I have just reached past the end of Part Two in the novel, up to p.306, so don’t read this is you’re not that far yet! The purpose is to reflect on what I am reading and largely to appreciate the reading experience.
I am mindful as I read that Cromwell (or Crumb as Henry calls him) is heading for an untimely death, but we really are seeing this tireless worker, this haunted crusader, at the peak of his powers. In one extraordinary outburst, Henry has more or less announced Cromwell in full council as his successor. If that isn’t enough to stir and provoke Cromwell’s enemies into getting him to the a Tower, I don’t know what is.
Mantel bequeaths Cromwell a feminine sensitivity. I was filled with a pang when Wolseys daughter turns her nose up at special gifts from Cromwell, particularly an embroidered handkerchief by Rafe’s wife. According to Mantel, Cromwell uses his appreciation of what were then the feminine arts to inveigle especially with women of power. Cromwell has yet to arrange, it seems, various political marriage alliances with more of these superb conversations.
Most electrifying just now was the dialogue with Wolsey’s daughter where Cromwell is horrified to find himself proposing to her. This is so NOT the Cromwell that Mantel has presented so far. He appears to be losing his self-control:
‘Or if you would consider me, I could, I myself-‘. He stops. Appalled. That is not at all what he meant to say.
She is staring at him. You cannot take back such a word….
Mantel uses this indiscreet offer of matrimony, to a nun, (perhaps emerging out of his present need to find a wife, to dispel the gossip that he was wooing Mary, Henry’s daughter, with a view to taking the throne), to reveal that Dorothea genuinely believes Cromwell to be the villain who betrayed her father and brought him down. We know, even in the pseudo-first person present tense style, that Cromwell is weeping with rage and mortification after this interview, as Richard Riche frequently urges him to be consoled. It is very unusual for Cromwell to be visibly moved.
In fact, I wonder if this is Mantel deliberately starting to unravel his smooth facade. It would be easy enough to show Cromwell’s guilt, fear, regret, ambition, through his interior life as she has done all along so adroitly. Part of the magnetism of the writing is that every encounter that Cromwell has is significant, people’s reputations and future are at stake. But now, everywhere in the texture of the novel, there are premonitions of Cromwell’s demise, from Chapuys laugh which is like a rusty key in the lock, to the aforementioned overreaching on Cromwell’s part voiced by Henry himself (just after a member of the council notes Cromwell rarely kneels now before the king):
“If I say Cromwell is a Lord, he is a lord. And if I say Cromwell’s heirs are to follow me and rule England, by God they will do it, or I shall come out of my grave and want to know why.”
There is a silence.
A silence indeed, who would dare to speak after that? Stunning writing. I must read on!