Sunday, 21 October 2012

Mantel: Bring Up the Bodies

Hilary Mantel (2012) Bring Up the Bodies Henry Holt & Co., New York; 432 pp.; ISBN 978-1-4299-4765-7

This novel is the second instalment of a planned trilogy covering the life of Thomas Cromwell, an adviser to King Henry VIII of England. Cromwell was skilled in both intrigue and public administration. The previous novel, Wolf Hall, won the Man Booker prize in 2009, and this second has just won the same prize for 2012, an extraordinary achievement. I’m sure that bookmakers have already calculated the odds on a hat-trick.

I’m not a great fan of historical fiction. It’s very hard to generate suspense when you know the whole plot already, so the focus has to be on the characters and giving us an insight into their thinking as we watch them follow a path where we know the final destination. I read Wolf Hall while staying in a small beachside guesthouse. I’d run out of things to read and it was the only novel on the bookshelf in the lobby that looked vaguely interesting and still had all its pages intact. It was an engrossing book that captured the mood and tenor of the Tudor period, and was especially strong on how Cromwell rose to prominence.

Bring Up the Bodies maintains the standard of the first book, and is sufficiently self-contained that you do not need to have read Wolf Hall before embarking on this one. However, I would highly recommend reading both. This novel focuses on a brief period from autumn 1535 to the summer of 1536. This was a crucial time in Henry’s reign. His former queen died, he turned against his second queen Anne Boleyn, and the consolidation of state control over the monasteries and churches took on momentum.

In these fraught times, Thomas Cromwell was a master strategist and the king’s most trusted adviser. Unlike his father, Henry VIII was hopeless at managing the finances of the royal household and of the country more generally. Cromwell’s skills kept the king solvent. Cromwell was also adept at outsmarting the king’s adversaries (and his own), as well as dealing with the king’s often temperamental character.

 Cromwell as depicted by Hans Holbein the Younger

Both the king and Cromwell are older in this novel, both past their physical prime but still obsessed with power and its exercise. Cromwell’s wife and daughters died of illness before this story opens, and now aged fifty, Cromwell seems to reserve his strongest passions for work and the future of his sons, rather than his own emotional happiness. Henry is increasingly erratic in his behaviour and his standard MO for dealing with detractors is decapitation. He was an intelligent and cultured monarch and this comes through in the book, but when his personal whim was thwarted, his reactions were often childish and impetuous.

Religious reform and the break with the church in Rome were largely driven by Henry’s personal desire to choose his own wives, and by his need to generate more income. On religious faith he was torn between the new and the old ways, and never fully committed himself to reform. He was also obsessed about having a son to succeed him. He had daughters (the future Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I) by his first two wives, but in the period covered by this novel we see that he cannot accept a woman as his heir. By the end of this tale, he marries Jane Seymour. She was the only one of his six wives to bear him a son to reign after his death (the future Edward VI), and consequently Henry always retained a fondness for her (helped no doubt by the fact that she died in childbirth and thus didn’t live long enough to annoy him).

In Hilary Mantel’s account, Cromwell plays a key role in engineering the downfall of Anne Boleyn and in nurturing Henry’s relationship with Jane Seymour. In the past Cromwell was an adviser to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, from whom he learnt much about statecraft. Wolsey suffered at the hands of Anne Boleyn and died under arrest. Cromwell never forgave Wolsey’s enemies and in this novel we see him taking patient and calculated revenge against each of them as the transition from Anne Boleyn to Jane Seymour progresses.

The cosmopolitan nature of London at this time is well described, as is the still tentative unification of England. Cromwell is characterised as a forward thinker in terms of administration, and it is true that he had a substantial impact on government reforms well after his death. He was also interested in European affairs and had spent a long time on the continent in his youth, giving him a command of some key languages as well as a grasp of European politics.

Katherine of Aragon, Henry’s first queen, dies a lonely death just after the new year in 1536, and both Henry and Anne indulge in some unseemly gloating and celebration. But Henry’s intense longing for a son drives Anne to the arms of other men in the hope it will produce a boy – even to the point, it is rumoured, of sleeping with her brother. In a court where servants and spies are everywhere, it does not take long for gossip to run down the halls and corridors and reach the king. Ironically, Henry’s obsession and its impact on his wife’s behaviour lead directly to her downfall. Henry never once considers that it is he who might not be able to father the son he needs.

Although Henry had the Church of England break its links with the Roman church, there was still much resistance to this move, especially among the older aristocracy and the rulers of France and Spain. The religious conservatives see an opportunity with Jane Seymour to gain the upper hand, putting Cromwell and his career in jeopardy. By the end of this novel it appears that he has survived the danger, but in the final book of the trilogy we will see how he is undone.

Despite all the key characters and events being well known (especially to British readers), Mantel manages to hold the reader’s attention throughout. The twists and turns of intrigue are fascinating, and the characters live and breathe on the page. You can feel and smell the grim but lively city of Tudor London. These are the skills that set Mantel apart and make this book so absorbing. Cromwell is a mesmerising character, intelligent and capable, intensely loyal to the king and protective of his own household. He is a lonelier figure than he was in the period covered in Wolf Hall, but also far more powerful and conscious of his power.

This is a beautifully written book, with a deceptively simple structure that hides a complexity of characters and conspiracies. A Mantel piece you need to have in your home.

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