “stalemate”.
What works is that such a position is possible. And “stalemate” is the better literary choice because a stalemate is precisely what occurs in the larger story. King Henry VIII is left without any legal moves in his quest to marry Anne Boleyn. The parallel is nicely done. The coordination between this otherwise insignificant game and the subject of the novel would be lost if Mantel had written a more pedestrian draw. “Stalemate” is necessary, really, to her artistic purposes.
But there is another potential problem: historical plausibility. My examination of stalemate possibilities resulted in my stumbling across the history of the stalemate rule. It has not always been treated as a draw. In fact, in England stalemate was not considered a draw until the 19th century. Mantel is saved, however, because Italy adopted the rule that a stalemate was a draw in the 13th century. Cromwell spent considerable time in Italy and, therefore, could have adopted that rule and taught it to Rafe. Again, Mantel’s scene achieves, barely, plausibility.
And so my initial questioning of the scene resulted in a vindication of Mantel’s choice. The parallel between the game and the narrative is beautiful and, importantly to me, does not come at the expense of accuracy. My faith in Mantel’s research and fidelity to plausibility is strengthened; my admiration of her artistic achievement is enhanced.
Of course, most readers will care little about the chess details of that very short scene. It is only a very small reason why I am so impressed with the work. I tried to point out a number of the larger reasons before launching into my chess pedantry. But there are still more.
The use of “he” as usually referring to Cromwell is a pleasingly original narrative technique that has been pointed out and discussed by others. Likewise, Mantel’s ability to draw the reader into the King Henry’s court has been eloquently lauded before.
There is a great deal more to love about this book too. I found the prose always excellent and sometimes delightful. Rather than try to continue cataloguing all Mantel’s successes, I will leave you with one of my favorite snatches of her prose:
Anne struggles to sit up, she sees him clearly, she smiles, she says his name. They bring a basin of water strewn with rose petals, and wash her face; her finger reaches out, tentative, to push the petals below the water, so each of them becomes a vessel shipping water, a cup, a perfumed grail.