Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, the BBC adaptation of which aired in the US this year, has made Thomas Cromwell an object of popular interest again. In fact, Borman’s website reports that the paperback version of the work was released the day after episode one of BBC’s Wolf Hall aired and the book shot to #4 on the NYT Bestseller List. Hitting this audience seems to have been Borman’s goal.
A brilliant rags to riches story, with all of the emotional power of a medieval morality tale as the executioner takes three blows to sever Cromwell’s head from his body, Cromwell should fascinate American audiences. Born the son of a tradesman (of many trades in his attempt to make a living), Cromwell left home to serve many masters on the continent and proved himself an apt student of politics and business. Loyal to his masters and brutal to his enemies, Cromwell served both Wolsey and Henry VIII and oversaw the executions of many, including Anne Boleyn and Thomas More. Borman’s Cromwell is, above all, rational. He is also loyal and takes care for the poor, particularly widows.
Borman’s biography does not make new claims. In fact, at times, Borman repeats old saws that bear greater scrutiny, such as Anne Boleyn’s sixth finger. Borman includes an epilogue that discusses the subsequent historical interpretations of Cromwell, which fell heavily along religious lines.
One of the difficulties of an audio book is that any critical apparatus is not visible (or, usually, read). Borman is an PhD and former professor of history and has written other works (and has forthcoming works) on the Tudor period. She seems to have been early on the alt-ac track, having worked for historic preservation organizations. Although at times repetitive, Borman retells Cromwell’s story coherently and with significant reference to primary sources, even if she does not always put those sources and/or their authors in context.