Like most people, especially Catholics, the veneration of Thomas More is a pretty common occurrence. We have been steeped in his strong moral character, his courage and steadfast loyalty to the Church. The narrative is very moving and compelling and it sets More up as a lone man standing against overwhelming power. He was a martyr for a divine stance and those that perpetuated the case against him were evil men. As history has wore on, no other person became the villain in the More case than Thomas Cromwell. He became the person most identified with the eventual execution of More as the person who pursued the king’s wishes with almost gleeful intent.
If Mantel did anything with this novel, she brings a great deal of balance to this drama. I don’t think anyone would propose sainthood for Cromwell, but the halo is definitely a bit more tarnished for More, as it should be. After the varnish of a Man for All Seasons is stripped away, there are many aspects of More’s career that make him just as evil as those that imprisoned him, if not more so. More, by any record of events, was never tortured because of his opposition to the king; his family was not harassed; his home never ransacked for evidence. All things that More did to his political/religious enemies. While there is some debate if More oversaw torture, he did pass judgment on protestants, some who’s only crime was reading the Bible in English, and bore witness to their burnings at the stake. In the sectarian fighting that engulfed England during the Reformation, More got off easy.
Admittedly, I found Mantel’s style a little tough to get into at first. However, after about fifty pages or so, it began to flow in my mind. As the story unfolds, even if you know what is coming, her ability to bring drama to internal dialogue and limited drama is amazing. She also weaves, action, drama, and commentary almost seamlessly. There is so much going on in her writing that brings her work far above the usual historical fiction genre.
I’m interested in the next book, but seeing how deftly Mantel told the tale of Cromwell’s rise, I’m much more eager for third book of the trilogy and Cromwell’s fall. Cromwell triumphant will be a fun read for sure, but it is weaved in with such a familiar tale of Ann Boelyn that I want to get passed that episode and see how she handles the end.