thomas cromwell is real and strong and my friend

on being a bad reader

Roughly a year ago, I walked into a Waterstones in London and bought the three books on the display table by the entrance. Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and The Light had just come out, and I cared enough to buy it in hardcover. I had read Mantel’s first two Thomas Cromwell books years ago, had been desperate for the third one, and then had forgotten about it. Now that the last one was here, I decided I would start from the beginning and read all three as though they were one book. I figured it would take me two weeks or so.

I brought the books back to Aaron’s house and dumped them out on the coffee table downstairs; it was the week after my birthday, the huge magnolia tree blooming balefully in the skinny green yard. Neighborhood cats roamed around the view, leaping from sheds to fences to grass and sometimes across the glass rooftop in the room at the back of the house. The year was ripening into a windy and blossom-strewn March. The editions I’d bought from Waterstones had the feel of trade paperback romances, lurid covers splashed with raised, puffy gold lettering, compressed down to a small rectangle more thick than wide. They felt a little bit indulgent and trashy; I felt a little bit indulgent and trashy reading them. 

I was once the kind of person who read huge books for fun, who could read hundreds of pages in a day; last spring when I bought these books it had already been a long time since either of those things had been true, but I was still capable of convincing myself that they were. I was too old to still think that things I loved were guaranteed to last forever because I loved them, but for the most part I still did. When I left Aaron’s house abruptly a week and a half later, I left most of my winter clothes behind; I’ll be back soon, I reasoned.

The three books are, roughly, a birth-to-death chronicle of Thomas Cromwell, advisor to Henry VIII, architect of his marriages to Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour and his split from the Catholic Church. Cromwell is scheming and brilliant and mercenary, a blacksmith’s son raised up to nearly the height of power in England before his fall. The three books chronicle his successes, which are many, and his failures, which are to begin with few. They document his family, in both loss and accumulation, his grudges and resentments and score-settlings and revenges.

In 2015, when I first read Wolf Hall and then Bring Up The Bodies, I told people that the prose made me sure that Hilary Mantel was a deeply unhappy person. Obviously, despite having read numerous lengthy profiles of her and the entirety of her wikipedia page several times and concluding that although ghosts are not real, Hilary Mantel can definitely talk to them, I do not actually know Hilary Mantel. I have no idea if she is happy or unhappy; I have no idea how she felt while writing these books. But what I meant was that her writing has a knifelike and terrifying precision. These books offer a determined skewering of how people lie to one another, how they justify themselves, how they tell themselves stories and then fail to live within those stories. Down at the sentence level, Mantel refuses to let up on the on the profound disappointments that accompany living in a world with other people.

A certain kind of unhappiness has an early-morning clarity to it. When I say that Mantel’s prose reads like it was written by a deeply unhappy person, I mean the way long-term unhappiness comprehends that big revelations are often really only half-truths, and that our lives are often a catalog of injustice, disappointment, dishonesty and compromise. Mantel’s sentences skim lightly across the page full of this confrontation; things are as they are, not as we wish they were. The writing stands those two things up side by side — how things are, how we would like them to be— and shows how life happens in the space between the two, the places where we fail, the anxious and obvious spackle jobs we do to fill in those gaps. “Punch me in the face, Hilary Mantel,” I tweeted after reading the first five pages of Wolf Hall. Then things started happening and for the next week I didn’t read anything at all except twitter.

On March 16th, I managed to get a flight out of London to New York after being rebooked several times by the airline. My phone was full of conflicting information — wear a mask, don’t wear a mask, wear gloves, don’t wear gloves, buy a zillion pairs of gloves and change to a new one every time you touch something, change your clothes as soon as you get off the plane, don’t go on a plane at all, customs is fine and normal, customs will take six hours— most of which I was unable to do anything about. Everyone on the plane seemed as confused as I was. Economy was packed to capacity while business and first were mockingly empty. The person next to me appeared visibly sick but maybe I would have thought anyone sitting next to me was visibly sick.

I curled into my seat and read the books on my phone. Early on in Wolf Hall, Cromwell’s London is overtaken by a plague, merry at noon and dead by evening. People hang herbs in the doorways and go about their lives; bodies are carted off in the streets and the rich abscond to country estates. Cromwell has been growing rich but is still essentially a nobody as plague-borne tragedies crash through his life one after another, his wife, then his daughters, merry in the morning and dead by noon. Without belaboring the point, Mantel gently threads these events through the story that follows like a comic-book villain’s origin story; even when he can no longer remember his daughters’s faces, their loss and the memory of it—not the people they were, but the loss itself— gouges out the shape of his life. 

I stood up to go the bathroom and then couldn’t decide if using the bathroom was too much of a risk; I looked around at the full cabin. I sat back down. A flight attendant asked me what was wrong and I made a helpless gesture and said something like “you know, everything, the… stuff” and they nodded like they didn’t have anything to add. 

I read more of Wolf Hall. Cardinal Wolsey died. Cromwell packed his grief down into the earth and poured a foundation over it. His successes sped up, fast and bitter. The plane landed. As soon as I had wifi again, I checked twitter and forgot about Cromwell. At JFK, there was no line at customs. After days of looking at photos of six-hour lines and passport control jammed with bodies wall to wall, I was in a cab twenty minutes after getting off the plane. The city was silent and empty, yellow flowers blooming out of the cold edges of the park with no one to exclaim over them. I went home. The next time I went outside it was April. 

It’s easy to love Wolf Hall because it’s about beginnings. Cromwell isn’t exactly young, but the book and its daredevil upward trajectory has all the swagger of youth, all the look-what-I-can-do bravado of just starting out, of proving oneself. Even unspeakable tragedies are fuel for his ambition, eaten up and spat out as achievement. That breathless performance had something to do with how sure I was that Hilary Mantel must have been deeply unhappy writing this book and how I imagined that that unhappiness fueled the juggling-knives-on-fire dexterity of the prose. I wanted to believe I was witnessing a writer churn her unhappiness into sentences as clean and merciless as blades, just as I was witnessing Cromwell mold his griefs into the ability to outsmart everyone around him. 

It took me three months to get through the next four hundred pages. Each day I would make myself my stupid little list of tasks and each day one of them would be “read Wolf Hall” and each day I would fail to read Wolf Hall. I want to be perfectly clear that I also did not read any other books. I would carry my copy of Wolf Hall between the two rooms in my apartment, across the full map of my stupid life. I would place it next to my computer, and I would continue to not read it. I would say “as soon as I finish all my work I get to read Wolf Hall” and then I would finish my work, and not read Wolf Hall

I can’t tell you why. I still can’t explain this. I don’t have some meaningful thesis about why it was that I became unable to read this book that I admired and enjoyed whenever I managed to pick it up for five minutes and read a single page. I have read many articles about people’s inability to read during the pandemic. I have read about a general loss of focus, and social media, and mental health. Applied to myself, the reasons seem wan and inadequate; they reek of excuses and convenience. I know there are explanations available to me if I want them, I am simply not sure that I do. The thing I do know is that I loved these books, and that it took me seven months to read them. I wanted very much to read these books, and I spent months on end carrying them from room to room, not reading them. 

Arguably, Cromwell’s contribution to history is the behind-the-scenes creation of the Anglican church. All three books are profoundly religious, dug into a world and a time in which the technicalities of religion are the driving force and argument of the day. In being concerned with religion, they are also concerned with the calendar, the seasons, the date, the turning over of one part of the year into another. Cromwell’s calendar is Lent and saint’s days and festivals and feasts and fasts, observances and celebrations, suffering and rewards. The religious calendar is about trying to make sense of time and the year and the seasons, the things that return and the things that are lost forever, the fallow times of waiting, and the anxious periods of abundance.

Sometime in March, our sick joke of a president claimed that churches would be able to reopen by Easter; the claim was hideous and its hands were covered in blood, but it was also a more atrocious version of the thing many of us were doing in one way or another. We were trying to construct a calendar, and trying to construct a religion; we were trying to conjure up faith, a belief in things unseen. One of those unseen things was the future, and we were trying to summon up an idea of it that seemed as false and distant as a dead man rising up again from a tomb: Things will get better, things will change, by the summer, by the fall, by next year. Offices, promising work from home was only until June and then only until January, were another kind of religion, sticking a feast day in the calendar as though we could simply decide when all the suffering would end, with nothing tangible to back it up, grasping at meaning. 

Much of Wolf Hall in particular seems to take place in one Lenten season or another. One year to the next Cromwell finds himself in a dull, grey, chilly in-between, a fasting and refusing season. Lent is about living within grief, and the promise that we rise up out of it; it is a time in future tenses, a promise that if we can get through this, then after this things will be better. It says suffering has an endpoint; the things we experience are finite, and therefore can be survived. Here we are in grief, but grief ends and is overtaken again with celebration. Early in Wolf Hall, Cromwell’s griefs— about Wolsely, about his family— are still fresh, the world around him cold and full of dying. But for a moment, during Lent, at almost exactly the place in the calendar where we are now, he sees a way forward, and his unsteady faith latches on to future tense verbs:

“For a second he understands it; then he doesn’t. He stands by a window. A flock of starlings settles among the tight black buds of a bare tree. Then, like black buds unfolding, they open their wings; they flutter and sing, stirring everything into motion, air, wings, black notes in music. He becomes aware that he is watching them with pleasure; that something almost extinct, some small gesture toward the future, is ready to welcome the spring; in some spare, desperate way, he is looking forward to Easter, the end of Lenten fasting, the end of penitence. There is a world beyond this black world. There is a world of the possible. A world where Anne can be queen is a world where Cromwell can be Cromwell. He sees it; then he doesn’t. The moment is fleeting. But insight cannot be taken back. You cannot return to the moment you were in before.” 

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By the time I got to the third book, The Mirror and the Light, it was August and I had given up the idea of myself as someone who could read quickly. The year dragged on and friends asked me what I was reading and my answer was always the same. I felt stuck in the same swamp in which everything— the year itself, the hope of forward time, the promise of change— was mired. The numbers had gone down in summer but as fall came they swung back up. There was new bad news, new things to worry about, new unconscionable tragedies at a scale none of us could possibly grasp. Friends got sick, friends lost family, the seasons changed but the same events repeated. I had stopped asking the calendar for an end date; the present tense had become the only available one. Other countries went into strict lockdowns; everyone here rehashed old arguments about voting while people sickened and died in hospitals and in their homes and on the streets. In Cromwell’s London, the plague came around again and again, as though it were nothing more remarkable than the weather; the people in the books took the same useless precautions and held their breath, hoped for luck. I saw the parallels, but I didn’t find them useful, no more than I found all the articles explaining why I could no longer focus on reading useful. Sometimes recognition is not instructive; sometimes the bones are just bones and death is just death and each day is no more than just a day. 

The Christianity with which the novels are concerned is a living one, and one that Cromwell is trying to reform. A closet Lutheran, Cromwell wants everyone to be able to read the Bible in their own language, to dismantle the pay-for-play gloss of gilded relics that keeps religion a grand mystery, to bring it down to the size of human lives and works and hands in the dirt. Again and again the books show Cromwell exposing the hollowness of miracles. This thread renders the three books a project about fallibility— fallibility of kings, of church, of beliefs, of faith, of Cromwell himself, who early on sets himself up as infallible, buoyed up into a success so high and unbroken that it functions as a kind of religious miracle, made invincible by his intellect, his memory, his scheming, his ability to read everyone around him and yet remain unread and undefeated.

One thing about close third person is it tells us how wrong we are about ourselves. Cromwell is rarely referred to by name; in a text thick with male characters, seemingly half of whom are named either Henry or Thomas, the reader is just supposed to figure out that an unmarked “he” pronoun refers to Cromwell. It’s a confusing device, but one meant subtly to tip us off that we aren’t reading an impartial story narrated by some objective force of history. Rather, this is Cromwell’s biased account of Cromwell, enacting all his swagger and hyperbole and manipulations and deceit on the reader, gaining our sympathy and using it for his purpose, which is what we all do when we tell stories about ourselves. The narrator does not always distinguish truth from feeling. We gather up and display the stories of our lives while reality continues on right alongside them, looking nothing like those stories.

The payoff of all that time up close with Cromwell is a brutal one; by the time we get to the last book, we can see the gaps between Cromwell’s thinking and the choices he should make. We can spot the places where he is muddled, lost, or not thinking clearly. The Mirror and the Light is in many ways a photo-negative image of Wolf Hall, a story of a man losing his powers, a backward trajectory, careening downhill. It happens, as things often do, imperceptibly and then all at once; the avalanche overtakes us by the time we notice it has begun. 

Cromwell builds the world and then the world he has built betrays him. The Mirror and The Light is a book about failure, which means failure is essentially the trilogy’s conclusion, the place where the books land. At one of his lowest moments, Cromwell recalls seeing Lazarus’s second tomb, not the one from which he was resurrected, but the one in which he was ultimately buried:

“Lazarus, of course, died twice. The second time it was for good and all. Traveling east for his bank once, he visited his second and final tomb. It is guarded by ferocious monks, who stick a collecting bowl in your face and make you empty your pockets to see something that, after all, is only proof that miracles do not last. The crippled man walks, but only twice around the graveyard before he collapses in a flailing heap of limbs. The blind man sees, but the faces he knew in his young days are altered; and when he asks for a mirror, he doesn’t recognize himself at all.” 

It is a particularly gutting type of tragedy when what seemed like skill is revealed to be luck after all, when achievements turn out to only have been granted at the whims of those who were already powerful, and what seemed to have changed the world has in fact moved it not at all. The miracles are all only old bones.

I finished the third book sometime in early October. It did not feel meaningful. It just felt like I had finished a book. I had convinced myself that finishing these books would mark some kind of larger ending. I had all these things—saving up to buy a coat I had regretted not buying when I tried it on in London at the end of February, getting an assignment done, getting through one birthday or holiday or another, cooking through a whole bag of rice purchased in the early days—that I told myself were mile-markers. If I could just get to the next goalpost, everything would change. I kept looking for the endpoints, the part where Lent emerged into Easter. Just finish these three books you can't seem to finish, and all of this will be over, and time will reset to last February.

Of course it didn’t. The ending of The Mirror and The Light was very sad, and beautifully written, but it didn’t make me cry, maybe because I had been hoping it would. Mantel refuses to make the books cathartic, refuses to teach a high church lesson. I had sort of wanted them to end the way big overhyped novels often do, with a somersaulting run up to the finish line, flourishes up and down the keys. But of course they don’t, because that isn’t the story they are telling. They fade out, a whimper not a bang. There is no lesson to Cromwell’s death; he dies and the world continues. I took a photo of the last page and posted it to instagram. And that was that. The year was moving toward an end. Spring had turned to summer and summer had turned to fall. I slogged through a large book; loving it didn’t make it any less of a slog. Things happened and meant nothing, roll away the stone and there is merely an old hole in the ground.

There is no particular lesson in the fact that this was what I did for most of a year. The year anniversary of all of this is coming up, or is here, or already has been here. So many of us want the fact of a year to be meaningful, writing these essays about what a year means, about our pandemic year, the plague year, the last normal day, trying to make a calendar into a religion. We reach for meaning, for a shape to the calendar in which out of the suffering of Lent come the rewards of rebirth, no meat and then meat, darkness and then light, confusion and then understanding. I want to believe that Mantel’s writing is brilliant because she is unhappy; I have no evidence of this, but I tell that story because I want suffering to be meaningful, to offer some use or result. I want winter to always yield the rewards of spring; I want every loss to be balanced by some equal gain.

But the math rarely works that way, which is why belief demands faith. Sometimes things unseen are simply not there. A calendar is a way to invent meaning where there is none and, often, so is a novel, rendering the cluttered events in a human life into a false and singing coherence. But when I finished these books, I was in the same world in which I had started them, just seven months later. Sometimes ambition comes to nothing, sometimes we do not save ourselves. It is March again, which only means that it is March. We do our little tasks; we impose meaning and holidays on the world. It all comes down the same, another year after this one and another one after that, calling it a story and doing it over again, unable to see how unreliable we always are at narrating our own lives, at parsing the false miracles of an invented calendar.  

thanks for reading. this is the weekly public edition of griefbacon. if you enjoyed this, maybe consider subscribing? paying subscribers get one extra essay a week, plus a weekly discussion thread (this week’s was about being a huge bitch for a second and it was very beautiful), as well as access to the archives. remember that you can always buy a gift subscription for a friend (or for anyone!), and you can always email me if you want to subscribe but can’t afford it. if you had a subscription prior to 2020 and would like to be a paying subscriber again, just a friendly reminder that you’ll need to set up a whole new subscription. see you next week (or sooner if you subscribe!), when the next essay will almost certainly not be as long as this one. xo

also, if you want to read Hilary Mantel’s writing without reading a whole novel, this essay from 2013 is stunningly good, and particularly, uh, relevant this week!

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