I really need to buckle down if I am to finish reading this book by Tuesday. A big chunk of this post is full of spoilers so consider this a warning, though I’m not sure how I can possibly spoil a novel based on 400-year old historical events….
Halfway through Wolf Hall, Cardinal Wolsey is dead and Thomas Cromwell’s star is on the rise. The very people who orchestrated his patron’s downfall–the Boleyns and the Howards–have all turned their flowery attentions on to him. Even the king himself is intrigued by his seemingly foolhardy loyalty towards Wolsey, though Henry VIII gradually starts valuing him for his shrewd mind and candid attitude. From being a mere blacksmith’s son, Cromwell is now one of the most admired men within the king’s court.
His home life is just as eventful, though often for tragic reasons. His wife Liz Wykys and two daughters die in quick succession, succumbing to a fierce and mysterious disease called the English sweating sickness. Mantel does a great job in conveying how these deaths affect Cromwell without betraying his sardonic and taciturn personality. It’s all about the little gestures here, how he remembers that his daughter Anne wanted to learn Greek, how he had once created a lavish pair of angel wings for his little Grace. Aside from these tragedies, the Cromwell household also grows bigger with the arrival of some relatives, such as the family of Johane Wykys, Cromwell’s sister-in-law.
Mantel also explores Cromwell’s relationship with his two surrogate sons, Richard (son of his sister Kat, who eventually changes his name to Cromwell) and Rafe (his ward and protege). He is not as close to his own son Gregory, though that may change since Gregory is still fifteen. It’s obvious that Thomas is fond of people who rise above their ignominious origins and rise to power through sheer gall–Wolsey, Anne Boleyn, Rafe, and Richard. A reflection on himself? This is the common thread going through the people whom he chooses to help, despite seeming as if his alliances are merely matters of positioning.
Since epidemics feature prominently in the story, I have formed this slightly hare-brained theory: Henry VIII is like a plague. I don’t mean this in the sense that people should be at all times running away from him (though I have no compunction whatsoever in making fun of ol’ Harry) but more that he is an unpredictable, devious, and often irrational force that governs peoples lives. Much like the way England at the cusp of the Renaissance still has people who believe that their fates are tied up with the stars. Henry is as changeable as the plagues that terrorize the English islands. Contrast that with Anne Boleyn, who is more of a scheming, thinking force.
She is still not Queen, but Anne is holding more and more sway within the court now that he counts Cromwell as an ally. Henry has sought the help of scholars in scrounging up biblical evidence that his marriage to Katherine is null. England’s notorious break from the Catholic Church is looming on the horizon, though from the way Mantel characterizes the atmosphere of England at the time, the king’s capriciousness is not the only thing causing the rupture.
England and Europe in the 1530s are kingdoms in flux, with the unquestioned supremacy of the Church losing ground to people like Martin Luther and other “heretics.” At the crux of this conflict is the right of the people to translate and read the Bible in languages other than Latin. Thomas Cromwell is very much at the side of the secularism here. He owns and smuggles illicit books himself, something that Thomas More, Lord Chancellor after Wolsey, suspects. More is the zealous guardian of the Church’s teachings and he does this by imprisoning, torturing, and burning every person that carries even a whiff of heretical thought. I think a showdown between Cromwell and More is coming.
So far, I’ve found the book to be monumentally engaging. Political machinations, oh my! Mantel is so good with dialogue and the way the courtiers insult each other is so deliciously evil. I know that Cromwell will become even closer to Anne by the end of the novel so I’m really looking forward to reading how Mantel manages that.