Hilary Mantel, Bring up the bodies (Review)
In her author’s note at the end of her second Thomas Cromwell novel, Bring up the bodies, Hilary Mantel writes that:
In this book I try to show how a few crucial weeks might have looked from Thomas Cromwell’s point of view. I am not claiming authority for my version; I am making the reader a proposal, an offer.
And what an offer it is! In my review of the first novel, Wolf Hall, I quote Cromwell’s statement that “…homo homini lupus, man is wolf to man“. This was related to the theme of the book – the machinations behind the scenes that change the world, something that we Australians are more familiar with right now than we’d like to be. (This is, in fact, a very modern book.) Anyhow, Bring up the bodies continues this theme but with a difference …
That difference is Thomas Cromwell’s motivations, but more on that anon. The plot concerns Henry’s desire to replace Anne Boleyn with Jane Seymour as his wife – and we all know where that led! It’s a much tighter plot – and a somewhat shorter book – than Wolf Hall. It takes place over about 9 months, from September 1535 to Summer 1536, and while the political climate is still evident – the continuing struggle to entrench the Church of England over the Roman Catholic Church and attempts at social welfare reform – politics and political change are not so much to the forefront in this second novel. Why? Well, because ….
Mantel wants to propose a motivation for Master Secretary Cromwell’s engineering of Anne’s downfall: revenge. Now, the word “revenge” is not, at least I don’t recollect it, actually used in the novel, though the softer word “grudge” appears a couple of times. But this is the motivation that Mantel proposes. It’s all to do with which men were and weren’t tried for treason (adultery with Anne) and their role in the downfall of Cromwell’s much-loved mentor, Cardinal Wolsey. Why, for example, was Thomas Wyatt never tried despite his professed attraction to Anne, while Henry Norris was? You’ll have to read the book – although you probably already have, given how late I am coming to it – to see Mantel’s proposition.
It is this revenge “take” on Cromwell that unifies Bring up the bodies in the way that the story of the separation of England from Rome and the Acts of Supremacy unified Wolf Hall even though both are ostensibly about the downfall of a queen. However, I don’t want to write a lot more about the plot and subject matter because I’m guessing many of the reviews before me have done that. What I want to write about is her writing. It’s breathtaking – the way she gets us into Cromwell’s head, the way she makes us feel the times, and particularly the way she uses language to drive the plot and themes.
Appealing to the subconscious, being almost subliminal, is common in fiction, I suppose, but Mantel does it with such aplomb. It’s the dropping of words and ideas that you barely notice or first notice and think they mean one thing only to find they are pointing to another. Take Wolsey for example. When he is first mentioned in the novel, it’s logical, it’s part of filling in the backstory that is common in sequels. But, the thing is, he is dead, long dead before this novel starts, and yet his name keeps cropping up. It’s always logical, but it starts to carry some larger weight – which becomes apparent as the denouement draws near. There are other words too – phantoms, spoils, truth, angels – which start to convey more than their literal meaning or which, through repetition, point us to larger meanings or themes. None of this is heavy-handed. You could almost miss it, but it’s there – drip, drip, drip.
If people had one criticism of Wolf Hall, it was Mantel’s use of the third person “he” for Thomas Cromwell. It seems Mantel took this to heart, so in Bring up the bodies she frequently qualifies the pronoun, using “he, Cromwell”. It does the job, though for one who didn’t find Wolf Hall a problem, it did feel a little clumsy to me at times – but I forgave her that. There’s so much to love.
Towards the end, during the process dissolving Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, the Lord Chancellor says
The truth is so rare and precious that sometimes it must be kept under lock and key.
This is deeply cynical (and ironic). The “council” of men has decided to grant the decree annulling the marriage but to keep the reason secret. Why? Because they really couldn’t agree on a valid one – they just knew it had to be done.
Bring up the bodies is a beautifully constructed but chilling novel in which Cromwell’s character becomes murkier and murkier. What’s to admire and what’s not is the question that confronts us every step of the way. Like many, I can’t wait for The mirror and the light, the next instalment of Cromwell’s story – and would love it if Mantel continued with the Tudors after that. What a fascinating time it was – and what a spin Mantel puts on it.
Bring up the bodies
London: Fourth Estate, 2013