Second in Mantel’s trilogy charting the Machiavellian trajectory of Thomas Cromwell.
The Booker award-winning first volume, Wolf Hall (2009), ended before the titular residence, that of Jane Seymour’s family, figured significantly in the life of King Henry VIII. Seeing through Cromwell’s eyes, a point of view she has thoroughly assimilated, Mantel approaches the major events slantwise, as Cromwell, charged with the practical details of managing Henry’s political and religious agendas, might have. We rejoin the characters as the king’s thousand-day marriage to Anne Boleyn is well along. Princess Elizabeth is a toddler, the exiled Queen Katherine is dying, and Henry’s disinherited daughter Princess Mary is under house arrest. As Master Secretary, Cromwell, while managing his own growing fortune, is always on call to put out fires at the court of the mercurial Henry (who, even for a king, is the ultimate Bad Boss). The English people, not to mention much of Europe, have never accepted Henry’s second marriage as valid, and Anne’s upstart relatives are annoying some of Britain’s more entrenched nobility with their arrogance and preening. Anne has failed to produce a son, and despite Cromwell’s efforts to warn her (the two were once allies of a sort), she refuses to alter her flamboyant behavior, even as Henry is increasingly beguiled by Jane Seymour’s contrasting (some would say calculated) modesty. Cromwell, a key player in the annulment of Henry’s first marriage, must now find a pretext for the dismantling of a second. Once he begins interrogating, with threats of torture, Anne’s male retainers to gather evidence of her adulteries, Mantel has a difficult challenge in keeping up our sympathy for Cromwell. She succeeds, mostly by portraying Cromwell as acutely aware that one misstep could land “him, Cromwell” on the scaffold as well. That misstep will happen, but not in this book.
The inventiveness of Mantel’s language is the chief draw here; the plot, as such, will engage only the most determined of Tudor enthusiasts.