By Hilary Mantel
The underdog is always seductive. And when he makes it clear that he’ll climb over dead bodies to achieve his aims, he is irresistible. Such is Shakespeare’s Richard III, such is Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell. Mantel has rescued from history an extraordinary man. Forever tied to Cardinal Wolsey and bizarrely wedded to Henry VIII, in Mantel’s pages, Cromwell becomes his own person. She paints him with such clarity, such humanity in all its contradictions, that it is as if she has made this entire story up just to serve him.
Of course, she hasn’t. It’s real. Well, not all of it. But the milestones are real. Mantel just shows us what happened (or could have happened) between the milestones: the secret conversations, the tiny treacheries, the unlikely alliances. And her angle is Cromwell. From page one she is rooting for him, and so are you. He’s beaten up by his drunken, tyrannical father and taken in by his sister and brother in law. He doesn’t even show glimpses at this stage of the man he is to become. His character-forming all happens off stage, during the years he’s away in Europe fighting in wars over causes he doesn’t much care for either way. Once we catch up with him when he’s back in London and flirting with court, we can see where he is now. And then it is just a case of following his decisions, his observations and his manipulations to understand him as Mantel does.
She makes it so easy. Her epic novel contains hundreds of characters, many with multiple names, many with the same name and many with historical stories all their own. And yet she strings them altogether, pulling on them only to show us more about this one man and the situation in which he finds himself.
I wasn’t a huge fan of history at school, but maybe that’s because we just didn’t have Mantel. Or a teacher as determined as Cromwell.