Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall was one of the very last books I read in December 2013, and it couldn’t have surprised me more. Instead of being an overhyped, overwritten contender for a sometimes-lackluster prize, it took a man who has always been an enigma, and made him as fascinating as the times he lived in. I’d read reviews of it, and not believed them, but I was much more willing to believe the many great reviews of Bring Up the Bodies that came my way. This novel is different in tone, and it takes place over a much more condensed period of time, but it is still unafraid to sink its wolfish teeth into politics that are anything but tidy.
Wolf Hall was particularly wonderful (to me, at least) because it let us into the secrets of Cromwell’s past. We spent a fair bit of time looking at his domestic arrangements: his wife, his children, even his own childhood and formation in other countries. We got to see his history, so we got to see inside him. Very little of that exists in Bring Up the Bodies; that has all been tidied away under Cromwell’s accomplishments and titles. The members of his household — most of whom love him and are loyal to him — simply function, without needing to settle into new places. We do get to see the nobility’s ongoing contempt for Cromwell because of his lowborn past, but this is something that affects his current situation, and something he takes (quiet, clever, irreproachably nasty) steps to change. Because we don’t see Cromwell’s domestication or his past in this book (though it follows on nicely from Wolf Hall), we understand him less. Mantel deconstructs his actions, but there is, I think, less penetration into his soul.
Bring Up the Bodies takes place in just under a year, from September 1535 to just after Anne Boleyn’s execution in summer of the following year. These months are packed with action for Cromwell. It has not been long — not long enough for anyone to forget — that Henry’s advisors don’t always fare well: the deaths of Cardinal Wolsey and of Thomas More haunt his imagination. Though Cromwell has big plans for his country — a Bible, in English, in every church; training for priests; education for the people — he is nothing if not a pragmatist. He cannot leave a legacy if he is not alive to complete it. Throughout the book, Cromwell is thoroughly aware of how much he is indebted to Henry, and how thin is the ice on which he skates.
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 this context, it makes perfect sense that he would serve the king’s wishes, and not any inward doubts of his own. He will help the king make a case against his wife Anne, whom Cromwell helped bring to the throne in the first place.
Mantel makes it wonderfully clear what it meant to serve at court. There’s a riveting scene in which Henry, who has been jousting (as his courtiers regularly beg him not to do) is thrown off his horse, and everyone believes him to be dead. Cromwell comes at a run, to find most of the court paralyzed with fear. A few people are, unbelievably, already clamoring for their place in the succession, but most cannot even begin to think about what it would mean to live without the King. “What is there, without Henry? Without the radiance of his smile? It’s like perpetual November, a life in the dark.”
It’s also clear that Anne’s downfall is a tragedy, no matter what her degree of guilt — that this “bringing up of the bodies” is partly or mostly fabricated to create a shift in the dynamics of power at court is a given. Mantel gives no sense that Anne deserved her fate. But again, Cromwell is not cast as a villain. He is never bloodthirsty. He is practical, avoids torture whenever he can, and serves his king and country to the best of his astonishing ability. That his job involves such sharp teeth is unavoidable.
I said in my review of Wolf Hall that I simply did not understand the complaining I’d heard about the style being difficult, or the use of “he” for Cromwell being too hard to understand. I think Mantel is a wonderful stylist, and not only did I not find it difficult, this time or the last, I found it captivating; we see the world from Cromwell’s point of view, and since when do we call ourselves by our names inside our own heads? (I think Mantel may have taken the pronoun criticism to heart: I noticed she used “he: Cromwell” a lot more in this volume. Shame. I liked it fine the way it was.) Bring Up the Bodies is only about half the length of Wolf Hall, and I wished there had been more of it. I am eagerly looking forward to The Mirror and the Light, but I think I may branch out to other books of hers as well. Have you read any others of her books? What did you think?