Saturday, October 20, 2012

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

In "Wolf Hall" Hilary Mantel did two remarkable things. She gave a voice to Thomas Cromwell, one of the more shadowy figures in British history, and in doing so she opened up the smells and sounds of Tudor England in a way that was astonishing. That book,.seeing Cromwell's rise at the court of Henry VIII, first through his intrigueing for Cardinal Wolsey, and then for the King himself had a particular design on us, I felt. The Tudors are a fascination that have always puzzled me, but Mantel showed us not so much the intrigues that led to the ditching of Henry's first wife as he fell in love with Anne Boleyn but the reasons behind it. For without an heir the newly peaceful England would be back at war - and as a distant outpost of Rome, its people would remain trapped in an age of fear and suspicion, unable to read the word of God in their own tongue. "Wolf Hall" showed the birth of protestant England, and it was this aspect - with Boleyn, Cromwell and others able to read the Tyndale Bible in private whilst their countrymen faced death for the same "crime" - that gave it so much of its fascination.

"Bring up the Bodies" continues the story. Boleyn is now Queen, her family are esconced at court, and Cromwell is now, amongst other titles, "Master Secretary" to Henry Tudor, middle aged and wealthy. The odd tense construction that she developed in "Wolf Hall" for Cromwell, is less obtrusive here, or perhaps more fluent. In that sense it is probably an easier read. The odd "said he, Thomas Cromwell" usage is for emphasis here, and only occasionally is the reader confused as to whom is being referred. Cromwell in middle age is denied the interior life that his younger self had - or at least it is more restricted; the bare facts of biography deny it somewhat. For Cromwell is now an arch-fixer, not just for himself, but for his circle, and inevitably for Henry. There's at least one misplaced "I" that I remember, wondering to what extent Booker winners ever get a proper editing, but otherwise the book is if anything more readable than its page-turning predecessor.

And in places it is brilliant. Beginning at "Wolf Hall" out hunting with the King, Cromwell notes his Lord has shown an interest in the plain, virgin Jane Seymour, and so it begins. With a son and heir, but with his own wife and daughters dead from plague (in the arresting opening scene, Cromwell has named his falcons after them), Cromwell doesn't mourn so much as put his experience and regret to the King's purpose. But he always has a soft spot for women; and tempers Anne's dislike of Katherine of Aragon's daughter Mary, or coaching the elusive Seymour. We are now at the heart of court; yet oddly, this second book seems less knowledgeable in many ways. The entourage of both King and Queen reminds one of The Sopranos, where individuals jostle for preferment, and never quite know if they are to be a "made" man or a dead man. Cromwell is a string-puller at the heart of this intrigue. He is no longer a confidante of Anne - for he is a confidante of the King - and whereas previously he owed allegiance to the Cardinal, here he uses cardinals, ambassadors, and Earls of the realm as mere pawns on his board. There is plenty here to arrest the attention; and occasional reminisces into the endless variety of Thomas's imagined past. Yet, this is less a book about Cromwell than it is about Henry.

For the Henry we think about from history is not the young fearless man, but the one of the six wives, the giant fellow who sits overseeing both court and country. We see a drunk Henry falling asleep after the hunt, and the Lords almost daring each other which will be the one to wake their king. We see him in love again, but this time with the demure Seymour rather than the alluring Boleyn. We see him at the heart of decision-making that are hard to fathom but which could pitch England back into favour with Rome, as the latter finds itself at war with France. Cromwell entertains the ambassadors; he arranges new sinecures for troublesome Lords; he gossips with the ladies-in-waiting around the Queen; he worries about his son's debut in the Lists (the jousting tournament that the King still performs in); he speaks little of the project that was Protestant England, except to somehow give a prayer in their own tongue to the troublesome Welsh; and he is the kings man in the Commons, wanting laws that will aid the people of England (a common man to the last, is Cromwell) and money taken from the coffers of the monasteries.

Yet this second outing seems both more familiar and less purposeful. It takes place in a tighter timescale, and has really one main story line. For Boleyn having provided Henry with only a female heir (baby Elizabeth) he now wants another woman, but having no heir, wants a Queen not a concubine. It is Cromwell's job to enable this. This then is a drama less about the country, and more about the intrigue at court. What the king wants of course, the king will have. This has become a given after the break with Rome; yet this is still a religious monarch and a religious country. An heir from another needs to be a legitimate one (for the king has one male Bastard already). The downfall of Boleyn and her inner circle is inevitable, we know that, and Mantel is superb in showing the way the drama may have unfolded - even though the history is a mystery. We are no longer in the superstitious England of the first book, but in an era where Tudor England will begin to assert its power and supremacy. This is the "great man" view of history - where we rarely stray beyond the courtly circle, and its rich families jostling for power and influence. To what extent you like playing Kings and Queens will determine how you rate this novel. What might be fascinating on a BBC costume drama seems melodramatic at times on the page. For Mantel is being truth to whats known, whilst constructing a fiction. Oddly, its the conspiracy-theories of James Ellroy that the book reminds me in places; as the style is as breathless in its way as his Kennedy conspiracy thriller "American Tabloid." But it also reminds me of a lesser book, one that also got carried away with the detail of its historical subject, and tackled voices from the past: John Fowles late, and disappointing "A Maggot." At times, Mantel all but abandons description as she shares in-depth conversations like characters in a soap opera; and the drive to some sort of conclusion is all that matters. Like a storyliner for an American mini-series she has to tie up all the loose ends that Cromwell has set hanging. For this is Cromwell as master-fixer. The end to his story will come in a third book, and he is already suspecting that his own end may be no less bloody than that of the Queen he helped place on the throne.

"Bring up the Bodies" is a brilliant read; a worthy sequel to "Wolf Hall" and in parts surpasses it in its style and readability. Yet it seems to me to not add too much to that book. It is tighter and more concentrated, but here the subject is more Henry Tudor, and less Thomas Cromwell. In biographies it is always the story of how they get to where they are that fascinates, not what they did when they got there - for the latter is already a public story - and I think that, if anything, is why the book seemed less remarkable than its predecessor. The story is less international in scope as well, for whereas the fate of England (both then and in the future) seemed to hang on the break from Rome; we are now cloistered in the politics of a Ceasar (or a Corleone.) The Lords and Ladies of Henry's court are frankly not that interesting. Like a Russian novel, they have several names, yet Mantel rarely gives them anything more than soap opera characterisation. This one is weak; this one vain etc. There is no great villain in the novel - yet surely they should be? Anne Boleyn is not fit for the role, for her "villainy" is to have given Henry no heir and for him to have tired of her.

The novel has remarkably given Mantel her second Booker prize. Without having read the others on the shortlist (and longlist for that matter), its hard to say whether its worthy. There are sequels that do something different and better than their predecessors - think "Rabbit Redux" or "The Western Lands" - but I'm not sure that one does. Its the classic "middle" part of a trilogy. "The Empire Strikes Back" may be the tighter film, but its not as loved as "Star Wars", and there's something similar about "Bring up the Bodies." Despite its name, its far less violent than its predecessor. The ransacking of the monasteries mostly takes place off-stage. Instead it topples into melodrama at times; for the courtly intrigue, and the gossip about Boleyn's alleged infidelities are the stuff of soap opera. Perhaps Mantel had no choice, given the facts of the time - but though it is a remarkably readable book, and the voice is, if anything, even more convincing than in "Wolf Hall", it doesn't add to that novel's achievements, and may, in some way, detract from them - for here we are back in the Tudor England that never really appealed; of great men and women, in great halls, eating great feasts. The historical novel, which you felt Mantel was giving an overdue reboot in "Wolf Hall", is not that easily removed from its default setting. Anybody who enjoyed "Wolf Hall" must read this sequel, I devoured on a plane to Istanbul, landing in the heart of one of the world's most ancient cities, with the intrigue of the 16th century spinning around my head, but its Booker elevation seems a conservative choice.

My review of Wolf Hall is here. 


Meerabai said...

This is historical fiction at its best. I've been reading novels set in the Tudor era since I picked up Murder Most Royal: The Story of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard by Jean Plaidy more than 40 years ago, and after the deluge of novels set around Anne Boleyn's rise and fall -- many of them pedestrian or thinly-disguised romances in fancy clothes -- had given up on any hope of finding a really good novel in the midst of all the pages written about Henry and his wives. But here it is. Mantel has crafted a novel that is not only about Henry and Anne, but about their era; about the unease that prevails in a kingdom with no legitimate male heir to a dynasty only two generations old and whose reigning monarch has turned his realm upside town by rejecting the pope's rule. She writes about the transformation of Tudor England, as men of ability, knowledge and focus, ranging from Cardinal Wolsey in the first volume to Cromwell and his apprentices (some of whom will outlive Henry) displace the nobility as the king's top advisors, to the disgruntlement of the dukes and earls and their scions. At the same time, Mantel never allows the substance to detract from the fact that she is telling the story of one man; of Cromwell, who rises to power because his elders and betters recognize the unique combination of ability and tenacity. (Here there are flashbacks to Cromwell's earlier life, chronicled in part in Wolf Hall: A Novel, showing how during his days on the continent, Cromwell began working as a common laborer only to be "talent spotted" and brought into the accounting house of a powerful Italian merchant.)

Meerabai said...

I loved this book, but then I love anything by Hilary Mantel :-) I want to reread Wolf Hall, too, and appreciate the relationship you mention between Cromwell and Wolsey more, too!