Recorded by Macmillan Audio
Narrated by Simon Slater
Length: 24 hours 19 minutes
Narrated by Simon Slater
Length: 24 hours 19 minutes
Thomas Cromwell. For anyone living in the time of Henry VIII, his name alone would conjure up bitterness, anger and sometimes fear. But as Hilary Mantel reinvents Cromwell, she gives us the story of a boy who not only ascended to heights that he couldn’t believe, but who was also one of the biggest pawns that King Henry and Anne Boleyn played against the Church, the people of England, and each other. Abused as a boy by his destitute father, Thomas leaves England at a young age and finds himself seeking out war in France as a mercenary. As he travels around Europe, he makes friends in high places, eventually returning to England as a cloth merchant. It’s here that he makes an advantageous marriage and becomes the right hand man to Cardinal Wolsey, a man whom he much admires and who eventually dies at the hand of the King. When King Henry seeks to place Cromwell into an advantageous position in the court, Cromwell has no choice but to be the man the King wants. With his silver tongue, and alliances from overseas, Cromwell is forced to make the English people and the Catholic church accept King Henry’s pleas for a divorce from Katherine, and make a marriage to Anne Boleyn. But around Cromwell are men who are lethal to him and would love nothing more than to see him fail and fall. As Cromwell advances higher and higher into the upper echelons of the English court, he makes plenty of friends, all vying for their moment with the king. Will Cromwell deliver where Cardinal Wolsey has failed, and can he navigate the treacherous waters of the gentry and churchmen alike? In this remarkable and spellbinding tale, Mantel delivers her readers a Cromwell that is unexpected: one who is remarkably wise yet tragically placed in a nest of hungry vipers ready to strike.
I bought this book in hardcover the day it came out, in 2009, hoping that I could make time to read it immediately. Well, that just wasn’t in the cards for me! When I initially decided to go for it, I picked up the print version, which I had very little success with. I’m not sure if it was a concentration problem or if it was just the difficulty of the text. Then I decided to go with the audio version, and that made all the difference. The narrator, Simon Slater, was perfectly matched to this book. His British accent and cadence of speech left me anticipating what would come next time and time again. His voice was remarkably droll when narrating Thomas More and perfectly pitched when speaking as Cromwell. He even had success with the female voices in the story. In my opinion, audio is the best way to go with this book. Slater makes the story come alive through his narration.
History tells us that Thomas Cromwell was not a very nice man: a little ambiguous, very self-promoting and alarmingly cruel at times. But Mantel doesn’t play him that way towards her audience. The Cromwell between these pages is smart yet not arrogant, and has the good sense to cultivate friendships among whatever group he associates with. He is caring and compassionate, yet also has the power to be ruthless when the King demands it. This is really not a story about the King or his scandalous remarriage, but of the consequences that serving the King have on Cromwell and the ways in which he maintains his dignity while still doing the things he must.
When his beloved mentor Cardinal Wolsey begins his descent into disgrace, Cromwell refuses to distance himself from him, even though his reputation could, and in fact does, become tarnished. There were sections in the beginning of the book that showed the effortless and nonchalant amiability between the two. Throughout the book, Wolsey lives on through Cromwell, and in his behavior, he is emulating the man to a large degree but with much better results, as history has shown. Cromwell’s direct and commanding presence and speech give him the ear of the King very quickly, and though he doesn’t wish it, a large number of noblemen seek him out for advice.
In this tale, Anne is as awful as she has ever been, and Cromwell becomes her pet, doing her bidding to save his own hide. Some would say this was cowardice, but Mantel writes Cromwell with such feeling, and his private opinions about his service to the Queen-to-be are so wry, that I came to see it only as a strategic device and not an alliance of any kind. Anne and Henry have a very odd relationship, almost courting one another through Cromwell, who is the King’s emissary and Anne’s go-between.
I must also mention that the writing in this book was brilliant. Mantel knows exactly how to structure scene, place and dialogue to the most effective degree. I found that this was a book that I could listen to for hours and never become bored or overwhelmed. Her prose is elegant and smooth, and goes down easily. With Slater guiding me through this audio version, I felt as if I was being carefully caressed with the tale of a man who became the King’s confidant and the up-and-coming Queen’s pawn through her sly machinations.
Would I recommend this book to you? Well, there are really two answers to this question. If you are familiar with the history surrounding King Henry VIII, then a resounding yes would be my answer, but if you’re not the type to get caught up in the Tudor trappings, this might be a laborious read for you. I happen to love anything that has to do with the Tudors, so this was an easy choice for me, but those readers who dislike the political mayhem of England during Henry’s reign are best off passing this one up. Recommended with caveats.