"He once thought it himself, that he might die of grief: for his wife, his daughters, his sisters, his father and master the cardinal. But the pulse, obdurate, keeps its rhythm. You think you cannot keep breathing, but your ribcage has other ideas, rising and falling, emitting sighs. You must thrive in spite of yourself; and so that you may do it, God takes out your heart of flesh, and gives you a heart of stone."
Hilary Mantel, Bring up the Bodies
When I was younger and lonely and had more time on my hands than I knew what to do with, I thought too much about legacy. Despite the fact that I had no idea how to contribute to the present, living world, I spent time worrying about leaving a lasting mark after I died. It was a narcissism of the young and lonely. Or at least my narcissism as someone young and lonely.
Now I’m a little bit older and have a family that relies on me, legacy doesn’t worry me. Instead when I think about it now, my thoughts stray more to the immediate impacts of my death, equally narcissistic but less grandiose. If I died now, would my kids really even remember me? If, down the line, my wife found someone and remarried, would that guy be more of a father to them than me? What the hell is my wife even doing with that asshole? And so forth.
The Thomas Cromwell of Mantel’s books is a man who knows his legacy. He goes through life as if, long ago, he had watched A Man for all Seasons and resigned himself to his role in the history books. He is a man who does not hesitate in doing what he believes needs to be done for his country, his family, his king. Mantel’s Cromwell is fiercely loyal to the people he loves and who put his trust in him; he will, and does, kill for them.
Reading these books I realized that the idea of Thomas Cromwell having a family had never even crossed my mind. In my head he was little more than a period-piece Bond criminal, destined to be eaten by the very sharks that he kept as deadly, deadly pets. Or whatever the Tudor equivalent of sharks would be. Catholics? I dunno.
Of course it turns out Cromwell is a man who not only had a family, but watched as first his wife and then his two daughters succumbed to sweating sickness. For the most famous period of his life, the time where he earned his reputation as such a villain, he was a man who held that dull ache somewhere in him as he worked to secure stability for himself and, consequently, his son.
There’s a belief, perpetrated mostly by parents, that having children makes one less selfish, more giving. In truth, being a parent makes one fiercely, meanly, selfish. The difference is just that you learn to be selfish as a unit, rather than an individual. The importance of the world outside the home diminishes, and one’s moral compass skews to what is best for the family, forsaking exterior logic.
Cromwell was a selfish man. If the facts of history can be trusted at all, he helped bring about unforgivable acts. As skilled and beautiful as Mantel’s novels are, they can’t absolve him of all his sins. They can’t turn Cromwell into a good man. But they can, and do, serve as heartbreaking reminders that these value judgments tell us little about who a person actually is. A bad person can still be a philanthropist, a trusted friend, a grieving widower.
More than my own death, I think about if the worst should happen, if I should lose my family. I imagine, despite myself, how I would handle this scenario, and it never ends well. I end up dead or institutionalized; my vision of a future without the family is no future at all. What I rarely think about is the more terrifying prospect: what if I did survive such a crippling loss? What if I found a way to move on and become a person again, without a family?
People do it every day, carry that ever-present pain with them and make lives for themselves, even make new families. But I can imagine some people, their hearts slowly turning to stone, who could see Mantel’s Cromwell, and say, yes, yes, what else is there to do.