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IS THERE anything we do not know about the reign of Henry VIII? Is there anything any writer, however good, can add? Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novel deals with the life of Thomas Cromwell, from his obscure origins in Putney, c.1485, up to July 1535, shortly after the execution of Sir Thomas More.
The most interesting part of the novel is the first part, which tells of Cromwell’s youth, and his rise through the service of Cardinal Wolsey. Because the sources are so scant, Mantel’s imagination is given full rein, and the scenes of the boy Thomas being mistreated by his cruel father, Walter, have a certain dramatic flair.
Likewise, because Wolsey is not such well-trodden territory as others, Mantel can have some fun with his character. Her Wolsey is a man with a sense of humour, friendly, frank, and, in his adversity, both touching and dignified. Likewise, Cromwell is at his best and most human with his wife, Liz, and with Wolsey. The picture of domestic life that emerges is engaging, and there is a great deal of pathos in the description of the way disease cuts a swath through human attachments.
As Cromwell arrives at court, however, there is no escaping the deadening descriptions of what we have heard so many times before. Queen Katharine has a thickening waist; Anne Boleyn has black eyes, a slender neck, and is a good dancer; the baby Elizabeth has red hair. All of this we could do without. It has all been done before, and done well, by novelists of the Jean Plaidy school, most recently Philippa Gregory.
It has all been neatly side-stepped by the excellent C. J. Samson, whose enthralling novels about Henrician England give us only occasional glances at the familiar. But Hilary Mantel is intent on giving us the thorough Tudor treatment, and we are spared nothing.
Perhaps, for some readers, the 650 pages are made easy by the deftness of her style. It is true that Mantel is a good writer, but at this length one begins to spot her stylistic tricks from a distance: the constant use of the present tense, the sly phrasing, the preponderance of scenes set at night, the use of prolepsis, and, which becomes truly irritating, the occasional descent into magical realism.
What may be enthralling for some, may well be grating for the less indulgent reader, for whom less — much less — would be more.
Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith IC is the author of Narrative Theology and Moral Theology (Ashgate 2007).
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