There seem to be a few mixed reviews out there about this Booker winner, which I must admit I was surprised by as I thought it was great. In fact it was so great that I abandoned much of my life, stopped the studying I should have been doing in the evenings after work, and manged to plough through this chunky read (it comes in at 650 pages) in not that much time at all.

I think one of the strengths of this book is that Mantel has taken a character who is normally the villain in the background and put him centre stage, and the tale she has to tell is gripping. As Mantel says herself in an interview at the back of the copy I was reading, “…it was the arc of Cromwell’s story, the transformation from blacksmith’s son to Earl of Essex, that fascinated me. I wondered, ‘How is that done?'” And her characterisation is fantastic, firstly of a resolute, tough Cromwell who decides when he serves his King that he will serve him no matter what, but who also has a human side as he imagines his dead wife flitting across the corner of his eye, and realises his vanity when he sees Hans Holbein’s portrait of him. But also of King Henry, a vain man, strong, yet weak who has had too much of everything, a glittering, brittle Anne, her soft sister a prey to men, and the shy retiring Jane Seymour. She paints them all brilliantly.

And this is where I would have my only pause. In the past I have never been a fan of historical fiction. I like clear boundaries, I like to know what is true or not, and before I’ve always thought these types of novels muddy the water, and disrupt the clarity that more scholarly historians seek to portray. But now I am not so sure. Instead I think you just have to be aware of what you are reading. As I started to like and identify with Cromwell I just had to remind myself that this was just one possible portrayal of him, but one that had it uses. Instead of seeing him as ‘the bad guy’ I saw an alternative view, and of Thomas More, who I have always perceived as a Catholic martyr but now with this, and the play Anne Boleyn at the Globe, I have started to question that clear-cut view.

So, actually I think books like this have their place in teaching us about history. But we need to remember as Wolf Hall says, “It’s the living that turn and chase the dead. The long bones and skulls are tumbled from their shrouds, and words like stones thrust into their rattling mouths: we edit their writings, we rewrite their lives.” This book looks from a different perspective upon Cromwell and may aid our historical understanding. My only concern is that we need to balance this against the drier scholarly works: it is an interesting picture but we mustn’t let the plausibility of well written novels rewrite history, we must balance the evidence. But, to me, this adds usefully, and enjoyably, to the debate. I will be reading the sequel eagerly.

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