So the short version of this review is that you should read Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, and then go read her sequel to it, Bring Up the Bodies.*
One of the reasons why I’m such a history dork (beyond the fact that I find it enjoyable) is that I think it helps add perspective to see how societies have been organized differently in the past, and how humans behaved differently in the past in order to see what’s different today.
Wolf Hall is set in England roughly a generation after a traumatic civil war. The Tudors, who are the current dynasty, took over after the two dynasties who fought the vast majority of the civil war against each other (York and Lancaster) were exhausted from the conflict. Because the overthrow of English kings is still alive in recent memory, Henry the VIII, the current king, is especially eager to ensure that he has a male heir to avoid another civil war over the line of succession. As a result, Henry wants to keep switching wives in an attempt to find one who will give him an heir (this was much more difficult to do legally and politically before the age of no-fault divorce).
Into this scene steps Thomas Cromwell, who is recognizable as a fairly modern figure. He is the right-hand man of the king-for political power (not ideology), imagine him as some combination of chief of staff-congressional majority leader-treasury secretary and attorney general-he fills all those roles at one time or another. He has a genuinely progressive view of England as a country at peace that modernizes and alleviates poverty. But because of the times that he lives in, the only path he sees to that future is one through keeping the Tudor dynasty stable, and the immediate way to keep the Tudor dynasty stable is be ensuring that Henry has a wife that gives him a son to be his heir. Thus, most of his energy is put into the goal of getting rid of Henry’s various wives. Along the way, Cromwell executes the wives, various political supporters of the wives, and quite a few people who were just morally opposed to the divorce (most notably Thomas More).
Mantel tries hard (and partially succeeds) to make Cromwell an attractive figure-we can see why he kills the people he does (many of them would kill him if given half the chance). He really doesn’t have any other option-if he stepped down, or refused to kill those he does, Henry would attempt the same goal but in a less politically astute way that may lead to civil war again.
And yet, Cromwell’s career illustrates how much our choices are circumscribed by the times that we live in-even politically powerful leaders like Cromwell. Cromwell’s not perfect-he holds grudges and isn’t particularly disturbed by the death of others. But overall, he’s a very effective political leader who works hard for the good of the people. Given his times, however, most of his energies are dedicated towards removing various queens and executing others.
Perhaps a truly great person-an Abraham Lincoln-would’ve solved Cromwell’s political dilemma without the methods that he employed. Such people are rare.
Today, Cromwell would have of course a very different set of options for his career. In many ways, he would have more constructive outlets for his talents. Of course, with the present as his only means of reference, he might feel equally circumscribed as he did during Tudor England.
For myself, I feel more circumscribed by my past choices. Sometimes I dream of leaving everything behind and starting up anew in a different city where no one knows me or remembers my past mistakes. But I would still bring myself with all my flaws to this new city.
*note-I edited this post about 10 times, and I’m still not super happy with it, but I’m blogging for free, so this will have to do.