The Woman in the Shadows by Carol McGrath


With everything that’s going on, the publication of the third “Wolf Hall” novel’s rather gone under the radar.  I didn’t particularly enjoy the first two anyway; but I did enjoy this, about Elizabeth Cromwell, nee Wykes, the wife of Thomas Cromwell.  It’s got a few sub-plots which aren’t properly developed, and it jumps about in time, both of which are annoying, but it’s generally a very interesting read.  Books about the Tudor period usually revolve around the upper-classes and their servants, so it’s good to read something about “the middling sort”, Elizabeth being the daughter and widow of cloth merchants, and Thomas the son of a cloth merchant and blacksmith.  And, whilst a lot of it’s invented because the facts aren’t known, it doesn’t take any liberties with facts that are known, unlike certain other books about the Tudor period.

Not much is actually known about Elizabeth.  She was a young widow when she married Thomas.  They had three children, but, sadly, two of them died young of the sweating sickness, and Elizabeth herself died of the sweating sickness long before Cromwell became Henry VIII’s chief minister.  He never remarried.

The book suggests – and this is all fictional – that Elizabeth took over the running of her first husband’s cloth business after he died, and did a reasonably good job of running it until it was merged with Cromwell’s business after they married.  That certainly could have happened: it wasn’t unknown for widows to run businesses at the time.  It also shows the jealousy that the Cromwells encounter as they move up the social ladder, which seems very likely to have happened, and gives some fascinating detail about the running of a “middling rank” London household during the 1510s and 1520s.  There’s also quite a bit about Cromwell’s interest in humanism and religious reform, an important reminder that there was plenty of interest in “new ideas” in England before the break with Rome, and that it was not all about Henry VIII wanting to marry Anne Boleyn.

On the negative side, there are some rather strange storylines about plots and spies, none of which are really gone into properly.  For a start, Carol McGrath’s created a storyline in which Elizabeth’s first husband is gay, and some Italian monks find out about this, and Elizabeth’s cloth warehouse is burnt down because the monks are after a servant whom they thought had been his lover.  The monks, or whoever they are, vanish into the background for a while, but then they and the servant reappear later on, and it isn’t very clear what’s happened with any of them.  Then there’s a sub-plot involving an ex-suitor who claims that he and Elizabeth had been formally betrothed and demands her dowry, but he just seems to fade out of the picture as well.  It makes for plenty of drama, but the plots should really have been resolved properly.

However, generally, it’s really not bad.  There’s some interesting information about the sumptuary laws, and there are some lovely descriptions of gardens and houses, and indeed cloth, as well as the minutiae of daily life.  And, in the time it’s taken me to write this, my brain has headed back to the 16th century and temporarily escaped the coronavirus nightmare!  Books are very important at this time, and I hope everyone’s got plenty of them!

4 thoughts on “The Woman in the Shadows by Carol McGrath

  1. I haven’t read this, but I do have a copy of Carol McGrath’s new book, The Silken Rose, to read. I’ll keep this one in mind as well (for after I’ve finished The Mirror and the Light).

    Liked by 1 person

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