“I have touched the highest point of all my greatness;
And from that full meridian of my glory
I haste now to my setting: I shall fall
Like a bright exhalation in the evening,
And no man see me more.”
Oh boy do I need to step up my review writing game, between a ridiculously long illness and studying for the USMLE exams, I haven’t had a lot of spare time to write. To compound the problem, I was tackling a mammoth of a book, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Set in the relatively early years of king Henry VIII reign, just as he was looking for a way to annul his marriage with Katherine because she “failed” to provide him with a male heir.
The unlikely protagonist of the book is Thomas Cromwell, a distant relative of the more notorious Oliver Cromwell. Now I am neither catholic nor even Christian for that matter so I never had any emotional or ecclesiastical feelings pertaining to Cromwell or the book’s main antagonist Thomas More, for me they were just historical figures whom I read about in the history books. But even I couldn’t avoid noticing a certain bias against Cromwell, he isn’t quite a villain, but he is hardly remembered fondly. While More on the other hand is an actual saint of the catholic church, so you know, bias.
But here, in Mantel’s book, Cromwell is a rather likable fellow, abused by his father since childhood he grows up rough but still retaining a striking decency, also very intelligent and more than anything willing to learn. He manages to move upwards, until he is the trusted assistant of Cardinal Wolsey and then later to the king himself. More on the other hand is a fanatic, one who has no qualms whatsoever of torturing men suspected of heresy in his own home’s basement, he is the sort who looks to Spain and sees the inquisition (which no one expects, Ha Ha!) and thinks to himself ‘what a splendid idea’. The king is a rapacious thug to whom the very idea of self-restraint is anathema, all that he sees is his to devour. A king like that is a hard man to serve, but Cromwell serves him indeed, between a pugnacious king who wants unopposed sovereign power to the crown and a religious zealot who truly believes there is a pious way to burn people on the stake, Cromwell chooses the lesser evil, the King, even if in the end it will cost him dearly.
The book ends five years before Cromwell’s own fall from grace, the King disposing of him in the end with the same swiftness that seems to guide all his whims, with Cromwell thinking about taking a few days off at Wolf Hall, the home of Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife and the one that will finally give him his male heir. Thomas Cromwell is a controversial figure, but Hilary Mantel gives him a measure of heroism, in his subdued way he saves England and for the son of a drunken blacksmith who used to beat him to a pulp, that is quite a life to lead.