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?’
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
Source: the local municipal library