I admit to having a bit of a crush on Thomas Cromwell. All right, he's a bit long in the tooth for me, a perhaps a bit round from the life at court that fills his plate and goblet with rich food and drink. And more than a bit too cruel, as he neatly dispatches obstacles to the nearest hangman's noose or executioner's blade.
But there is so much to admire in the man who sits at the right hand of Henry VIII. Thomas Cromwell, a commoner who escaped his father's fists at the age of fifteen, claims his fortune abroad and uses his cleverness and charisma to rise past sycophantic noblemen. He earns the trust of those who make the seats of power until the King claims him as his chief minister. Cromwell, as interpreted by Hilary Mantel, is sardonic with the fools who surround the king, vying for his attention. He is tender with his family - what remains of them after disease robs him of his wife and daughters. He is generous with his household, kind to the poor. And with himself he is circumspect, modest, resigned to his flaws. Irreverent, intelligent, kind, earthy - just a little bit sexy, you know? What's not to like?
Unless, of course, you are Anne Boleyn.
Hilary Mantel's brilliant, impossible-to-put-down Bring Up The Bodies is her lively follow-up to the Man Booker winning Wolf Hall. Which really, you've got to read first. It's not that you don't know what happens in Bring Up The Bodies (if you didn't sleep through that day in your European History survey course). We know Anne's head remains not long attached to her "little neck." But Mantel is such a master of character and of the subtlest of details upon which the globe of history spins - you'd be doing yourself a huge disservice not to soak up the first of her (anticipated many) volumes of the life and times of Thomas Cromwell. Bring Up the Bodies makes references to the recent past of Wolf Hall and its now-deceased characters, so just read it. It's as least as astonishing.
And I admit to having a writerly crush on Hilary Mantel. She upends the notion of historical fiction, smashes it to bits and puts it back together in her crazy-unique way of writing. This is Tudor England, but presented in an entirely new way. No over-wrought 16th century language, no bodice-ripping trysts in candlelit corridors (oh, maybe just a few). Mantel writes in standard English, with cryptic Cromwell as her narrator. Her story, rooted in iconic history, feels as fresh and relevant as the headlines of today's morning paper. It is history such as you have never considered before; meticulously researched - to the point that Mantel need only drop in a few key details to create a setting, then she lets the action carry the rest of the scene.
I love Mantel's use of language. It is modern but never anachronistic, never ironic. The joke is not on the reader, it is on common interpretations of history. Cromwell narrates in present tense, setting the reader in the middle of the action, rather than as an observer, several centuries removed. Mantel gives me such a different way to think about presenting history - what we know becomes the outline, the foundation. The shadowy, the obscure, become the story.
I know what happens next - my history books tell me the facts. What I don't know is how Hilary Mantel will tell the story. I can hardly wait.