In the BBC documentary released to coincide with the publication of her latest novel, Hilary Mantel claimed that she was less proud of having made it as a woman writer than she was of having made it as a working class one. It is hard to read her Cromwell trilogy (of which the recent book, The Mirror and the Light, is the final part) without wondering if she had this in mind when she chose her subject. Her account of Thomas Cromwell, who escaped an anonymous childhood in Putney and rose to become the second-most powerful man in England, is undoubtedly a striking example of working-class success: a portrait of a figure who did what he had to do to survive and thrive in a society where, by rights, he should have become nothing at all.
How to explain Cromwell’s journey from blacksmith’s son to political heavyweight? Surely there is no one cause, but what stands out in Mantel’s narrative is the ingenuity of a man with an astonishingly wide-ranging and versatile skill set. His natural intelligence, his eye for detail and his industriousness mean little to many of the entitled nobles who care only for status and are loath to have their position challenged; but the king sees in Cromwell a useful tool, and promotes him in spite of his background. Fundamentally, though, he remains an outsider in a milieu where he does not belong: however much his prodigious abilities and personal charm might paper the cracks, he is never allowed to forget that, in the world of the nobility, he remains irreducibly other.
The frustrations, irritations, and nagging discomforts of Cromwell’s position in the royal court are plain to see. His talents are scorned by idiots whose only political qualification is their hereditary title. His audiences with the king are frequently usurped by courtiers who often have nothing more important to do with him than reminisce over shared boyhood escapades. When uprisings break out across the country in protest against his influence on affairs of state, he doesn’t even have the facilities to raise a proper army. In spite of these barriers and thanks to nothing but superior wit, tireless work, and an occasional lack of compunction, Cromwell manages to barge his way into the innermost circle of the born-to-rule, using his unlikely position to implement sweeping political change without regard for his supposed lack of belonging.
Where it is not made blatant by sneering elitists, the implications of Cromwell’s class difference manifest themselves more profoundly in the novels through his deep-seated awareness of his own precarious position. At the start of the first book, his erstwhile mentor and friend Cardinal Wolsey, himself a butcher’s boy, is reduced from being the most powerful prelate in England to total ignominy after failing to get Henry VIII a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Cromwell eventually succeeds where Wolsey failed, but all three novels are shot through with an awareness that a similar error in future might destroy him too. Cromwell works tirelessly, and Mantel’s narrative mode provides an insight into a polymath mind that is constantly assessing the present situation, teasing out possibilities, pitfalls, even potential escape routes. He is painfully aware that, for a man of his station, a single moment of complacency could be ruinous.
Of course, what is shown by Cromwell’s rise to the utmost echelon of Henry’s court is that class barriers are never set in stone, and Mantel demonstrates that in the protean world of the English Reformation, self-assured nobles aren’t necessarily any more insulated from the vicissitudes of their time. Bring Up The Bodies, the second book, has Cromwell engineer the fall of Anne Boleyn. In his hands, circumstantial evidence, dubious rumour and a few bawdy jokes becomes a vast sexual conspiracy in which some of the Henry’s closest confidantes and oldest childhood friends are accused of cuckolding him, and eventually executed along with Anne herself. However much he might relish it, Cromwell is too level-headed to undertake such a move until it becomes absolutely necessary: he knows that if he can’t find a way to bring Anne down, he’ll go the way of Wolsey. At the same time, he is wary that what may look like score-settling will in fact make him more conspicuous and vulnerable to the landed elite who have witnessed his rise with a sense of mounting dread. Yet there is something deliciously vindictive about his coup against those who have so frequently deprecated and undervalued him: the parvenu knocking the nobles from their perch. Mantel, a socialist from her student days who once wrote a short story called The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, evidently takes glee in the overt challenge that Cromwell the great moderniser posed to a nobility that often seemed to preserve mediocrity at the expense of progress.
Until Mantel’s revival of his legacy, Cromwell was a little-known figure to most, a man thought by some to be little more than a bruiser who brought England into the early modern age through sheer brute force. Mantel makes no attempt to apologise for the cruelties Cromwell inflicted, an inevitable reflection of a brutal and unsentimental era. Instead, her picture is of a man doing whatever he can to improve the meagre lot he was born into. After rising to great heights, the historical Cromwell eventually succumbed to Wolsey’s fate, and Mantel’s version naturally follows suit. Sat in the tower awaiting death, he reflects on what cause he might be claimed as a martyr for. His own particular religious position was a mystery, a matter of speculation, and in the end, he can think of only one: “the great cause of getting on in life”. I wonder if Mantel might claim a similar credo for her own career. After all, for a singularly gifted working-class writer from Derbyshire, or a precocious blacksmith’s boy from Putney, what other cause is on offer?