Mantel has written a construction of royal life in the 1530s. This is not historical fiction as we commonly know it, but it is more literary and probably that is why it won the Man Booker.
The events take place through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell as in Wolf Hall (see our post on this book) but this time he exhibits some characteristics and actions that are less loveable and more dastardly -- retribution for the action of others to his beloved Cardinal Wolsey but he is also a good 'servant ' of the King.
The language is wonderful. This is true not only with the chapter names, such as 'falcons', 'crows' and 'angels' which inspire great images but all through it : eg:
Stock-still in the great hall, a pale presence in the milky light, Jane Seymour is dressed in her stiff finery. ' (page 29 in my edition)This is prescient as she remains 'pale' all through the novel. The novel is also 'breath taking ' in the way the case is built up gradually -- men and facts being manipulated. 'Cardinal Wolsey is crucial for the tale -- Cromwell's resentment and grief drives this story' we decided. (He also has a debate with himself about his relationship with his cruel and physical father, see page 160).
We were fascinated by the lack of equity for the 5 men accused of being the Queen's lovers. Why was Wyatt let off when he may have been the guilty one? He wrote a poem about the queen and he was definitely attracted to her, so a case could have been written against him but he was saved by Cromwell and indirectly, the King.
The 'animal' allusion fascinated us -- a taste of that is seen on page 159 -- in a paragraph about Truth:
Truth can break the gates down, truth can howl in the street; unless truth is pleasing, personable and easy to like, she is condemned to stay whimpering at the back door.Later there is talk of the prisoners being 'a paw' of this 'animal'. All these prisoners are hated by Cromwell for their past deeds and he is revengeful although that word is never used by Mantel. Instead she uses 'grudge' and this shows that Thomas is vulnerable -- a sign of things to come in the third and final novel in this series?
Thomas Cromwell is a good subject -- he is an enigma of a character -- how did he manage to escape going down with the Boleyns? He is an ambitious man -- a modern/new man. For instance, was he behind the social reforms -- we were not sure.
It was also interesting to realise that due to fear of the King and his loyal supporters, no exact record was ever made of the death of the Queen, Anne Boleyn. So Mantel's story is only a version of the truth but seems a very believable one. Truth and lies -- a theme all through this novel. It is also deeply ironic and cynical -- Cromwell changes and is becoming a 'man for all seasons'!
The ending of this novel is pure indulgence for Cromwell. He is getting his own revenge but he is developing a lot of antagonism against himself especially with people like Stephen Gardiner. Another way Mantel is building the plot for the third and final story in this trilogy.