Delicious descriptions from Down under: Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell on books

Portrait of Thomas Cromwell. New York, Frick C...

Thomas Cromwell, by Hans Holbein the Younger. New York, Frick Collection. (Photo: Wikipedia)

There are many delicious descriptions to choose from Hilary Mantel‘s Bring up the bodies, which I reviewed earlier this week, and some have already been posted by bloggers in other posts (such as John at Musings of a Literary Dilettante, Lisa at ANZ LitLovers, and Alex in Leeds). Their excerpts relate more to thematic issues, but I want to share one that just tickled my fancy. Thomas Cromwell is, we know, a reader. He comments, for example, on Machiavelli‘s The Prince, which was published in 1532.

I enjoyed this little description of Cromwell and books early in the novel:

After supper, if there are no messengers pounding at the door, he will often steal an hour to be among his books. He keeps them at all his properties: at Austin Friars, at the Rolls House in Chancery Lane, at Stepney, at Hackney. There are books these days on all sorts of subjects. Books that advise you how to be a good prince,  or a bad one. Poetry books, and books that tell you how to keep accounts, books of phrases for use abroad, dictionaries, books that tell you how to wipe your sins clean and books that tell you how to preserve fish. His friend Andrew Boorde, the physician, is writing a book on beards; he is against them. He thinks of what Gardiner said: you should write a book yourself, that would be something to see.

If he did, it would be The Book Called Henry: how to read him, how to serve him, how best to preserve him. …

I love this for several reasons, not the least of which is the insight it provides into publishing in the 16th century. I hadn’t realised quite how varied the output was. I’d also never heard of Andrew Boorde but he’s clearly well enough known to make it into Wikipedia (see the link on his name above). He’s also the subject of a delightful post I found from a blogger called Early Modern John who, as well as describing Boorde as “randy and carnivorous”, filled me in a little about the book on beards.

As with much of Mantel’s writing, though, this excerpt is enjoyable for other reasons, such as for the humorous reference to Machiavelli’s The prince; the sly reference to Stephen Gardiner whom Cromwell sees as his enemy; and the insight into Cromwell’s character, into his love of books and his focus on and loyalty to Henry (with whom, of course, he believes his own best chance of success lies!).

8 thoughts on “Delicious descriptions from Down under: Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell on books

  1. Gardiner suggesting anyone write a book is a dangerous piece of advice given how good he was at twisting words and finding guilt… even Master Cromwell would have struggled to produce something slippery enough to slip through his fingers. 🙂

    • Oh yes, Alex, I love the way you’ve described this … It’s deliciously wicked of Mantel to introduce the idea of Cromwell writing a book about Henry that way isn’t it? I think this is what’s great about her writing … The layers just below the surface!

  2. Yes, it is easy for us to underestimate the range and number of published titles in 16th century Europe – but then it was equivalent to our current Internet explosion. A good guide to the published literature is in CS Lewis’s English 16th Century Literature (Excluding Drama) – dealing with a lot of the books Cromwell would have been reading.

    • Thanks Ian … I guessed that was the case but I hadn’t realised. Thanks the CS Lewis reference … I had trouble finding info through Google and the British Library wouldn’t let me search on publication date as the main search term.

  3. Superb post!

    I think that this was a time period when publishing really began to take off.

    This is also interesting as I really want to read a good biography of Cromwell soon.

    • Thanks Brian … Yes, I gathered that must have been the case. The things you learn, even when reading fiction! I think a good bio of him would be great to read. I understand that most are very negative but there’s one, at least that I’ve come across, that tries to look at his achievements. It’s by Elton. I haven’t read it … Just believe this to be the case.

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