Posts Tagged ‘Bring up the Bodies’

Bring up the Bodies plunges us once again into the absorbing life and times of Thomas Cromwell, here in the year 1535-6, as he seeks to oust Anne Boleyn and replace her with Henry VIII’s next squeeze, Jane Seymour.  For the most part the sequel is every bit as dazzling as the Booker-winning Wolf Hall.  The characterisation is incredible, the description of setting vivid.  The dialogue exhibits the same delicious humour of its predecessor.  The pacing is perfect.  You really feel as if you’re in the cut and thrust of Tudor England.

Commencing where Wolf Hall left off, Henry and his court are enjoying summer at Wolf Hall, home of the Seymour family.  Timid and plain Jane is known to Henry already, but it is here that he sees her in a new light.  Cromwell begins to manoeuvre things to suit the whims of the monarch.

Times are tense.  Henry needs a male heir.  His bastard son, Harry Duke of Richmond, is no good.  The old families are plotting.  Cromwell is busy organising Henry’s affairs as well as those of his own.  He is a great moderniser, something that Mantel discussed in her recent Sydney Writers’ Festival appearance (see my muse on the session here).  He brings a bill to Parliament “to give employment to men without work, to get them waged and out mending the roads, making the harbours, building walls against the Emperor or any other opportunist.”  To do this he suggests levying an income tax on the rich.  Henry himself goes to Parliament to argue for the bill but it is defeated.

In contrast, modernising the old monasteries might be what businessmen refer to as ‘low hanging fruit’.  He thinks:

… if the king had the monks’ land, not just a little but the whole of it, he would be three times the man he is now.  … His son Gregory says to him, ‘Sir, they say that if the Abbot of Glastonbury went to bed with the Abbess of Shaftesbury, their offspring would be the richest landowner in England.’ 

‘Very likely,’ he says, ‘though have you seen the Abbess of Shaftesbury?’ 

How droll!

Anne is pregnant and hoping to bear a boy that would secure her position.  While pregnant she is not to be touched by Henry.  So he asks Jane Seymour to be his “good mistress”. … Cromwell thinks:

There is a difference between a mistress and a good mistress: does Jane know that?  The first implies concubinage.  The second, something less immediate: an exchange of tokens, a chaste and languorous admiration, a prolonged courtship … though it can’t be very prolonged, of course, or Anne will have given birth and Jane will have missed her chance.

It’s Jane Rochford, George Boleyn’s suffering wife, who brings Cromwell news he can use against Anne: love letters are being sent to her from the hand of Harry Norris.  Cromwell sees an opportunity to right an old wrong.  In Wolf Hall, four courtiers ridiculed his mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, in a play.  Cromwell is single-minded in his pursuit of them.  Conversely, he protects his friends, like Thomas Wyatt, who is also suspected of being a lover of Anne.

Poor Anne, she really doesn’t see the trouble she’s in, even when she knows Cromwell is talking to the Seymours.  She advises him:

‘Make terms with me before my child is born.  Even if it is a girl I will have another.  Henry will never abandon me.  … Since my coronation there is a new England.  It cannot subsist without me.’ 

Not so, madam, he thinks. If need be, I can separate you from history.

The machinations are a joy to behold.  No wonder Mantel, when asked at SWF, admitted that she likes Thomas Cromwell ‘very much’.  He had an ability to get himself out of situations that was incredible, she said.

Maybe, but Henry falls from his horse in a jousting competition and is knocked unconscious.  For two hours he is prone.  Everyone believes him dead.  Cromwell is summoned.  Arguments begin over the future of the monarchy, of the country itself.  History teeters on a knife-edge, so too Cromwell’s future.  This is one of those moments where the use of present tense works a treat.  We see the calculations as they occur; we hear the arguments; we witness Cromwell’s inner deliberations and upset that he didn’t prepare for this.  Take Henry away and he is finished.  The Duke of Norfolk snarls at him, telling him: “By God, I’ve got you now… By God, before the day is over your head will be spiked.”  Henry recovers.  Cromwell breathes again.

There are some sublime passages that follow this event.  When Cromwell’s chief clerk Rafe Sadler, who was brought up like a son, is promoted into the king’s privy chamber, there’s one on the art of being a high courtier, at the end of which, Cromwell thinks:

You can be merry with the king, you can share a joke with him.  But as Thomas More used to say, it’s like sporting with a tamed lion.  You tousle its mane and pull its ears, but all the time you’re thinking, those claws, those claws, those claws.

There’s another passage on a dream he has at which he sits down to a feast with all the old families at which the “Boleyns are laid at his hand to be carved”.

There are wonderful exchanges with the Emperor’s ambassador, Eustache Chapuys.  In one of these Cromwell foresees his end when Chapuys says to him: ‘You fear that [Henry] will turn on you.’  Cromwell replies: ‘He will, I suppose.  One day.’

And how’s this for delicious dialogue when Edward Seymour seeks an interview with Cromwell.  Anne has miscarried, opening the door for Jane Seymour.  Cromwell tells him about the plan to seek an annulment, though he doesn’t know on what grounds yet.  Edward says:

‘The Boleyns if they go down will take us with them.  I have heard of serpents that, though they are dying, exude poison through their skins.’

‘Did you ever pick up a snake?’ he asks.  ‘I did once, in Italy.’  He holds out his palms.  ‘I am unmarked.’

It’s beautiful characterisation, perfect for the slippery Cromwell.  Slippery and ruthless.  When, as part of his orchestration of Anne’s downfall, he exacts his revenge on the four courtiers, plus another man who wrote a ballad of their exploits, he tells Rafe:

Once you have exhausted the process of negotiation and compromise, once you have fixed on the destruction of an enemy, that destruction must be swift and it must be perfect.  Before you even glance in his direction, you should have his name on a warrant, the ports blocked, his wife and friends bought, his heir under your protection, his money in your strong room and his dog running to your whistle.  Before he wakes in the morning, you should have the axe in your hand.

True to form, Cromwell brings down Anne and her accused lovers with merciless efficiency.  Those claws of Henry’s could be his own.

For all its brilliance, there are a couple of off-key moments.  The first ten pages are ‘bumpy’.  The narrative voice struggles for traction.  Part of the reason is that we have a bit of re-hashing of who Thomas Cromwell is.  Another part of the reason lies, I think, in the use of the pronoun ‘we’.  It serves to distance the reader when it is trying to give us a role in the proceedings, undermining the closeness of Cromwell’s point of view that is one of the mainstays of both books.  I’d love to hear if anyone else experiences the same reaction.  I know one reader who did.

The second issue is ‘future-hopping’ in present tense.  In her SWF session Mantel commented that she saw the opening scene of Wolf Hall ‘cinematically’, so it seemed natural to use present tense.  It allowed her, she said, to show momentous instants in history as they were happening, to highlight how things might have gone one way or another, how things might have been different.  For me, this aspect of both novels is a huge success.  But: can you ‘jump’ into the future if everything is happening in the present?  Surely it’s a logical impossibility.  For example, there’s this bit of foreshadowing: “The young man gives him a glassy look.  It will be some years before he understands why.”  Some years?  How can he know this?  This is the author ‘speaking’.  If it were past tense, okay.  But in present tense it seems illogical.  Or is it just me?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

One other thing is the narrative gymnastics Mantel has been forced to engage in after some readers found the use of the pronoun ‘he’ in Wolf Hall to be confusing.  The result is things like this:

‘And what did the lady say?’ he asks; he, Cromwell. 

Fortunately this is as bad as it gets, but it’s clumsy, which is a shame as the approach in Wolf Hall worked well.  Mantel discussed this issue in her SWF interview as well, explaining how difficult a thing it is to balance the desires of different sets of readers.  I don’t envy her.

The story is too engrossing to care about small ripples like these.  Bring up the Bodies is every bit as entertaining and wonderfully imagined as Wolf Hall.  It’s tighter and in some  ways and more riveting.  The risk inherent in everything Cromwell does pulsates on the page.  A joy.

Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel


Fouth Estate

407 pages

ISBN: 9780007353583

Source: the local municipal library


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Thomas Cromwell is back – in Mantel’s new book, Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel to the hugely successful Wolf Hall (see my review).  In Bring Up the Bodies, we find Henry VIII ‘seeing’ Jane Seymour for the first time.  Of course, he knew her from her life about the court, but this was the time he saw in her something else.  Cromwell, the master strategist and tactician, has to work out what this means, for Henry, for Anne Boleyn, for himself, for England.

There is no personal record of Cromwell’s life, perhaps because he erased it as he went, perhaps because he was determined to live in the shadows.  But as an author, Mantel was able to read between the lines.  His private life was like ‘the dark side of the moon’ – we know it’s there but we can’t see it.  This is ‘where the novelist operates’, in the world that the historian cannot.  Cathcart quoted  historian Simon Schama who had said he often arrives into a scene only to find his subject disappearing around a corner.  When asked whether she was following Cromwell around the corner, she replied: ‘I’m already around it’!

She spoke about other sources, such as his relationship with Thomas More.  More’s death was not a victory for Cromwell.  More wrote a record of all their conversations, sent to family members from The Tower to be keep safe, and these provide an accurate picture of the relationship and the sort of man Cromwell was.  More thought of Cromwell as a ‘tender friend’, a relationship that is often thought of in a different light.

Mantel described the great modernising that Cromwell undertook, the innovation in public management, such as his introduction of the Births, Deaths and Marriages register, the taking of the bible out of scholar’s hands and putting it into the church, as well as the failed attempt to introduce a job creation scheme which would be funded by income tax.  It is in this sense, the time when England begins to become a nation.  When asked whether she liked him, she grinned and said, ‘Yes, I like him very much.’  Even at his worst.  She marvels at how he gets into situations and is ‘chortling’ as he then slips out of them.  He used ‘empathy as a weapon’, not just a shield.

When asked about how it was that she could bridge the five hundred year gap and get inside the minds of her characters, she said that the past is both strange and familiar.  It was strange in that there ‘were no atheists in those days – everyone was keeping a tally of their sins to judge whether they were destined for heaven or the other place’.  In a very funny line, she said that in those days it was an apt question as to whether the pope was catholic!  There was a sense that if you said or did the wrong thing then that was it – your life was over, which added poignancy to every moment.  On the other hand, the desires of people were the same as ours, their manoeuvrings similar to the ones we see today.  The other thing she made note of which was interesting, was the fact that Wolf Hall had been translated into 30 languages; someone in Korea is making the same cultural leap to read the book, so it’s something that us humans do naturally to some degree.

Mantel expanded on her point about those key moments when she discussed the use of present tense.  She saw scenes unrolling like a film, and wanted to show the possible turning points in conversations as they occurred, those moments in which history could have been different if something else had been said or decided.  In Bring Up the Bodies, one such moment is when Henry is knocked unconscious in a joust.  He was out cold for some time, perhaps two hours.  Cromwell is summoned and on his way to the prone body of the king he is playing in his mind all the ramifications, of who the next monarch might be, of how to engineer outcomes.  When he arrives, the moment is played out in a debate over the future of England.  Anne Boleyn is told the news that the king is dead (another moment) and blames this news for the subsequent miscarriage of a possible heir.

There was an interesting discussion about the use of the pronoun ‘he’ in Wolf Hall.  ‘He’ is always Cromwell unless Mantel notifies the reader otherwise.  Most readers, myself included, ‘got’ this in the first couple of paragraphs, but there was confusion in the minds of some readers.  The reason for the choice was her ultra close third person.  Because we see everything through his eyes, she found it hard to have him as narrator refer to himself in the third person.  In Bring Up the Bodies, she makes more use of ‘he, Cromwell’, to reduce confusion, but she noted that now some readers have said that the ‘Cromwell’ addition isn’t necessary – so you can’t please everyone.

In describing her writing process, Mantel said she writes in a ‘collage’, writing out different parts of the story, before taking a step back and seeing what she has and what the structure should be.

Has the winning the Booker Prize for Wolf Hall changed her?  ‘Less than you’d think’ was her reply.  She has increased confidence as a writer, but she still has to face the blank screen at the start of each day and those same insecurities are there – ‘you’re only as good as your next sentence’.  Stephen Romei, in another SWF2012 session ‘But is it a Good Read?’, pointed to both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies as being archetypes of great literature.  I’m very much looking forward to reading Bring Up the Bodies to experience what will surely be another cracking read, so I can test and savour all those beautiful ‘next sentences’…

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I am late arriving to Hilary Mantel’s fabulous, Booker-winning Wolf Hall, which tells the rise (and rise) of Thomas Cromwell, from the lowly son of a blacksmith to the highest of courtiers to the Tudor King, Henry VIII, drawn against the backdrop of the annulment of Henry’s first marriage to Queen Katherine and the coronation of Anne Boleyn and the schism in the church it creates.  I don’t intend to spend time outlining the story; there’s enough of that elsewhere.  What I want to muse on is Mantel’s characterisation of Cromwell, the master power-broker.

In most novels we find a protagonist who wants something and we follow them as they set about to get it.  Their desire is clear to us, and though in the best of stories they might get what they ‘need’ rather than what they ‘want’, their want is outlined from the off.  (We get to see their need as the story develops.)  What Mantel does in the close-third-person, present-tense re-creation of Cromwell is very interesting.  For much of the novel, his desire is hidden, unstated, slippery.  After travelling abroad, learning languages, banking, the art of relationships, he finds himself returning toLondon to take up the business of a lawyer.  Here he serves the infamous Cardinal Wolsey very well (as well as maintaining his own business affairs), and we see his loyalty and cunning, but, there is no overt desire stated.  It is only much later, after Wolsey’s death, when Cromwell is rising up the ranks in Henry’s court (much to the dismay of all the high-born councillors), that he begins to ask for some things.  But even then it is more a case of Henry thrusting positions and honours upon him without him asking for them.

This lack of inner awareness is wonderful characterisation.  Cromwell’s as slippery as aThameseel.  Henry’s old friends wonder who he is and how he got to where he is, [p394]:

Brandon grunts.  ‘We all are [guided by Cromwell].  We must be.  You do everything, Cromwell.  You are everything now.  We say, how did it happen?  We ask ourselves … but by the steaming blood of Christ we have no bloody answer.’ 

In a way, Cromwell can’t answer them, for he is spellbound by himself as well.  Late in the book he thinks, [p577]:

I shall not indulge More, …or his family, in any illusion that they understand me.  How could that be, when my workings are hidden from myself? 

Alice More, wife of Thomas, is under no illusion as to his abilities, telling him, [p605]:

‘My husband used to say, lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning, and when you come back that night he’ll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks’ tongues, and all the gaolers will owe him money.’

The construct of a man who acts on instinct rather than pre-planning is reinforced time and time again.  What could be a better way of constructing Cromwell’s rise than to do it in this way?  It’s brilliant.

The depiction of the courtiers’ cut and thrust is sublime.  The dialogue is delicious, the humour ripe.  There’s one instance, after Cromwell discusses a carpet which he is wondering whether should be put on the wall or the floor.  Says Stephen Gardiner to Cromwell:

‘We all know that money sticks to your hands.’ 

Like the aphids to More’s roses.  ‘No,’ [Cromwell] sighs.  ‘It passes through them, alas.  You know, Stephen, how I love luxury.  Show me a carpet, and I’ll walk on it.’ 

Then there’s the moment when Cromwell comes to court to see Henry and is refused entry thus, [p422]:

‘The king cannot see you this monring.  He and Lady Anne are composing some music for the harp.’

Rafe catches his eye and they walk away.  ‘Let us hope in time they have a little song to show for it.’  

Cromwell is a master at reading people’s faces and body language.  The way he knows that Henry has (finally) bedded Anne is a joy.  (I’ll leave it for you to discover how.)

Research is woven into the prose effortlessly.  Take for instance this passage, where it builds upon the picture of Cromwell’s commercial prowess as he ingratiates himself to a Welsh merchant so he could marry his daughter: [p41]:

“Latterly, Wykys had grown tired, let the business slide.  He was still sending broadcloth to the north German market, when – in his opinion, with wool so long in the fleece these days, and good broadcloth so hard to weave – he ought to be getting into kerseys, lighter cloth like that, exporting through Antwerp to Italy.” 

There are some beautifully lyrical sections, including many of the early chapter ends.  Take, for instance, this end to the first chapter: [p16]:

“He will remember his first sight of the open sea: a grey wrinkled vastness, like the residue of a dream.” 

It seems remiss to just look at Cromwell’s characterisation, for all the characters are so deftly drawn.  Wolesy is a marvellous creation, so too Anne and Mary Boleyn.

Cromwell works very hard, and as the new positions of trust are added onto all the old ones, he increasingly wants for a day off.  Anne Boleyn’s coronation sees him organise everything, even the weather.  And then there’s the business of Thomas More and all the recalcitrant papists running aboutEngland.  The want of a day off ties in nicely with the book’s end.

I might have come late to Mantel’s marvellous Tudor world, but I won’t be as tardy when Bring up the Bodies, the sequel to Wolf Hall, is released next month.

Hilary Mantel is ‘appearing’ (via video-link) at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, talking about Bring up the Bodies.  See here for details.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel


Fouth Estate

650 pages

ISBN: 9780007230204

Source: the bookshelf rainbow

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