The Threepenny Review

Reflections on Reading Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell Trilogy

HAPPY DISCOVERY: I’m reading a novel in which every character’s got a Holbein portrait. I know these people, have seen them everywhere—in the Frick, in the National Gallery, of course in reproductions. Thomas Cromwell’s mug, lit by the light of a cloudy-day window, his hand clutching a piece of paper as if it were a weapon. Small-eyed Henry VIII, spread curiously flat on the rectangle, vast and gem-studded. Thomas More, Anne Boleyn, they’re all here. Even Erasmus gets an offhand remote mention, imaginable at the slanted writing desk in Rotterdam where Holbein situated him. The painter himself (to me, a bigger star) has a small role in the novel as itinerant court portraitist, cagey and supercilious. Mantel refers to this artist always as Hans; never anything but Hans. You catch on after a while, it’s that Hans.

FUN TO read, too, in the light of our times. At the head of state is a big vain child whose whims are as iron: everybody just works around that. Also, the plague keeps flaring up in London. People have to self-isolate. (Especially the valetudinarian Henry VIII, fearful of going anywhere there’s rumor of a flare-up.) Cromwell loses his wife and daughters to a swift little epidemic in his neighborhood.

WHY THE persistent pronoun vagueness? Everywhere her pages are populous with the word “he,” but with seldom a clear antecedent. You have to guess who’s talking. And sometimes it’s impossible to guess, there’s no antecedent anywhere in sight. This willingness to confuse, it’s more than an accident, it’s a kind of tic or affectation with her. It’s very consistent, page upon page of it. Her editor will have had to go along with it. Then a copy editor, too, will have queried. May I just take out this “he” and put in “Cromwell”? No, leave it as it is. That’s how the author wants it.

I know a number of people who’ve said of this first book in the trilogy, “I tried it and I admired it, it’s great,

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