In Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel continues her brilliant speculation on the life of Thomas Cromwell – Master Secretary and all-around fixer for King Henry VIII of England – which she began in her Man Booker Prize-winning novel, Wolf Hall.
A major reason Mantel is enjoying success with these novels is because she persuades us to take the side of a man who – looked at objectively – enriches himself working as a merciless administrator of state-sanctioned murder.
This is a pretty neat trick and I think there are several reasons Mantel pulls it off. Here they are:
Thomas Cromwell as Compromised Corporate “Warrior” but Man of Private Virtue
One reason readers sympathize with Thomas Cromwell is because he is an idealized version of modern business professionals, who are sometimes required by corporate structures or profit pressures to compromise their principles, but who work hard to retain their personal integrity.
Consider: Thomas Cromwell is a man of ambition and ability who wants to enjoy career success and earn a good living for his family. But the institutions in which Cromwell can gain this success are all corrupt. Worse, they are run by self-dealing, dangerous, and arbitrary men. And the most dangerous of all is Cromwell’s boss: King Henry VIII.
Cromwell thrives by focusing only on getting Henry what he wants and making Henry believe that what he wants is right and proper. Cromwell doesn’t think about whether what he does is moral, partially because ultimate responsibility for his actions lies with the king – Henry decides what will happen, Cromwell only figures out how – and partially because arguing with or failing Henry will cost Cromwell his job, if not his head.
In the areas of his life he can control, Thomas Cromwell acts with integrity. He has not come to wealth from greed although he has accumulated great wealth. He does not strike from malice, although he will defend himself and he will avenge his friends. He nurtures talented young men of low birth and gives them chances to advance. He loves his family and cares for his household.
This is how men and women who have succeeded in today’s capitalist societies see themselves (many times correctly), and these men and women are a large part of Hilary Mantel’s readership. So it’s not a surprise they like Thomas Cromwell.
Thomas Cromwell as a Horatio Alger’s Hero
Thomas Cromwell’s life story is a classic “up by your bootstraps” narrative. He is the son of a physically abusive blacksmith who ran away from home as a young man, survived as a common soldier on foreign battlefields, succeeded by virtue of his talents, and came home to be the “local boy who made it big”.
This story appeals to modern capitalists everywhere, and it should. The fact that Cromwell rises in a world where success is almost always determined by noble birth makes it even more appealing.
Thomas Cromwell as a “Particular but Persuasive” First-Person Narrator
First-person storytelling naturally encourages readers to side with the narrator (unless he is astonishingly and relentlessly loathsome), but Cromwell’s first-person earns benefits beyond the normal advantage. And the key is that Cromwell uses the word “he” instead of “I” when he talks about himself.
Some reviews have regarded this as a tick or affectation on Mantel’s part. But I think it’s astute. First, Cromwell is the ultimate dispassionate observer, and thus manipulator, of Henry and the court. He never allows vanity or greed or hatred or fear or revenge to interfere with his judgment or make him act before he’s ready and before he’s certain. The “he” fits Cromwell.
More importantly, the “he” in Cromwell’s narration makes you feel that Cromwell is showing you the objective truth, not giving you his version of events. Cromwell is not selling you a line. He’s not trying to talk you over into his point of view. He’s giving you the facts, Mantel is saying, and Cromwell in those facts looks pretty good.
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