Tag Archives: hilary mantel

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

Reading History: “Wolf Hall” (by Hilary Mantel)

I’ve been an avid fan of historical fiction for most of my life.  Some authors have always stood out to me as possessing an extraordinary talent.  Margaret George, Mary Renault, Kate Quinn, Stephanie Dray, and Philippa Gregory (at her best) are novelists who mange to evoke the power of the past.  By this I don’t simply mean the tired old expression of “bringing the past to life;” instead, I mean something much more vibrant and intense.  These authors help us to understand not just what the past looked like, but also how history happens, how individuals contend with the deeper social and cultural currents that often create the nexus through which history takes place.

In Wolf Hall, Mantel manages to not only bring the strangeness of the Tudor world to brilliant and scathing life, but also show how a pivotal period in the development of England.  Admittedly, this is a period that has been fictionalized more than perhaps any other (especially in recent years), so managing to make this period shine in any sort of significantly new way should be lauded as an accomplishment.  Mantel does just that, allowing the reader to get the sense that this is a dark, dreary, and ultimately very dangerous world, where children are subject to the brutality of their fathers and even the most devoted servant (or wife) of the king is likewise subject to his caprice.  Reading Wolf Hall, one does get the sense that this world is one that teeters on the brink of tremendous social and political change, with Cromwell emerging as the harbinger of that change, a man who is thoroughly modern in his outlook and who helps to set in motion the changes that will move England squarely out of the Renaissance proper and into the modern world.

One of the things that makes this novel so endlessly enjoyable is its subtle employment of a certain dry and sly wit.  While Cromwell does have moments of emotional depth–as when he loses his wife and his daughters to the sweating sickness–far more of the narrative actually involves him utilizing his sense of humour to make sense of the world around him.  Whether it’s poking fun at Thomas Wriothesley, jokingly calling him “Call-Me-Risley” (or “Call-Me for short), puncturing the holier-than-thou egotism of the tyrannical Thomas More, Cromwell controls his world by adopting a superior stance to it, or referring to the blustering Duke of Norfolk as “Uncle Norfolk,” Cromwell allows the thoroughly modern reader to judge and critique this world where the old ways of doing things no longer make sense.  The old ways die hard, the novel suggests, but that does not mitigate the fact that they are, in fact, on their deathbed.

Nor Henry does not emerge from this story as anything even remotely resembling a hero. The Henry VIII of Wolf Hall is endlessly vacillating and cruel.  While he may have a certain charisma and intellectual acuity, he still depends on those around him, such as Wolsey and Cromwell, to get him what he wants.  Like almost all of the other royal and noble characters, Henry seems like something of a holdover from the period of his youth, a reminder of an earlier period whose last vestiges are slowly being shed by the England over which he rules.

If I have one complaint to make about this novel, it is its portrayal of Anne Boleyn.  As Susan Bordo demonstrates in her wonderful book The Creation of Anne Boleyn, Mantel slips all too easily into the long-standing tradition of painting Henry’s second queen as a bloodthirsty, iron-hard, and manipulative shrew, juxtaposing all of this to both Katherine’s saintliness and maturity and Jane Seymour’s innocence and youth.  There are a moments when one does feel a glimmer of sympathy for Anne–how could one not, when she is constantly being pushed in various directions by everyone around her?  Like Katherine before her and Jane after, Anne knows that her well-being, and indeed her life, depend on Henry’s good graces.  Her pensive and shrewish personality, it seems, are the logical result of these unbearable pressures.

Although he is certainly the hero of this novel, and though the entire work is told from his limited perspective, I emerged from this novel feeling that Thomas Cromwell was even more an enigma.  While much of what he does is motivated, at least in part, either by a displaced attempt to separate himself from his father or to avenge the fall of Wolsey, the real Cromwell always seems to lurk at the edges of Mantel’s prose, enticing with his enigmatic inaccessibility.  If I have one complaint to make of the novel’s portrayal of Cromwell, it is that he emerges from this story a little too perfect, a little too precocious and subtle.  I am reminded of Mary Renault’s portrayal of Alexander, which also lionized her subject.  But perhaps that lionization is for Mantel, as for Renault, the necessary part of bringing a great man to literary life.