Elizabeth Williams, a widow who has inherited her husband’s cloth business, meets Thomas Cromwell, at her late husband’s funeral. She remembers him as a childhood friend, and from there a sturdy marriage alliance is begun. Like most marriages of the time, it is based on sound business sense as well as affection.
‘Lizzy, Master Cromwell is my new cloth middle-man. He would like you to show him your bombazine cloth. He has admired your mourning gown.’
We get a picture of an ambitious and somewhat closed man, one with latent power, who will later rise in society to be a great player at the court of Henry VIII. But all this is to come, and The Woman in the Shadows is a book that shows us another side of Thomas Cromwell, that of husband and provider. Through Elizabeth Cromwell’s eyes the author provides us with fly-on-the-wall detail of Tudor living, and the minutiae of the common rituals associated with birth, marriage and death, all within a living context. We are privy to everything about Elizabeth’s cloth business from monastic sheep breeding to garment, including the sumptuary laws against certain classes wearing certain colours, and the difficulties that a woman at this time faces in trade.
‘Mother and I decorously arranged our skirts over the wherry bench. Mother’s green and gold gown complimented my pink kirtle with its new embroidered sleeves.’
The book is laced with subtle tension. Elizabeth fights off dangers from rivals in the business, unfaithful servants, an unwanted suitor and an arson attack, and she almost buckles under the discovery of her husband’s affair. However, the portrait we are left with, is one of a strong and capable woman, able to deal maturely with life’s trials. At no time does Elizabeth Cromwell seem like a modern woman in Tudor clothing – she retains her religion, and her position is always subordinate to her husband. Her life is one where she does not question her husband’s authority.
McGrath shows us the world of women and their servants. After one disaster, her mother urges Elizabeth to come home, but Elizabeth is quite clear that to do that would be to abandon her duty. As well as tender observations of female domestic life, there are also wonderful descriptions of gardens, churches, and the Augustinian Friary of Austin Friars where the Cromwells lived.
Some afternoons, as I listen to them play, I wish that time would stand still for us all. I wish we were a moment captured in a painting and that the moment will last forever.’
Carol McGrath has succeeded in doing exactly that. Through her words, the life of Elizabeth Cromwell has truly been brought out of the shadows.
Carol McGrath is a reviewer for HNS, 2016 HNS conference organiser and the best-selling author of The Daughters of Hastings Trilogy published by Accent Press. Find her on her website here.