But now I have finished. All 650 pages.
And I am awe-struck ... this is the best work of historical fiction I have ever read. I hesitate to call it a historical novel because this isn't costume-drama fiction. It is about power and politics and the psychology of kingship and social mobility in an era when Henry Tudor might favour a man with riches or disembowel him on the gibbet. Thomas Cromwell is on the up ... at least for the moment. 'Lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning,' says Thomas More, 'and when you come back that night he'll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks' tongues, and all the gaolers will owe him money.' As I was brought up on Thomas More as A Man For All Seasons - and Thomas Cromwell as arch-villain - it was fascinating to read Hilary Mantel's interpretation of his (Cromwell's) character ... clever, generous, wryly-humorous. I have lived inside Cromwell's head for this past two weeks. Heard his pen scratching on vellum, thumbed his Bible, drunk his wine, admired his brilliant politician's brain ...
And all the time I kept thinking of that superb Hans Holbein exhibition that was on at Tate Britain a couple of years ago. (What a shame, that Holbein's portrait of Cromwell wasn't shown.) But his chalk sketches of Thomas More and his household ...the sweep of an eyelash, a tightlaced bodice loosened over a pregnant belly ... he brought them all so vividly to life that you'd almost expect to hear their voices whispering, laughing, praying. 'There is a kind of magic moment where you feel your characters are really speaking,' Hilary Mantel said in an interview. And yes, I do think that she's done with words what Holbein did with chalks and oils.
I wonder how far along she has got with the sequel ....?