Bring Up the Bodies, as everybody knows, is the sequel to Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s fictional re-imagining of the life and times of Henry VIII’s most effective servant, Thomas Cromwell. We have long been banging our spoons and forks for it. Speaking for myself, I finished the first with an almost unbearable curiosity to find out what was going to happen next — a strange result, when you think of it, because we all know perfectly well what is going to happen.
Mantel is comprehensive with her sources. Every scene is secured, like a piano key to its hammer, to the corresponding page of the great 21-volume Calendar of State Papers of Henry’s reign. The last book ended with the death of Sir Thomas More, therefore in this one Katherine of Aragon will die; the Boleyn queen will lose two babies, she will be arrested along with her five ‘lovers’ and the king will chop all their heads off. That much we know; of all the episodes in what Mantel has called our ‘national soap opera’ — Tudor history — this is the most often rehearsed.
However, the reason for the continuous re-fashioning of this one story is that nobody knows what actually happened. The fall of Anne Boleyn is one of our history’s curiosities and has always been told with liberal recourse to subjunctives. Her decline was erratic and unpredictable; she was up, down, up again in the months before she died and she fell suddenly, like a tumbling pigeon shot in the heart.
The coup was achieved quickly, efficiently and discreetly. If there were papers, they are destroyed. And sitting at the centre of the conundrum is the question: what role did Thomas Cromwell take in it?
Was he the originator or just the executor of the plot, acting on the King’s instructions?
This is where we look to Mantel. Not for the truth in the literal sense; but for an explanation to bind up the contradictions and fill the empty spaces in the story, to satisfy our objections, to furnish the lost conversations which make sense of the mystery. We know her to be capable of this. In her historical fiction, the rubble of research is ground to a dust so fine that it settles into every phrase, every glance and gesture, so that we seem really to see through eyes that opened on the late 15th century. In Bring Up the Bodies an afternoon moon is ‘mean as a clipped coin’; Cromwell’s cook looks at a ball of dough ‘as if it were the head of the Baptist’. She excels at using what we know to show us what we can’t imagine: the familiar Holbein portrait of Jane Seymour, unamiable in a gable hood, shivers to life in a scene where the entire Seymour clan descend on her with that headgear, to enhance the distinction between their mild daughter and the (unbiddable, French hood-wearing) Boleyn queen.
Even so, she has got her work cut out. Feats of invention will be especially necessary to flesh out the courtiers who go down with Anne, men with scant traces in the written record who were, if they appeared at all, the most shadowy personages in Wolf Hall. Also, one wonders how on earth she will retain our sympathy for the book’s hero and central consciousness, Cromwell, when he becomes Henry’s most feared subject, principal spymaster and minister with portfolio for exceedingly nasty deeds.
Bring Up the Bodies succeeds brilliantly in every particle of this: it’s an imaginative achievement to exhaust superlatives. The Boleyn dénoument is managed with such stealth that its bloody outcome seems to creep up on Cromwell himself, and, as in life, it is only looking backward that the start and the finish connect: ‘You reach for the blade but the blood is already shed.’
Historical paradoxes resolve in the contradictions of personality. There are delicious new characters like Lady Rochford, Anne Boleyn’s sister-in-law, for whom malice is as exciting as love. As for the insubstantial courtiers, Anne’s ‘lovers’, Mantel has raised five distinct beings, some from nothing more than scraps of inventoried fabric and lists of offices, and given us their fatal interviews with Cromwell with such realistic detail that one might think she’d shimmered through the Tower walls with a shorthand notebook. If this was really the 16th century, she might be taken as a witch.
But she isn’t a witch or time-traveller, though she could be a genius. There is method in her magic and if this is good enough to stand as a re-telling for all time, it’s because it’s first a telling for our own times. Mantel has understood how many of those qualities which made Cromwell a villain in his own day can be made to appeal to the 21st-century reader. Unlike the 3rd Duke of Norfolk, we like a mushroom man. What looked to the 16th century like a ‘blacksmith’s cur’ can be shown to us as an egalitarian, semi-secular, urban, cosmopolitan rationalist with coal dust in his veins. Add to this the invented aspects — Cromwell as avenger for Wolsey’s fall, Cromwell as domestic libertarian with a large, jolly household of bouncy, independent minded girls and ‘servants from every nation under the sun’ — and you have somebody who feels like an ally in this strange landscape.
Bring Up the Bodies is mediated through a consciousness (Cromwell’s) which anticipates our own values, with the result that the rest of them — the priests, princes, courtiers, ministers, monks and martyrs — seem exasperatingly attached to alien considerations of religion, privilege, patronage, honour and precedence.
This means sympathy for Master Secretary and rather less of it for a ‘silken gentleman’ like Sir Henry Norris, here ‘spider of spiders, black centre of the vast dripping web of court patronage’, even when he’s choosing death over dishonesty. As for Mantel’s Anne, she’s always been a pinched and stony-hearted bitch whom no one could care for. Anyway, I finished the book lost in pleasure and admiration for the mind that made it. I wonder what will happen next.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated May 12, 2012Tags: Book review, Fiction, Novel