In Love With Cromwell
Bring Up the Bodies
Fourth Estate, 2012
“His children are falling from the sky.” With these whimsical, disorienting words Hilary Mantel sweeps us into the world of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s legally-minded Master Secretary and unofficial minister for marriages. Bring Up the Bodies is the second in her as-yet-unfinished sequence of historical novels, which began with Wolf Hall (2009), about Cromwell and his changing relationship with the King.
The year is 1535. Cromwell is hunting with Henry in the lands around Wolf Hall, where Cromwell had scheduled a visit at the end of the previous book, after orchestrating his master’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. It is also the home of the young and unobtrusive Jane Seymour, who quickly becomes Henry’s new infatuation. Bring Up the Bodies is driven by the tension in Henry’s capricious heart between Anne and Jane, and the challenge it presents to Cromwell of divining what Henry wants and giving it to him.
Cromwell’s hawks are named after his daughters, wife and sisters, all of whom died of the plague in Wolf Hall. The shadow of their memory flits over Cromwell as we see him increasingly detached from any woman’s affection. Their “transmigration” into birds of prey, as Mantel puts it, anticipates Cromwell’s middle-aged hardening in the face of his prowling enemies, an obstinate grittiness of character which will ultimately enable him to convict Anne Boleyn of treason from the evidence of court gossip. His hawks “pity no one. They answer to no one. … When they look down they see nothing but their prey, and the borrowed plumes of the hunters: they see a flittering, flinching universe, a universe filled with their dinner.” Like the hawks, Cromwell uses his position to enrich himself and his family, stripping the monasteries and lending at interest to reckless nobles. And just as his hawks are bound to him, he himself is Henry’s servant, harboured for just as long as he is useful.
The image of the hawks continues the theme of the predatory animal introduced by Wolf Hall, whose title draws attention to the perilous eat-or-be-eaten world of Tudor Machtpolitik. Bring Up the Bodies depicts Cromwell’s increasing adaptation to this savage existence. As a man of state, he discovers that “you cannot separate them, your public being and your private self. … You cannot blank it out, the shuffle of the feet of the body politic.” The grisly title refers to the order given to try the four men accused, thanks to Cromwell’s legal dexterity and ruthless interrogation skills, of adultery with Queen Anne.
The publishers, sensitive to the imagery of predation, have adorned the dust jacket of the novel’s hardback edition with a blood-red hawk, in flight but with fettered talons, set against the backdrop of a wooden door. This consciously echoes the black or white doors of the two editions of Wolf Hall, except that the new door is painted gold, a sumptuous splendour which is worthy of Cromwell’s higher status and in-keeping with the expectations of today’s image-savvy market. Bring Up the Bodies is not conceived merely as a story printed in a codex, but as an object to be desired for its physical appearance, an invitation not so much to a high-brow Geschichtsroman as to a visual and tactile experience, a pleasant weekend’s entertainment of double spacing and wide margins on thick, creamy sheets. The blurb on the back cover repeats the critics’ praise for Wolf Hall, implicitly promising the same success and more.
There is a danger that any sequel to Wolf Hall, deliberately written and marketed as such, will suffer a fate all too characteristic of sequels. The success of an original or first instalment causes publishers to be more lenient in editing those which follow, while the writer is tempted to rely too heavily on tried-and-tested ingredients and cease to innovate. Compare, for example, the earlier Harry Potter books with the later ones.
The fact that both Cromwell novels won the Booker Prize ought perhaps to allay any anti-sequel misgivings in Mantel’s case. Without prejudice to the circumstances surrounding such awards, Wolf Hall richly deserved the critical acclaim which it received for the originality and force of its conception, its experimental present tense narrative, its concentrated prose, and the artful orchestration of an ambitious cast of characters.
Bring Up the Bodies contains many of the same elements as Wolf Hall. Both chart Cromwell’s role in the replacement of one of Henry’s wives and his rise to a position of pre-eminence and greater exposure to the jealous nobility. Each novel ends with a wedding and an execution, first of Thomas More and then of Anne herself.
However, despite or perhaps because of its similarities to Part I, a certain freshness is lacking in Cromwell, Part II. To begin with, descriptions of scenery or character are sometimes self-indulgent. In the first chapter, for example, Mantel allows herself a two-page disquisition on Cromwell’s character which is largely superfluous for anyone who has read Wolf Hall, and lapses from a subjective third-personal ‘he’ which reveals Cromwell’s thoughts to the objective third person of the omniscient Victorian narrator, which tells rather than shows. At other times, the fault is over-concision: the Cromwellian “he” becomes lost among the “he” of other characters.
Mantel’s hero is a timely one for an age in which financiers, lawyers, and businessmen accumulate wealth and dominate politics from behind the scenes. Cromwell is a workaholic: permanently busy, driven to succeed, suffering from stress. He provides a first-class client service, bending or rewriting the laws of the land to cater to Henry’s rapidly changing needs. He is cosmopolitan, speaking all the major European languages of his day in their elevated and demotic forms. Publicly at least, he puts practicality before principle. When the Catholic courtier Sir Nicholas Carew accuses him of being a Lutheran, he responds: “No sir, I am a banker.” He knows his own price: ‘There are princes in Europe who want him. They make him offers; he could have castles.”
As a self-made man, he is, if not a democrat, at least a champion of the modern and accessible against the ancient and elitist His clerical enemy, Bishop Gardiner, arrogantly mocks his lack of scholarly education: “you with your dog Latin and your little bit of Greek”. He supports the heretical publication of an English translation of the Bible and dreams of “equal justice” for the King’s subjects in England and Wales. With novelistic hindsight, Mantel subtly anticipates the reformist leanings of Thomas Cromwell’s great-great-grand-nephew, Oliver, as well as, perhaps, his ambitious impatience with Parliament. When Henry’s Parliament rejects one of Cromwell’s reforms, he says: “If I were king, I would not take it so quietly. I would make them shake in their shoes.”
As Austen with Darcy, Mantel has, one suspects, fallen in love with Cromwell. Unlike Austen, however, Mantel can also identify with her hero’s occupation. As she has revealed in interviews, had it not been for the illness which led her to novel writing, she would have become a lawyer. The problem with her second portrait of Cromwell, however, is that it relies too much on the first. Rather than seeing Cromwell changing, we are presented with a relatively static figure. This is partly because, unlike in Wolf Hall, we no longer have a private Cromwell to contrast with the public figure; even in his home, he is always working. He may have the occasional fling with an innkeeper’s wife, but even there we are not permitted to look into his heart. Mantel’s concentrated style, which distilled the essence of Cromwell in Wolf Hall, is more stilted in Bring Up the Bodies. Without compromising her characters’ ambiguities, an author of historical fiction can tell us things that an historian, bound to the facts, cannot. Mantel has not sufficiently exploited this privilege.
On the other hand, one of Mantel’s successes as an historical novelist in Bring Up the Bodies is in recreating the uncertainty of the evidence for the charges against Anne Boleyn. The presentation of the interrogation of Anne’s four alleged adulterers, one after the other, reveals the way in which Cromwell extracts from a haze of unclear, unverifiable gossip enough of a story to convict her in a show-trial, while increasing the reader’s doubt as to the truth. Another success for Mantel’s powers of suggestion is the portrayal of Jane Seymour. From a timid, self-effacing young maiden among worldly male relatives in Wolf Hall, we glimpse her increasingly asserting her own value. When Cromwell asks Jane Seymour how far she would go to “ruin Anne Boleyn”, she responds: “She ruined herself. You cannot do what Anne Boleyn did, and live to be old.” So unforgiving a judgement hints at a disconcerting streak of hardness in the once-shadowy Jane and a grim acceptance of the eat-or-be-eaten mentality which governs all those around the King.
The inside cover of Bring Up the Bodies claims Mantel is “one of our great writers”. To call her good rather than great is not to disparage her achievement. For anyone who enjoyed Wolf Hall, the novel will provide some engrossing hours, though Wolf Hall may better merit being read twice. Bring Up the Bodies is not a great novel because the attribution of greatness, which critics throw about so casually, should properly be restricted to those rare writers who have attained the timeless pinnacle of literary achievement. War and Peace aside, it is an undeniable though not easily explicable fact that there have been few great historical novels.
According to the Author’s Note at the end of Bring Up the Bodies, “Mr Secretary remains sleek, plump, and densely inaccessible, like a choice plum in a Christmas pie; but I hope to continue my efforts to dig him out”. If the pattern of the first two books, and the course of history, are anything to go by, the third book will finish the series with Cromwell in the Tower of London and Catherine Howard on the throne. Doubtless media moguls are already planning the costume drama. It should at least be a cut above Downton Abbey.