Reader Review by Mike Jones
Near the beginning of Bring up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel’s sharply focused follow-up to 2009’s Man Booker Prize winner, Wolf Hall, Thomas Cromwell, now master secretary to the court of King Henry VIII, indulges in conversation and a bit of chess with Edward Seymour, brother of the future queen, at the Seymour’s family estate. As they discuss, among other topics, Martin Luther, the Emperor Charles of Spain, and Anne Boleyn, Mantel gives us a strong sense of who really is the chessmaster. It's a quick match, but as they play, it becomes evident the chessboard is meant as a microcosm of the court of the English king. Throughout Mantel's second study of the Tudor reign, Cromwell metaphorically shifts the pawns, the castles, the knights; he's already lost a bishop, yet dominates his opponent while protecting his king. In a dangerous gambit, he sacrifices his queen, but through deadpan bluster forces at least a temporary resignation. We fear this strategy of bluff fueled by vendetta will soon falter, but for now Cromwell prevails.
Hilary Mantel's previous work ranges from personal memoir (Giving up the Ghost) to literary fiction (A Change of Climate, An Experiment in Love, Fludd). In 1998, Mantel swerved into a genre made popular by writers like T.C. Boyle with his novels Water Music featuring real-life explorer Mungo Park, and The Road to Wellville about cornflake mogul John Harvey Kellogg, that of the semi-historical novel, in which the principal fictional characters interact with notable if offbeat historical figures. In The Giant O'Brien, Mantel fictionalizes the life and death of Charles Byrne, a physical oddity of the late 18th century, who stood 7' 7" tall. She portrays the real character, Byrne and his adversary, the surgeon John Hunter, more as legendary figures than as historical ones, victims of their time; much like John Merrick and Frederick Treves, in the Bernard Pomerance play, The Elephant Man.
But Mantel's fiction shines brightest with her historical novels. Books like 1992's A Place of Greater Safety about France's Reign of Terror of 1794, and 2009's Wolf Hall, examine historical eras through very close third-person narratives, which follow infamous historical figures with an aim to humanize them. About Wolf Hall, Mantel has said: "When I started writing Wolf Hall, when I wrote the first page, I'd the feeling that I'd gotten something special. I didn't know how it was going to sound until those words appeared on the screen in front of me, and then I felt really excited because I think a writer knows when they've come to the book that they were meant to be writing all along" The catalyst, of course for this serendipitous work, turns out to be none other than Thomas Cromwell, a much demonized figure in most historical accounts of the reign of King Henry VIII, and one, the author notes, from whose point of view we've never been shown the grisly details of that tempestuous era.
Bring up the Bodies carries on from where Wolf Hall left off: with the recent execution of Sir Thomas More; Henry Tudor's annulment from his first wife, Katherine of Aragon and later marriage to Anne Boleyn. It covers the subsequent nine months of the king's reign, including the trial and execution of Queen Anne. We’re reintroduced to Thomas Cromwell, now fiftyish and "running to fat", as he recalls sitting for his portrait with Hans Holbein years before, when he had, in circumvention of his tendency to laughter, stared "ferociously into the middle distance". When Holbein finally reveals the portrait to Cromwell, he remarks, "Christ, I look like a murderer". And this is how he is perceived throughout history: this "murderer" of saints and queens, the King's toady. With her latest volumes, Mantel reveals the underlying factors responsible for animating Cromwell's animus: The widower that raised him, his brutal blacksmith of a father; the women in his life: his wife Liz, and daughters Anne and Grace, who have abandoned him, leaving Cromwell himself a widower; his mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, who, already accused of treason by the Boleyns, died of natural causes before he could be executed.
Mantel, bucking the exactitude and convention of mere history, portrays master secretary Cromwell with comprehensive ideation, softening his sharply drawn angles, infusing him with dimension. He respires on the page. More than a polymath, he is also a falconer, naming his birds of prey for his wife and daughters; a father to not only his son, Gregory, but to Richard Cromwell his nephew (an ancestor of Oliver Cromwell), and to Rafe Sadler, whom he has taken into his household from the age of seven; a good friend and colleague to among others, Thomas Risley, Sir Richard Riche, and Lord Admiral William FitzWilliam. In his household he employs many men including Antony, a once destitute man, as his jester. Mantel transforms Cromwell into a sympathetic character, complex but loyal to his king, forever plotting for his well-being behind the scenes, his machinations mostly concerned, as is Henry himself, with the monarch producing a male heir.
In Wolf Hall, Mantel illuminated Cromwell's back room dealings that vaulted Anne Boleyn and her family to the King's favor. In Bring up the Bodies, Queen Anne is known throughout the rest of Europe as the "concubine", she has already miscarried a number of sons, and her daughter, "ferret face" Elizabeth is rumored a bastard; a child most likely conceived with her former suitor Harry Percy. Mantel reveals the souring between Cromwell and the Boleyns. About the queen, there is this:
"His relations with the queen, as the summer draws to its official end, are chary, uncertain, and fraught with distrust...He has seen Anne work her trick on lord and commoner, on the king himself. You watch as the man's mouth gapes a little and he becomes her creature. Almost always it works; it has never worked on him. He is not indifferent to women, God knows, just indifferent to Anne Boleyn. It galls her: he should have pretended. He has made her queen, she has made him minister, but they are uneasy now, each of them vigilant, watching each other for some slip that will betray real feeling, and so give advantage to the one or the other; as if only dissimulation will make them safe."
And there is this about the Boleyns:
"No, he tells the ambassador [Eustace Chapuys], it's not Anne who bothers me; it's the men she collects about her. Her family: her father the Earl of Wiltshire, who likes to be known as 'Monseigneur', and her brother George, Lord Rochford, whom Henry has appointed to his privy chamber rota...They sell their knowledge at a high price: they want favors done, they want their own derelictions ignored, they think they are special and they want you to be aware of it. Ever since he, Cromwell, came up in Henry's service, he has been mollifying these men, flattering them, cajoling them, seeking always an easy way of working, a compromise; but sometimes, when for an hour they block him from access to the king, they can't keep the grins from their faces. I have probably, he thinks, gone as far as I can to accommodate them. Now they must accommodate me or be removed."
Hence the mood is set. The Seymours can taste the tang of power on their tongues as their Jane culls favor with the king. When, in a perfect torrent of misfortune for the court, Lady Katherine dies, Henry is permanently injured as he is unhorsed before a joust, and Anne Boleyn miscarries her third son, Cromwell recognizes his opening. Acting for his king, as in a game of chess, he capitalizes on his opponent's weaknesses, sacrifices a pawn or two, and captures the queen in her own mesh of avarice and artifice.
Mantel is truly in her comfort zone with this material. She becomes playful and at ease with her characters, giving them nicknames and taking license with their patter. At the end of part one after Katherine of Aragon has died, Christophe, a servant of Cromwell's, confides to him:
"'Sir they are saying on the streets that Katherine was murdered...They are saying that you sent two murderers with knives and that they cut out her heart, and that when it was inspected, your name was branded there in big black letters.' 'What? On her heart? “Thomas Cromwell”?' Christophe hesitates. 'Alors ... Perhaps just your initials.'"
Mantel employs the parlance of the time in both dialogue and description. The title refers to the five accused men being called to the bench. The men, including George Boleyn, whom the "queen has ruined". The men imprisoned in the Tower of London for having unlawful carnal knowledge of Anne Boleyn. They are, what we would call now, dead men walking, already dissociated from the living with the term "bodies"; and this prior to their sentencing. Her writing shines with a luster not so much due to high polish as from a well-worn patina. Although a great majority of the book is dedicated to a stylish relating of significant historical events from over the shoulder of a pivotal witness, Mantel finds a new aesthetic. She seasons the work with dollops of tasty prose, like this selection about Cromwell's birds of prey:
"Tomorrow his wife and two sisters will go out. These dead women, their bones long sunk in London clay, are now transmigrated. Weightless, they glide on the upper currents of the air. They pity no one. They answer to no one. Their lives are simple. When they look down they see nothing but their prey, and the borrowed plumes of the hunters: they see a flittering, flinching universe, a universe filled with their dinner.
All summer has been like this, a riot of dismemberment, fur and feather flying; the beating off and the whipping in of hounds, the coddling of tired horses, the nursing, by the gentlemen, of contusions, sprains and blisters. And for a few days at least, the sun has shone on Henry.
There are both wonderful and morbid details throughout. As when at the moment of the queen's death by beheading, "the body exsanguinates", but what is most responsible for Mantel's success is her pointed characterization. One feels by the end of the book that one can truly grasp the character of Henry the VIII, one now knows the motives of Jane Seymour, or Thomas Howard or Eustace Chapuys. The reader is allowed to make up their own mind about the sexual shenanigans of Anne Boleyn. And, above all, one can further understand the pith of her prime player, Thomas Cromwell.
As we reach the end of the book we know there is still more to the story. Mantel writes, “The word 'however' is like an imp coiled beneath your chair. It induces ink to form words you have not yet seen, and lines to march across the page and overshoot the margin. There are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings. Here is one.” She has another volume in the works, which I fear will end badly for the future Earl of Essex. Jane Seymour has an heir to produce, Henry has more bitterness to foment, and Cromwell must continue to dominate the chess match of Tudor House throughout the turbulence of the English reformation. He plays to sustain not just his own reputation and celebrity, but his very survival. Throughout the novel, Mantel often uses the qualifying pronoun: "He, Cromwell", indicating a metaphorical closeness, an inseparability of the Master Secretary from the text. With her self-described discovery of this fateful material, she, Mantel solidifies her berth in the oeuvre of historical fiction.