Mantel’s Cromwell

Freya Johnston on Hilary Mantel’s new novel:

The Mirror and the Light, like Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, conceals through a mass of beautifully observed local colour the quiet work of advocacy it is constantly performing. Mantel is implicitly urging us to feel more sympathy for one character than for others. She does so by virtue of granting or withholding knowledge of what is going on inside her characters’ heads. The way that she handles the representation of thought processes and the mingling of those processes with an ostensibly impersonal narrative voice — in other words, her free indirect style — seem to rule out access to the ways in which bad characters think. Or perhaps she cannot help but make bad people into better ones. The prose is so raptly and sympathetically attuned to Cromwell that, despite his actions, we are made to find him at worst intriguing, sometimes manipulative — but even then, understandably so.

This comment is interesting to me, because I wrote something similar when reviewing the first volume of the trilogy ten years ago

This psychological focus is especially important because Mantel clearly thinks of Cromwell as the most modern person in her story — the one most like Us. In her vision he is an utterly non-ideological man with little intrinsic interest in power forced to live in a profoundly ideological and power-mad age. His strongest feelings are for his wife and children — he loses that wife and both of his daughters to the “sweating sickness” (we would call it malaria) — and when a colleague finds him weeping over his dead loved ones, Cromwell pretends that he cries for fear that he will fall when the Cardinal does. The lie is more than plausible: no one in Henry’s court could think of a more likely reason for tears. Cromwell is even tender towards animals, in an age noted for its cruelty to them. The conventional narratives of the Tudor age contrast Thomas More’s reluctant ascent to power, and stubborn loyalty to the Church even in the face of death, with Cromwell’s unprincipled Machiavellian shrewdness. Mantel doesn’t quite invert the equation, but she nearly does. Confined as we are to Cromwell’s perspective, we can’t know what really motivates More, but Cromwell certainly doubts that the piety goes all the way down: at one point he even asks More directly whether he could have risen to the place of Lord Chancellor “by accident.”

Later I wrote: “Mantel’s Cromwell is a characteristically late-modern Western man who happens to be living at the beginnings of modernity. By envisioning him so, Mantel has rendered much simpler the task of making the historical novel into a psychological novel. Could she have told the story of More, or for that matter Tyndale, in this manner? I think not. Author and protagonist merge nicely at this point: the True Believer remains inaccessible to them both.”

That’s why I didn’t go on to the second, and will not go on to the third, volume: Mantel seems interested in the inner lives only of those characters with whom she can muster significant sympathy. Oh for a writer who wants to grapple seriously with those whose beliefs and commitments are alien to her! 

February 26, 2020

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