I wrote this review of Mantel’s ‘Bring up the Bodies’ some months ago.
Two months ago, I finished a much delayed reading of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize Winner, ‘Wolf Hall’. Two hours ago, I closed the covers of its celebrated and much anticipated sequel, ‘Bring up the Bodies’. I can honestly say that my reaction to both was the same: why do some books have to end?
In ‘Wolf Hall’, Mantel began a project she claims to have conceived nearly forty years ago: to chronicle the life and times of one of England’s most famously reviled figures, Thomas Cromwell. The first book ends with Anne Boleyn crowned Queen, and Cromwell basking in what seems to be reflected glory. The second book begins with quite the opposite: Anne’s star is falling, but it is clear that Cromwell in no manner intends to be tarnished by this. His own position in court and at the king’s side only gets more strongly cemented while the Queen and her cronies (incidentally the same men who had insulted the memory of Cromwell’s former employer, Cardinal Wolsey) bleed their ‘flat little presence(s)’ out upon freshly erected scaffolds.
‘Bring up the Bodies’ charts what an enthusiastic blurb writer has called ‘the bloody theatre of Anne’s final days’, drawing in its full complexity the role assumed by Cromwell in the execution and disposal of the king’s one time sweetheart. Mantel’s greatest achievement is the humanization of this political genius, a figure who has all too often been viewed as nothing more (and nothing less) than the epitome of the Renaissance Machiavel. Cromwell, in Mantel’s hands, loves and incites love; loses and grieves for those lost; feels anger, betrayal, fear, but also pride, loyalty, pity. With a sure, delicate hand, Mantel weaves the portrait of a man who fashioned his daughter a pair of peacock feather wings, but never ceases to remind us that it is the same man who witnessed, indeed, orchestrated, the perhaps undeserved and innocent death of a Queen of England.
Though she is the pivotal point about which events in the book turn, Anne Boleyn herself has very little screen time. She is reported on, spied on, eavesdropped upon and repeated in third person, her words filtered through a number of (not entirely impartial) speakers before they are fed into Cromwell’s and the readers’ ears. In contrast to this stands Jane Seymour, who speaks considerably more, but is spoken of less. Jane, for all her quiet sharpness, remains an enigma, as mysterious and difficult to pin down as her unfortunate predecessor. Does she play a willing game with Henry, or is she a mere pawn in a political ploy much larger than herself? Much like the truth of Anne Boleyn’s crimes, the answer is what the reader chooses to make of it.
It’s not every day that a writer can take an event that is so celebrated and investigated and hold it up to flash an entirely new light. Mantel takes over the history, takes over the once-living characters and gives them a verve and vitality that is all her own. It takes magic to make a reader sit on the edge of their seat in suspense when he or she knows (or is a mere Wikipedia page away from knowing) how the ‘story’ will end. For all the background reading I had done, all the pages of Anne Boleyn related text I had read, I was still waiting, breathless, for the sword to swing, hoping against hope, like Anne herself, that I would be mistaken: that history would rewrite itself in Mantel’s flowing language and that she would be saved.
Alas, that did not happen. But it is a mark of Mantel’s genius that for a few moments, I forgot the bloody tracks of history.
‘Bring up the Bodies’ resounds with creative energy, its language compressing deeper allusions and metaphors that spangle out of the readers’ grasp just when focus is brought to bear upon them. The best way, I believe, to describe Mantel’s style is to quote Mantel herself. Here, Cromwell reflects on the work of Thomas Wyatt:
When Wyatt writes, his lines fledge feathers, and unfolding this plumage they dive below their meaning and skim above it. They tell us that the rules of power and the rules of war are the same, the art is to deceive; and you will deceive, and be deceived in your turn, whether you are an ambassador or a suitor. Now, if a man’s subject is deception, you are deceived if you think you grasp his meaning. You close your hand as it flies away. A statute it written to entrap meaning, a poem to escape it. A quill, sharpened, can stir and rustle like the pinions of angels. Angels are messengers. They are creatures with a mind and a will.
The inability to grasp and pin down meaning is exactly what the reader encounters in Mantel’s language. The narrative seems to skim the surface of a wealth of emotion and intrigue, dipping daintily into this swelter in order to paint a quaint picture of a bygone time. Beneath the words and the half-glimpsed gestures lies the morass of desire and danger that laces this court, a morass that Cromwell, like his creator, negotiates with grace and ease, giving hardly a hint of the scum his finely tailored robes have brushed through.
Mantel seems to strive to be impartial, privileging neither Jane Seymour nor Anne in her novel, not making it clear whether she herself believes Anne to be guilty as fearfully charged. This is no easy feat- scores of novels and films have been built around this fantastic episode, each weighted either with blind admiration or withering disgust for the executed queen. Anne is passionate, but given to childish outbursts, admirably courageous but stupid and (at the close) self defeating. Jane is plain, quiet, but strangely acerbic. Her intelligence, cloaked for the most part behind placid boredom, is revealed in razor sharp repartee with Cromwell and her brothers. Witness this exchange:
‘My belief is,’ Edward says, ‘this modesty could pall. Look up at me, Jane. I want to see your expression.’
‘But what makes you think,’ Jane murmurs, ‘that I want to see yours?’
I am a woman who wholeheartedly loves reading about and celebrating Anne Boleyn, and would throw my support behind the contemporary move to absolve her of all allegations (for more details, read Alison Weir’s excellent chronicle of Anne’s final days, ‘The Lady in the Tower’). And yet, even I could not hate Jane in this novel. I found myself admiring her, rather grudgingly, true, but admiring her nonetheless.
One closes ‘Bring up the Bodies’ with a sense of having run a lengthy, tiring race. Your brain has been spinning alongside Cromwell’s for four hundred pages, watching its ceaseless convolutions as it churns out a plan to depose one queen and raise another. Your emotions have ravelled and unravelled through complicated skeins as you watch Henry and Anne pull together and then pull away from each other, a six year long courtship soured in what seems an instant of marriage. It is an exercise well worth undertaking, and one that I cannot wait to repeat when the third and (alas) final instalment of the Cromwell trilogy arrives.
Until then, it’s back to the History books for me.