This piece of historical fiction, by the English author Hillary Mantel, has a strong political aspect, which is why I recommend it to this group. It’s a sympathetic look at Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister. Cromwell is usually regarded as the “horned toad” of the fractious tale of Henry’s break with the Catholic Church. In an age where most government ministers came from at least the propertied class, if not from the aristocracy, Cromwell was an uneducated butcher’s son who prospered by hard work and shrewdness. Henry’s ministers despised Cromwell, but Henry valued his unquestioning loyalty. Cromwell, untroubled by Catholic scruples, was willing to assist the king in the matter of his divorce (unlike Anne Boleyn or even Henry himself, Cromwell actually was a Protestant.) And Cromwell was unparalleled in his understanding of the uses of power. It was in large part because of Cromwell that England under Henry became what we would today call a “nation state.” A reappraisal of Cromwell is probably long overdue.
I take issue with Mantel’s depiction of Thomas More. It’s probably a necessary corrective to the hagiographic portrayal in of A Man for All Seasons, but I doubt that More could have achieved what he did had he been as much of a snake as Mantel paints him. At the end of the day, More chose to go to his death over a matter of great principle — no man, not even a king set himself above God’s law. Cromwell went to the block for more prosaic reasons.
Mantel’s other characters — Wolsey, Queen Catherine, Princess Mary, and Henry himself, are well-imagined and historically well-grounded. The graceful writing style makes the book easy to read despite its 500+ page length (and there will probably be a sequel.)
The Booker Prize folks have made some strange choices in recent years. But their award to this book is well deserved.