Bring Up The Bodies

I’ve just finished reading Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies, her sequel to Wolf Hall and continuation of a life of Thomas Cromwell.

In the first book she took us from the fall of Cromwell’s mentor, Cardinal Wolsey – which, in theory, should also have taken Cromwell in its wake – through his ascension to the role of Master Secretary to the King. The novel was nothing short of a bravura performance, a realisation of the man from a very intimate point, as if Mantel was sitting, not in the normal close personal voice on the shoulder of the man, but actually behind his eyes, seeing what he saw at the same time as miraculously maintaining enough distance to describe him. So close, however, that she does not have room to judge him, so close that we, being in there with her, all of us readers, the world over, crowded in there in Cromwell’s head, looking out, we see the world through his lens. It is not such a bad place to be. Cromwell is an entertaining host, learned in language and art, interested in everything from brick making to the psychology of Dukes. He has a modern view of the world, the State, as well as an extraordinary history, having risen to this great height from being the son of a blacksmith.

In the second book Mantel is in exactly the same place. Cromwell, however, is in an even more complex situation than when he was separating England from the Church of Rome so that Henry could escape his marriage to Katherine of Aragon. Now Henry is bored with Anne Boleyn, who he took in Katherine’s place as Queen. He has his eye on young Jane Seymour. The marriage, Henry believes, must have been false (Anne had used witchery on him) and he needs Cromwell to find him a way out of it, and Cromwell, acutely aware of how Wolsey was brought down for not achieving the King’s wishes, has to be the agent of his release.

There are a thousand other concerns also in Cromwell’s mind. He has his several houses to keep and to alter, the young men he is, in turn, monitoring, the dissolution of the monasteries and the dispersal of the funds to oversee, the ill and possibly dying Katherine to keep an eye on, the relations between England and both the French and the Emperor, spies against him and for him, the jealousy and hatred of those born to privilege to deal with. Amid all this, and much more (the loss of his wife and two daughters that occurred at the end of volume one, the gathering to himself of immense wealth), he sets out to do the King’s will. He does it with coldness and clarity and not a little viciousness and what is extraordinary is that we do it with him, sitting there in his mind. Mantel, our guide, our gracious host in this place, inviting us to watch. See this: see how when the King falls from his horse while riding in the lists and everyone thinks he is dead, Cromwell, in those brief terrifying moments, lines up all the consequences of this sudden change of fortune – the different families and factions queueing up to take power, the gossamer thread upon which his own head, all his wealth and prestige, rests. See how when the King sucks back breath into his lungs and sits up the world is no longer the same. See how when, shortly after, Anne miscarries, becomes, no longer, the vessel of a possible heir, she really has to go and the way to do that is to dream up a charge of treason enacted through adultery. See how simple it is to set up, how expertly Cromwell strips away the esteem, the wealth, the illusions of those powerful men he would destroy along with her. Suddenly Cromwell’s mind, pace all that brilliance, is no longer such a pleasant place to sit within. And yet that is where we are. His mind is ours.

This novel is a definition of all that literature can be, that it desires to reach, but so rarely can. It offers the possibility of knowing another man as oneself and liking it just as ill when the curtains are down and all is revealed. Here is writing that, while it might describe what seems to be another time, in truth speaks of what it is to be human. It is long, ruminative, reflective. It’s slow at the start, but it needs to be while we become accustomed to those long lists of names of the individuals involved (complicated because they have both titles and names; so that Henry Fitzroy, for example, the King’s bastard son, can be at times, Richmond, Henry or Fitzroy) but it intensifies as it progresses reaching a remarkable and sustained pitch. I did not want it to end. I wanted to begin again at the beginning as soon as I was finished. I wanted to understand how it might be possible to be King Henry VIII and to murder one’s wives and yet live on, choose another wife while blaming the last for her own fate; at the same moment as I was experiencing what it means to be Cromwell, and liking that even less.

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