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Bring Up the Bodies

December 10, 2013

I had to read Hilary Mantel’s sequel to Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, before Eleanor came home from her semester in London. She has learned and seen so much this fall I felt the need to study up a little in order to have conversations with her.

The world of Wolf Hall felt a lot bigger to me, with more random cruelty, while the world of Bring Up the Bodies has been created by the sheer force of will that Anne Boleyn has exerted for her three years in power. She is a bright, dangerous spark, and the center of this novel, even though the point of view still comes from Thomas Cromwell. He is the one who is, in the end, commanded to “bring up the bodies” of the men who have been accused of too much familiarity with the Queen. The picture of Anne that Cromwell has been asked to create in the face of Henry’s interest in Jane Seymour is that she is “a book left open on a desk for anyone to write on the pages, where only her husband should inscribe.”

There is a nice continuity from the first novel. Early on, Thomas is thinking about a conversation with Thomas More in which he defended himself against charges of being merely Henry’s weapon against those who do not agree with his policies. His pragmatic outlook is appealing to a modern reader: “He doesn’t regret what happened; his only regret is that More wouldn’t see sense. He was offered an oath upholding Henry’s supremacy in the church; this oath is a test of loyalty. Not many things in life are simple, but this is simple. If you will not swear it, you indict yourself.”

Thomas Cromwell has good intentions and big plans for his country: “It is his daily, covert crusade for Henry to sponsor a great Bible, put it in every church. He is very close now and he thinks he can win Henry to it. His ideal would be a single country, single coinage, just one method of weighing and measuring, and above all one language.”

Everyone in Cromwell’s world is so dependent on Henry, so afraid of his whims, that the occasional story about someone who has quit the court voluntarily is at first startling and then a reminder of how this cast of characters lives with Henry’s outsize personality: “What is there, without Henry? Without the radiance of his smile? It’s like perpetual November, a life in the dark.”

We get a little more insight into how Cromwell developed his many talents, lest we begin to confuse him with any of the court hangers-on, whose only talent might be the good fortune of being born into nobility. When one man points out to Cromwell that he’s hard to ridicule because “you don’t hum, or shuffle your feet or twirl your thumbs” he replies “my father had a savage temper. I learned as a child to be still.” In training a young man raised in his household, Rafe, to follow in his footsteps, Cromwell reveals some of his techniques for dealing with the King: “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.”

Cromwell himself, from whose point of view we see this world, has access to claws but prefers more pragmatic methods. As he says to his first witness against the Queen, “no one wants your pain, Mark….I have no use for your screams. I want words that make sense. Words I can transcribe. You have already spoken them and it will be easy enough to speak them again. So now what you do is your choice. It is your responsibility. You have done enough, by your own account, to damn you. Do not make sinners of us all.” In other words, don’t require me to torture you.

Cromwell’s love for his son Gregory is, as ever, on display as Gregory moves into manhood. Before a tournament, Cromwell asks Henry “if you run against my son Gregory will you forbear to unhorse him? If you can help it? Henry points out that he cannot promise but says that Gregory is “very able.” He also remarks that he knows Cromwell and his other councilors think he should retire from participating, but points out that “it is hard to give up what you have worked at since you were a boy.” Such conversation humanizes both Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII for the modern reader.

I feel like I might be making this novel sound much more boring than it is. The truth is that the genius is in the details. The way more and more detail layers and obscures until the moment Thomas Cromwell, who never lost sight of the original design, pulls the layers away and reveals his object is the main delight of the novel.

One of the incidental delights is how far Cromwell goes out of his way to keep Thomas Wyatt out of the way as Anne is condemned. He says, of the author of poems like “They Flee From Me,” that
“he does not talk simply to hear his own voice, or pick arguments just to win them. He is not like George Boleyn: he does not write verses to six women in the hope of bundling one of them into a dark corner where he can slip his cock into her. He writes to warn and to chastise, and not to confess his need but to conceal it. He understands honour, but does not boast of his own. He is perfectly equipped as a courtier, but he knows the small value of that. He has studied the world without despising it. He understands the world without rejecting it. He has no illusions but he has hopes. He does not sleepwalk through his life. His eyes are open, and his ears for sounds others miss.”
It is also interesting to hear that Wyatt would not have wanted his poems printed: “he would not consent to that. They are private communications.”

Mantel’s own novel seems to be the private thoughts of Thomas Cromwell who is, among his other talents, a writer. He thinks that “when the time comes I may vanish before the ink is dry. I will leave behind me a great mountain of paper.” He also believes that he has matters in hand:
“He has helped them to their new world, the world without Anne Boleyn, and now they will think they can do without Cromwell too. They have eaten his banquet and now they will want to sweep him out with the rushes and the bones. But this was his table, he runs on the top of it, among the broken meats. Let them try to pull him down. They will find him armoured, they will find him entrenched, they will find him stuck like a limpet to the future.”

After two books, however, the reader is well aware that few men, however talented and intelligent, could have survived as many changes as Thomas Cromwell has already survived. Standing for so long so close to Henry’s flame is bound to burn him. How will it happen? If even Thomas Cromwell cannot circumvent his fate, how could any of us have ever survived in this world?  Sometimes studying up is not enough.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. CSchu permalink
    December 10, 2013 4:15 pm

    Excellent post, non-Necromancer!

    • December 12, 2013 11:08 am

      Glad you liked it. Let me know if you want to borrow our copy.

  2. December 10, 2013 6:08 pm

    Could one read Bring up the Bodies without having read Wolf Hall? Assuming one has a schoolgirl’s familiarity with the Tudors? I want to, because Bringing up the Bodies sounds really good and oh dear I am not sure Wolf Hall does.

    • December 12, 2013 11:10 am

      I think it would be fine as a stand-alone book.
      What you would miss is the background for Thomas Cromwell–especially who he loves, and who he has lost–that gives a reader more than enough sympathy for him to see why he acts as he does in the particular case of Anne’s accusation and trial.

      • December 12, 2013 12:11 pm

        Oh well. I was never going to be on Thomas Cromwell’s side in the Anne Boleyn accusation and trial. I love my girl Anne Boleyn & Thomas Cromwell is a poop.

  3. December 10, 2013 7:13 pm

    I know so many people who have loved Mantel’s books but I generally don’t care for historical fiction. I’m not sure why but I think the details make them feel tedious to me.

    • December 12, 2013 11:12 am

      This series is all about the layering of detail, and even though Thomas Cromwell, the main character, has a gaze piercing enough to select the one detail that matters in a particular case, you might not enjoy the challenge of trying to guess what it is ahead of time, as I did.

  4. December 10, 2013 9:59 pm

    I really need to read these books! I have them both and just haven’t got there…

    • December 12, 2013 11:13 am

      I recommend them as winter reading, because no matter how harsh the winter gets, it will never be as harsh as the world of the Tudors.

  5. Jenny permalink
    December 11, 2013 1:06 am

    I’m starting Wolf Hall tomorrow! I was supposed to start it tonight but I graded finals all day and I just couldn’t bear it, so I watched TV instead. But tomorrow! I’m pretty sure I’m going to love it.

  6. December 11, 2013 11:33 am

    I think the thing I found most chilling about this book was the pragmatic way the Cromwell acknowledged to himself that it was most likely that eventually he too would taste the extreme of Henry’s displeasure. I suppose that knowledge must have been with ever man who worked at court at the sort of level that Cromwell does, but how do you go about your daily business with the certainty that one day it will be your head on the block at the back of your mind?

    • December 12, 2013 11:17 am

      I think he must have regarded it as a kind of game. People do that today, although with less attention to individual power.
      I used to think of driving down Route 1 between Laurel and College Park, Maryland as a kind of game–how could I stay at a constant speed with people changing lanes and stoplights coming up? How long would it take me to get there that day–would I beat my score from the day before? How would the weather affect my daily score? Would I be caught in one of the many accidents I saw each week?
      I think this is how Americans, at least, can relate to the Tudor world. We drive a lot, and on certain stretches of road, in certain weather, we’re just playing the odds.

  7. December 11, 2013 12:34 pm

    I am eager to read this. Had planned to read this month but am so burnt out on bad historical fiction because of the MOOC I am taking that I didn’t want my bad feelings to spill over into what I know is a really good book. Hopefully I will be recovered in January!

    • December 12, 2013 11:17 am

      January strikes me as a particularly good month in which to immerse yourself in this massive book.

  8. December 12, 2013 12:06 pm

    On my list for ‘some day’. Wonderful review!

    • December 12, 2013 12:11 pm

      I had one person comment, on my FB announcement of this post, that he was waiting to read all three together. That, my friend, would be a “chunkster.”


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