Saturday, February 1, 2014

Hilary Mantel's "Bring Up the Bodies": Book Review

After Wolf Hall (12-23-10 review on Amazon and blog) immersed us into Thomas Cromwell's mind as he did the bidding of Henry VIII to undo Katharine of Aragon and elevate Anne Boleyn, we begin this sequel with Cromwell, fifty years old, at his pinnacle. He tells his rival, Bishop Stephen Gardiner: "I was always first up in the morning. I was always the last man standing. I was always in the money. I always got the girl. Show me a heap, and I'm on top of it." (72)

This reveals two aspects which account for the popularity of Hilary Mantel's surprisingly successful--given the historical, recondite subject matter in a dense telling--chronicle of Tudor machinations. Cromwell's an Everyman who finds himself making it. And, he does so in a style by which he conveys his success to us in engaging, accessible language. Usually it does not approach the modern vernacular as closely as above; neither does it resort to hoary period locutions. Instead, in this, her second Booker Prize winning novel in a row, no small feat, Mantel manages to bridge the five hundred year gap nimbly, and with energy.

Cromwell's phrase from the first volume stuck with me: "the king is good to those who think him good." Gardiner now has to back the king against Rome with a similar construct, enforced by Cromwell and his allies against previous dissenters such as Thomas More. "Where the word of the king is, there is power, and who shall say to him, what doest thou?" Henry himself remains cocky. "'I can do as it pleases me,' his monarch said. 'God would not allow my pleasure to be contrary to his design, nor my designs to be impeded by his will.'" (58) The lack of capitalization for the deity itself hints at a more modern showdown, as secular power takes over that previously given to the spiritual.

I was particularly moved by passages where the departed reminders of his wife and daughters, one now dead symbolized by her angel's wings worn for a Christmas pageant, entered, to soften Cromwell, who's compared by his fellows to a freshly painted wall or statue for his carefully blank composure in diplomatic situations. Gregory reminds his father how he had Masses said for their deceased family, but he does not know if prayer for the suffering souls does any good any more. "We cannot pray them out, as once we could"-- given the theological revision of Henry's new church. Cromwell thinks to himself of the consequences, if his son can no longer pray for his mother. "Imagine the silence now, in that place which is no-place, that anteroom to God where each hour is ten thousand years long. Once you imagined the souls held in a great net, a web spun by God, held safe till their release into his radiance. But if the net is cut and the web broken, do they spill into freezing space, each year falling further into silence, until there is no trace of them at all?" (118-119)

Most Catholics give in, although a few court martyrdom. The State, linked to its own church now, commands loyalty. All looks well, if England can fend off the French and the Holy Roman Emperor's threats. But, as More resisted Henry and Cromwell to his doom, so Cromwell in a foreshadowing finds himself understanding the position of those true to their conscience and their faith, however traitorous, against the shifts Henry embodies, as he sidles towards the opposition Luther embodies. Henry now wants Cromwell to finagle a divorce from Anne so he can marry Jane Seymour, and it's a familiar feeling of having to give the king what he wants and to force the law into contortions to do so. Meanwhile, Cromwell resents Anne--who asserts England and the gospel need her--and Boleyn meddling minders: "Not so, madam, he thinks. If need be, I can separate you from history." (110)

Cromwell, as Mantel dramatizes the real events in her reconstruction, relying more on supposition about the enigmatic Cromwell than the publicized Anne, takes sides, to back the king. Not out of conviction so much as duty. "Women age, men like variety: it's an old story, an even an anointed queen cannot escape it to write her own ending." (252) As for Anne, caught in the web: "She knows adultery is a sin and treason a crime, but to be on the losing side is a greater fault than these." (303)

Jane Seymour, ascendent, bides her time as had Anne. "If Jane could veil her face completely, she would do it, and hide her calculations from the world." (309) Perhaps wiser, she holds out for Henry.
Meanwhile, the ballads are updated, with Anne taking the place of abandoned Katharine: "A dark lady is taken out and a fair lady brought in. Jane knows how these things are managed." (310)

Mantel handles the fall and fate of Anne's accused lovers, and herself, as they are trapped, interrogated, and condemned, with the same aplomb and careful control used in Wolf Hall as Thomas More and Thomas Wolsey met their own end. Implacable, Cromwell lords over his victims with the same measure of calm and cunning, but he too knows, as the Boleyns jibe, his own precarious status.

It's easier to read this second installment, elapsing over nine months, much of it in three once Anne is apprehended, thanks to Cromwell and allies. After about 60% of the way, the pace accelerates and you are drawn into the terror inflicted, once Henry determines Anne and her complicit lovers must capitulate. I realize Mantel uses the history as she wishes for her own ends, but this is fiction, after all. With Wolf Hall I had to keep checking the list of characters, as so many Thomases alone filled its pages; it took in a wider span and it was a hundred pages longer. By comparison, this races by.

No fault of Mantel as she adapts sources--even if she seems to indulge to Cromwell's own vengeance on Wolsey's behalf. Cromwell says that while all are guilty whom he arrests, they may not all be guilty in the case of Anne. However, as this is from his viewpoint, the calculating payback makes sense. Given Mantel's indirect first-person (but in third person "he") narrative voice it all made for fewer bewildering moments, for in Wolf Hall I struggled to distinguish "he" as Cromwell or even Thomas from another speaker or person Cromwell was dealing with, mentally or conversationally.  

Bring Up the Bodies eases this confusion by occasionally resorting to "he, he Cromwell," to show the emphasis. I also figure this stratagem may come in handy in the closing volume to come of this trilogy, as we may need some narrative distance interposed between ourselves and the protagonist's perspective, given his fate. Mantel works in a compelling authorial tone, allowing us as in the opening to swoop down into Cromwell's p-o-v while still roaming slightly apart from him, if never totally, to hint at a wider vantage point than his. He's less approachable now, if fitting his stature. As the middle volume, set firmly down, this occupies a solid position in the trilogy, full of foreboding and resignation. Although Cromwell reigns, alongside Henry, we know his own power rests uneasily. 

(P.S. Wolf Hall: 12-23-10 review on Amazon US and blog. This review except for the purgatory passage 9-21-13 to Amazon US)

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