Delicious descriptions from Down under: Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell on books

Portrait of Thomas Cromwell. New York, Frick C...

Thomas Cromwell, by Hans Holbein the Younger. New York, Frick Collection. (Photo: Wikipedia)

There are many delicious descriptions to choose from Hilary Mantel‘s Bring up the bodies, which I reviewed earlier this week, and some have already been posted by bloggers in other posts (such as John at Musings of a Literary Dilettante, Lisa at ANZ LitLovers, and Alex in Leeds). Their excerpts relate more to thematic issues, but I want to share one that just tickled my fancy. Thomas Cromwell is, we know, a reader. He comments, for example, on Machiavelli‘s The Prince, which was published in 1532.

I enjoyed this little description of Cromwell and books early in the novel:

After supper, if there are no messengers pounding at the door, he will often steal an hour to be among his books. He keeps them at all his properties: at Austin Friars, at the Rolls House in Chancery Lane, at Stepney, at Hackney. There are books these days on all sorts of subjects. Books that advise you how to be a good prince,  or a bad one. Poetry books, and books that tell you how to keep accounts, books of phrases for use abroad, dictionaries, books that tell you how to wipe your sins clean and books that tell you how to preserve fish. His friend Andrew Boorde, the physician, is writing a book on beards; he is against them. He thinks of what Gardiner said: you should write a book yourself, that would be something to see.

If he did, it would be The Book Called Henry: how to read him, how to serve him, how best to preserve him. …

I love this for several reasons, not the least of which is the insight it provides into publishing in the 16th century. I hadn’t realised quite how varied the output was. I’d also never heard of Andrew Boorde but he’s clearly well enough known to make it into Wikipedia (see the link on his name above). He’s also the subject of a delightful post I found from a blogger called Early Modern John who, as well as describing Boorde as “randy and carnivorous”, filled me in a little about the book on beards.

As with much of Mantel’s writing, though, this excerpt is enjoyable for other reasons, such as for the humorous reference to Machiavelli’s The prince; the sly reference to Stephen Gardiner whom Cromwell sees as his enemy; and the insight into Cromwell’s character, into his love of books and his focus on and loyalty to Henry (with whom, of course, he believes his own best chance of success lies!).

Hilary Mantel, Bring up the bodies (Review)

Hilary Mantel, Bring up the bodies

Courtesy: HarperCollins Australia

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.

Hilary Mantel
Bring up the bodies
London: Fourth Estate, 2013
ISBN: 9780007315109

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

An interesting question to ponder when thinking about Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is the significance of the title. While the place Wolf Hall, the family seat of the Seymour family, does get a few mentions it does not really function as a location. Wolves, however, are one of the subtle motifs running through the novel. As its protagonist remembers late in the book:

…homo homini lupus, man is wolf to man.

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

Cover image (Courtesy HarperCollins Publishers)

And, after reading the novel, it would be hard to refute this notion! Wolf Hall is set in England between 1500 and 1535, with most of the action taking place between 1527 and 1535. It deals primarily with the lead up to and first years of Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, but as seen through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell. Its plot centres on the machinations involved in dissolving Henry’s marriage to Katherine (Catherine) of Aragon, who had failed to produce a male heir, so he could legally marry Anne Boleyn; its real subject matter, though, is far wider than that. Its time period – the early years of the English Reformation – and its plot mean that it deals with the major issues of the time, including England’s separation from Rome, the translation of the Bible into English and the relaxing of rules regarding access to the Bible, the Act of Supremacy, and succession to the throne. Running through this are the jostlings for power, the skullduggery, and the betrayals (and suprising acts of loyalty) that are the hallmarks of the Tudor Court. Man was indeed wolf to man then (and I sometimes wonder how much has changed?).

This is an exquisite – though large! – novel. It won the 2009 Booker Prize: I can’t compare it with the others because I haven’t read them, but I did enjoy this immensely. In my recent review of The enchantress of Florence – and what fascinating synchronicity to read these two in sequence – I said that the one word I would use to describe it was “paradoxical”. The word I would use for Wolf Hall is “subtle”. It is subtle in so many ways – in its narrative style, its humour, its irony, its symbolism, its descriptions, its juxtapositions. Nothing here is heavy-handed or overdone.

But first, its narrative style. I was forewarned about Mantel’s use of “he” in this novel and perhaps this helped, because I rarely found it difficult or confusing. In fact, I rather liked the style. It’s a bit like a first-person novel told in third person – third person subjective (limited) point of view, I guess – and so the use of “he” reminds us that it is HIS perspective we are getting. Everything we know we know through him, through his thoughts and through his interactions with others. I found this approach intriguing – it gave immediacy and distance at the same time. And this brings me to the man himself.

Thomas Cromwell, for those who don’t know their English history, rose from very humble beginnings to being Henry’s trusted chief minister. He did this by dint of his character and the timely beneficial patronage of Cardinal Wolsey. He became street-smart in his youth but he also educated himself in the culture (literature and art) of the times. He could speak Latin, Italian and French. He was an accountant and lawyer.  He knew about trade. He was no slouch in the kitchen either. He was, indeed, a jack-of-all-trades. Here is a description early in the book (1527):

Thomas Cromwell is now a little over forty years old. He is a man of strong build, not tall. Various expressions are available to his face, and one is readable: an expression of stifled amusement … It is said he knows by heart the entire New Testamant in Latin … He is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcom, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury…

A man, that is, not to be trifled with – and yet he is a man who develops a large and loving household full of loyal children, relatives and “wards”. Some of the loveliest sections of the book are set in his home, Austin Friars. He is also loyal – sticking by Wolsey, for example, in his decline – and firm, hard even, but not cruel.

However, I don’t want this review to be as long as the book and so shall move on. I loved Mantel’s descriptions – they are always short but highly evocative. Here is the Duke of Norfolk:

The duke is now approaching sixty years old but concedes nothing to the calendar. Flint-faced and keen-eyed, he is lean as a gnawed bone and cold as an axe-head;  his joints seem knitted together of supple chain links, and indeed he rattles a little as he moves, for his clothes conceal relics…

And here is another telling description (after charges against Wolsey have been written):

It is a wan morning, low unbroken cloud; the light filtering sparely through the glass, is the colour of tarnished pewter. How brightly coloured the king is, like the king in a new pack of cards: how small his flat blue eye.

Delicious aren’t they?

The novel ends at an intriguing point – but I won’t give that away here except to say that it does not conclude with the end of Cromwell’s life. That, we believe, is the subject of a sequel.

I would love to keep writing about the characters, the language, the way Mantel puts it all together – such as the way she drops hints then explores them later – but that could become boring. Better for you to read the book (if you haven’t already). Instead, I will end with what is probably the book’s overarching theme – that of “how the world works”, and that is through machinations behind the scenes:

The fate of peoples is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions. This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman’s sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rosewater…

It was ever thus, eh?

Hilary Mantel
Wolf Hall
London: Fourth Estate, 2009
ISBN: 9870007292417

POSTSCRIPT: Steven, at A Momentary Taste of Being, posted a link to this fascinating article by Hilary Mantel on Thomas Cromwell. It is well worth a read.