The late, great scholar and champion of Thomas Cromwell, Geoffrey Elton, once declared that Thomas Cromwell was "unbiographable". The Thomas Cromwell industry has kicked up a notch under the impetus given by Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall" trilogy (of which this is the third and last book). Recent non-fiction books have raked over Cromwell's doings in enormous detail, possibly proving Elton wrong — but possibly proving him right!
Be that as it may, Hilary Mantel has performed fabulously in combining the uneven historical record with her lively and sympathetic imagination to bring us a rounded, complex portrait of a rounded, complicated man. The range of matters that Cromwell took in hand is simply dizzying, and it is only recently that writers have come to consider him in all of them. (As an example, writers about his work in civil administration have tended to overlook his activities in the formation of an English church, its doctrines and practices, and vice versa.)
Mantel's Cromwell is stuffed full of diverse aptitudes - to a degree that would seem absurd if we did not have the historical records to show it. He may not be the villain of his pre-Elton reputation, but neither is he a saint. Particularly in this third book, we see examples of his illimitable ambition; his growing frankness in showing his impatience with those (no matter how exalted their position or their family) who, by their stupidity or their malice, get in the way of his plans; his lack of grace in asserting his rights over others (for example his neighbour at Austin Friars); his lack of grace in asserting his might over others' rights (for example his holding onto the Rolls House after relinquishing the post of Master of the Rolls); his apparently unquenchable appetite for all the trappings of wealth, especially land. These all give ammunition to old enemies, and create new ones. And the reader fears for Cromwell as (s)he reads—for there can surely be no reader who does not start the book already knowing how it will end: with Cromwell on the scaffold, attainted and executed for treason. For that matter, Cromwell himself is conscious of this risk even as his prince is elevating him to the greatest heights.
At the same time we see Cromwell protégés — men who owe their careers to him — grow into statesmen in their own right, step out from his shadow and (necessarily) begin to diverge from him.
Mantel's Cromwell does not show much emotion. But he has his obsessions and preoccupations beyond his work. He keeps returning, in his mind, to incidents and relationships from all eras of his life. He absorbs and revolves snatches of song, verses of poets both good (Thomas Wyatt) and bad (Thomas Howard), snippets of French, German, Latin, Italian. In Mantel's writing there is much humour, much that is poetic in all but form. There are descriptive passages ; there are telling accumulations of detail (that in anyone else's hands would come across as mere lists of the fruits of the author's research). There are visitations by the ghosts of Cromwell's past. And despite this variety the result is coherent and satisfying.
This may be the best book of the trilogy. Each of the other two won the Man Booker prize. I think she deserves to get the hat trick with this one.
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