Reading History: “Bring Up The Bodies” (by Hilary Mantel)

Bring Up The Bodies begins almost immediately after the events of Wolf Hall, with Thomas Cromwell orchestrating the precipitous downfall of Anne Boleyn and the meteoric rise of the blushing Jane Seymour.  The novel chronicles Anne’s inexorable slide into oblivion and ends with her execution and Cromwell’s triumph.

As with Wolf Hall, one gets the sense that this is an England on the brink of tremendous political change, and it is Thomas Cromwell who both represents and can sense the imminence of this new world order.  While the old families–the Howards, the Seymours, the Poles, and the Courtenays–largely dismiss Cromwell as an upstart hardly worthy of their attention, they also recognize his usefulness, and his power, as he slowly becomes more indispensable to the king.  While the old families refuse to accept the fact that their star is in the descendant, the reader is clearly aware of this fact and is invited to share in Cromwell’s wicked delight in their preening vanity.  We know that the old families will continue their downward slide into obsolescence, while self-made men like Cromwell, with all of the sleek political skills that enable their rise to power, will come to dominate and occupy the key positions of power.

Bring Up The Bodies also continues to show Cromwell as justified, at least somewhat, in his ruthless pursuit of justice for his deceased master Wolsey.  Indeed, his motivation for entrapping several of Anne’s alleged lovers–including her brother George–is their participation in a masque that was utilized to mock the cardinal after his death.  The novel works overtime to convince us that Cromwell’s ruthlessness is the result not of his own desires per se, but of a man determined to see an injustice righted.  It also strenuously disavows (often somewhat disingenuously) that Cromwell did not resort to torture in order to gain the pivotal confessions he needed to hold his case together.  For example, rather than binding the singer Mark Smeaton’s forehead with a knotted cord, for example, Cromwell merely has him locked into a storage closet; the only torture the young man endures is at the hands of his own imagination.  Cromwell skates above the scandal, vaguely amused by those who claim he is a monster.

It is precisely this continued valorization of Cromwell that is the novel’s weakest point.  Sometimes, Cromwell emerges as too knowing, too detached, too amused at the foibles of the people surrounding him.  This may be the result of the central enigma that Cromwell represents; of the many larger-than-life figures that surrounded Henry, Cromwell (along with Anne) are perhaps the most inscrutable and indecipherable characters.  It stands to reason that Mantel, eager to get to the center of this puzzle of a man, would seek to make him as appealing as possible, hence rendering him a more understandable, if slightly too perfect, historical person.

For his part, Henry continues to emerge from these novels as little more than overgrown child, prone to fits of pique and rage when his ruthless appetite and need for immediate gratification are not fulfilled.  It also allows us to see his fundamentally capricious nature, as he begins to mourn the downfall of Wolsey (although he places the blame for that on his malevolent councilors rather than on his own desire to punish those who do not do as he wishes).  His will is dangerously unpredictable, and one gets the sense that this is a dangerous and unstable world, where the sexual desires of a king can, and do, have significant consequences for both the individuals surrounding him and the country over which he rules.

Fortunately, this emphasis on Henry’s vindictive caprice enables a measure of sympathy for Anne (something quite conspicuously lacking through much of Wolf Hall).  The scene of her execution has a solemn grace for it, and it is hard not to feel a profound sense of sadness at this reign cut so tragically short.  Further, the scene inspires and encourages us as readers to feel a sense of powerlessness, as we stand with Cromwell and witness an action we cannot change, and as we experience with Anne the ultimately forlorn hope that Henry may yet have mercy upon her.

Anne’s downfall also allows us to get a sense of foreboding, for the canny reader knows that Cromwell himself is riding for a precipitous and calamitous fall after Henry loses faith in him as well.  I suspect that the projected final volume in this series, The Mirror and the Light, will provide us with a mingled sense of pleasure and anxiety at seeing this canny and fiercely intelligent figure eventually brought low by the king he has so assiduously served.  Like its predecessor, Bring Up shows the tremendous influence one individual can have on the course of a nation’s history.  And that is a comforting, and a terrifying, thought.

Score:  9/10

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