a more sympathetic study of Thomas Cromwell
On Wolf Hall, by Hillary Mantel
This book is a staggering piece of work, and a great promise of the two future volumes to complete its tragic arc.
The genius of the book is in its characters. Mantel breathes as much humanity into them as Tolstoy does for his own characters. Thomas Cromwell, her protagonist, harnesses his native intelligence and cunning with a protean drive--but it is also vanity, malice, and a touch of greed that helps fuel his ambition. Henry More, his principle antagonist, is fleshed out with similar vividness. A mortal sense of urgency pulses through every page, from their first innocent encounter, through More's conviction and execution. Despite Cromwell's deft management of the prosecution, he passionately seeks to avert its ultimate conclusion.
The quest for a male heir to the throne of the mercurial Henry VIII, and his relationship with his calculating consort, Anne Boleyn--almost as much a pawn as she is a player--is the framework of the plot.
But the theme of the book is the relationships between fathers and sons. The story opens with a savage attack on Cromwell by his own brutish father. This is contrasted with the nurturing approach that Cromwell takes with his own natural son--as well as other young males that come into his household. All this is juxtaposed with Henry's failure to produce a son--that is, a legitimate one.
Mantel's prose is generally sparse; for the most part, she lets her characters paint the scenery. (she does, however, have a keen eye for costume and jewelry) She spends most of her effort in showing us the workings of their minds. Her dialog is rich in wit and irony--in this, she is the equal of Melville. If she lapses into postmodernism, it is a gentle nuance, and gives us greater access to her cast--particularly the women.
I eagerly await the promised sequels to this book.