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Hilary Mantel's novel Wolf Hall (published in 2009) won many awards and accolades. Set in England in the early sixteenth century it tells the story of the rise of Thomas Cromwell: low-born; self-educated through foreign travel and varied employment as soldier, banker, cloth merchant and, latterly, a lawyer, clerk and confidant of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey; he survived Wolsey's fall from power and, in due course, replaced him as King Henry VIII's trusted advisor and enforcer.
Compared with other figures from the Tudor period Cromwell had previously attracted little attention from contemporary authors, presumably owing more to his lack of glamour than his lack of political influence. Wolf Hall started to remedy this deficit, portraying Cromwell as a one of the great figures of the early Tudor period. Now Mantel's new novel, Bring up the Bodies (2012) - the middle volume of a planned trilogy - continues this revisionary project. Shorter than Wolf Hall in length it is also sharper in focus: it covers a twelve-month period from September 1535 onwards, during which the controversial marriage between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn reaches its dramatic and bloody conclusion . In Wolf Hall Thomas Cromwell works hard to join them together; in Bring up the Bodies he works equally hard to put them asunder.
One of Mantel's great achievements is to present Cromwell both externally and internally. She provides a narrative account of his words and actions (which, let us suppose, accords well with the historical record) and considers their causes and their consequences. At the same time she invites us to share in his thoughts, memories and ambitions. She imagines Cromwell's beliefs, his uncertainties, his hopes, fears and consolations. She presents him as an enduring character - the successful political operator - accessible to and credible with a modern audience: a man who devises schemes to promote his own as well as the nation's interests; a man who shields his friends from harm; a man who scorns his enemies while planning their brutal demise.
He also appears attractive. Thomas Cromwell attractive? Not even Hans Holbein was tempted to test the patience of his audience by such a trick of representation. Yet in her novels Mantel encourages us to recognise the necessity of politics, however dirty, and to admire politics done well. Our great national causes - peace, security, reliable foreign allies, the growth of trade, the advancement of learning, religious toleration - have never been secured easily or cheaply. The King needs ministers who understand the ways of the world, advisors who can avoid costly diplomatic mistakes, clerks who will find the legal forms of word to give force to the royal will, secretaries who will ensure that executive decisions are implemented without error or omission. The King needs Cromwell because he does all of this and more.
Mantel's Cromwell is a man of learning, who reads Machiavelli, Marsilius and Melanchthon; a man of faith, who favours the reformers and despises the corruption of the Roman church; a man who values friends and family, who is a generous host and benefactor; a man of taste, who knows and enjoys the finest cloth, wine and art. She presents Cromwell as a patriot who, knowing the value of peace, is prepared to act forcefully and decisively against those who threaten the safety of the realm; and as a true servant of the king, standing in sharp contrast to the useless, status-obsessed courtiers and nobles, who neither understand what needs to be done, nor have the capacity to do it.
Today - thankfully - the monarch is no longer the sovereign power in our land, but is nonetheless a constitutional ornament of some importance. The United Kingdom has just celebrated the sixtieth year of the reign of our current queen. At such times we are obliged to endure much grand-standing by those residual, useless, status-obsessed courtiers, along with their provincial epigones dispersed among the English shires; obliged to endure the empty-headed homilies served up by the ineffectual leaders of the national church, the unintended by-product of the sexual politics of Henry VIII's court; obliged to endure the endless and breathless cheeriness of the celebrity-obsessed sycophants who populate our national media. Amidst all this regal tat and trivia, this pomp without circumspection, amidst all this nostalgia, bereft of true historical sensibility, we can find refuge in the life and work of Thomas Cromwell: a hero for his time and for ours.