When Wolsey fell, you might have thought that as Wolsey’s servant he was ruined. When his wife and daughters died, you might have thought his loss would kill him. But Henry has turned to him; Henry has sworn him in; Henry has put his time at his disposal and said, come, Master Cromwell, take my arm. Through courtyards and throne rooms, his path in life is now smooth and clear. As a young man he was always shouldering his way through crowds, pushing to the front to see the spectacle. But now crowds scatter as he walks through Westminster or the precincts of any of the king’s palaces. Since he was sworn councilor, trestles and packing cases and loose dogs are swept from his path. Women still their whispering and tug down their sleeves and settle their rings on their fingers, since he was named Master of the Rolls. Kitchen debris and clerks’ clutter and the footstools of the lowly are kicked into corners and out of sight, now that he is Master Secretary to the King.
In September 1535, when Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel’s sequel to Wolf Hall begins, Thomas Cromwell is one of the most powerful men in England. But his power depends on maintaining the good will of King Henry VIII. Henry has turned against past advisors, and Cromwell is haunted by the memory of Thomas More and Cardinal Wolsey. It’s no wonder, then, that when he sees signs that Henry is discontented with his new wife Anne Boleyn, he chooses to please Henry instead of Anne, the woman he helped bring to the throne.
Bring Up the Bodies covers just under a year of Cromwell’s life, September 1535 through summer 1536, just after Anne Boleyn’s execution. This shortened time frame makes this book much tighter and more accessible than the more ambitious and complex Wolf Hall. That’s not to say that this is a simple book, but the plot is more manageable and the conflicts are more clear, even when the characters’ intentions and motivation are not.
The story of Anne Boleyn’s downfall is familiar to just about anyone with an interest in English history. I think part of the modern fascination with the story has to do with how little is known about what really happened. Was Anne unfaithful? If so, with whom? In this book, which focuses on Cromwell’s part in her downfall, her actual guilt or innocence is hardly even relevant. What matters is what the king wants and how Cromwell can manipulate those around her to say precisely what is needed to make her look guilty enough. He knows the case against her is not very good:
It was a triumph, in a small way, to unknot the entanglement of thighs and tongues, to take that mass of heaving flesh and smooth it onto white paper; as the body, after the climax, lies back on white linen. He has seen beautiful indictments, not a word wasted. This was not one: the phrases jostled and frotted, nudged and spilled, ugly in content and ugly in form. The design against Anne is unhallowed in its gestation, untimely in its delivery, a mass of tissue born shapeless; it waited to be licked into shape as a bear cub is licked by its mother. You nourished it, but you did not know what you fed.
Watching Cromwell nourish this mewling mass and turn it into a death sentence is a horror. Whatever Anne’s guilt, her death was a tragedy, and the fact that the architect of her downfall knows the case is weak makes it worse. Yet Mantel doesn’t treat Cromwell as a villain, grasping hungrily for power wherever he can get it. He’s a pragmatist who looks out for his own interests and those of his son above anyone else’s, but he’s not interested in making people suffer unless he must. He’s not blood-thirsty; he just wants to maintain the position he has achieved and serve his country and king.
At times, Cromwell’s sensibilities come across as too modern; his distaste for torture and pride in his late daughter’s education seemed unlikely. Yet perhaps in Cromwell, we’re seeing what a modern man must become to live in such times. Being enlightened does not always mean acting enlightened when one’s own position is at stake. Cromwell is always balancing competing interests and loyalties, trying to maintain equilibrium between the past, present, and future queens; the king’s two daughters; and the diplomats and politicians who have their own interests in the situation. He guides events where he can, but his power is not absolute.
The story of Anne Boleyn has been told many times, but Mantel’s effort stands out not just because of her focus on Cromwell but also because of her writing. She elegantly incorporates just enough detail to give readers a sense of the time. I really enjoyed some of the imagery and figurative language, such as the conception and childbirth metaphor in the quote above.
As in Wolf Hall, I could have done without Mantel’s insistence on referring to Cromwell simply as “he” unless it’s absolutely necessary to name him. This device was less troublesome in this book than in Wolf Hall because she inserts his name more frequently when ambiguity seems likely, but that doesn’t change the fact that it felt to me like an unnecessary affectation that is just as likely to bring the reader up short as it is to draw the reader in. Maybe that’s her intention. I don’t know. I just know I could have done without it.
I understand that Mantel plans to write one more book about Cromwell that will cover the events leading up to his execution. I’m excited to see how she handles those final chapters of this remarkable life.