01 August 2012

Bring Up the Bodies

A shorter version of this review first appeared in Mint Lounge. I reviewed Wolf Hall, the first book in Hilary Mantel's trilogy, earlier on this blog.
Note: Bring Up the Bodies has just been long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2012.

Bring Up the Bodies begins where Wolf Hall stops: at Wolf Hall, the estate of the Seymour family, where King Henry VIII is enraptured by young Jane Seymour, and the king’s right-hand man, Thomas Cromwell, who, in Wolf Hall, engineered England’s breakaway from Rome to secure the king a divorce from his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, must now rid the king of his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Cromwell, son of a Putney blacksmith, is far from his humble origins – he is now Master of the Rolls, Chief Minister, Master of the Jewels, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Clerk of the Hanaper, and Master Secretary to the King. He is the man you will go to when you need things to be done – and in the court of Henry VIII, you will often need things to be done.

It is 1535 and Cromwell has broken England free of the Pope. He has masterminded the English Reformation, instituted the distinctly Protestant Church of England, and has had the Catholic Church discredited. He has surveyed the country, conducted its first census, and investigated the corruption of the monastic order. Papists, including the sainted Thomas More and John Fisher, have been beheaded and new acts of succession and supremacy have been passed in parliament. Without Rome’s support, the country teeters dangerously between its two closest allies, France and Spain. England has no male heir and the Plantagenets are eyeing the throne. At home, the threat of civil war hovers; from overseas, the bull of excommunication. But none of these things matter as much as the fact that Henry is already bored of his new wife.

Once more unto the breach, then: the second marriage must be annulled and a new one must be forged. But why should the king – or any man – prefer dull Jane Seymour to remarkable Anne Boleyn? Jane is “a plain young woman with a silvery pallor, a habit of silence, and a trick of looking at men as if they represent an unpleasant surprise,” while Anne is “an elegant woman, with a refinement that makes mere prettiness seem redundant.” Jane’s insipid innocence, which constantly borders on stupidity, is in stark contrast to Anne’s glittering brilliance, her sharpness, her sense of humour, her mental agility, her shrewd stateswomanship. No one, not even Jane’s brothers and father, can comprehend the king’s attraction to this girl who is “as much use as a blancmange.” Anne’s volatility “was what fascinated the king, to find someone so different from those soft, kind blondes who drift through men’s lives and leave not a mark behind.” But it is just such a blonde that the king has now decided that he desires.

Anne and Cromwell linger over the king like a pair of daggers poised toward each other, blurring into likeness. Both are ambitious, quick-witted, and cunning; they are crafty administrators, sophisticated and prescient; they evince surprising warmth of spirit; in conversation, they are incessantly funny; and they are both driven, in their own ways, by a pervasive love for the king. It is no wonder, then, that they are bent upon destroying each other. When Cromwell reflects upon Anne, he could just as well be describing himself: “He has always rated Anne highly as a strategist. He has never believed in her as a passionate, spontaneous woman. Everything she does is calculated […] He wonders what it would take to make her panic.” In another instance: “She will have to ask herself what Jane can give the king, that at present he lacks. She will have to think it through. And it is always a pleasure to see Anne thinking.” They regard each other with reluctant esteem, acutely aware that only one of them will survive the king’s new fancy. It is Anne who must finally concede her hand. She fights for Henry, but Cromwell fights harder, and better, and Anne finds herself facing charges of adultery, incest, and treason.

Mantel’s Cromwell is not the Lutheran that history would have us believe. He is a rationalist, a man who would have done well in the Enlightenment. He leans, decidedly, away from the papists, but mostly because it seems a convenient position, considering the many political and economic reforms he has in mind for England. He is most concerned with Henry’s purse strings and will not let the exchequer go to Rome. He has read Machiavelli and found him trite. He is a man of unwavering loyalty. He will avenge, however he can, the death of his mentor, Cardinal Wolsey; and no matter how grim circumstances turn, he will stay true to his friend, Thomas Wyatt. Over and above everything else, he will serve the king.

Five young men are handpicked by Cromwell for the charge of adultery, four of whom have been unkind to the memory of the late Cardinal (the fifth is chosen for no reason other than that he is foolish and arrogant). In synthesising Henry’s divorce, Cromwell will extract revenge. These men are guilty, he reasons, just not guilty as charged. The four interrogation scenes are laid out like the four paws of a beast. These men are rich and corrupt and cruel, and Cromwell has nothing but contempt for them. The barbarous machinations of those with power and the careless freedom of the elite are richly and articulately debated in Cromwell’s questionings (it would seem that he would have done well in the Occupy movement as well). But the irony – which will strike us only later, for we have come to love Cromwell too well by now – is that Cromwell, too, in his position as vigilante, has come to abuse his powers with the presumption of a man who has risen above his own. Really, the question we are left with is this: can power ever not be abused?

There is no way we can forget our knowledge of what comes next; Anne Boleyn must die, and Jane Seymour must become queen. We cannot un-know these facts. And yet, Mantel endows popular history with such trepidation and suspense that our breath is bated. Our wondering is futile, and yet we wonder, for Mantel will not stop laying her traps. We pray, foolishly, that Anne will be acquitted, just as we will pray, when the third installment of the trilogy comes, that Cromwell will weather Henry’s fleeting attention span.

Cromwell is given to peculiar flights of imagination. In his head, he conducts conversations with dead men, organises grotesque dinner parties at which the heads of the Boleyns are served for the main course, and constantly writes a book on how to manage the king. Cromwell’s dealings with women – especially the women of Henry’s life – are the sharpest, wittiest sections of the two books. The conversations are awash with humour and ingenuity of wordplay. Mantel’s writing – aside from being clever and interesting and wicked and beautiful – is also hilarious. Her priceless sense of humour is most persuasively seen in her dialogue, particularly when it is Cromwell who speaks.

Mantel will not let your brain rest for a single moment. Her ambiguous pronouns, her use of the present tense, and her disconcerting refusal to explain herself will keep you on your toes; you must be diligent, for everything that transpires is of consequence. She will not let your attention waver, as Henry’s often does; she will collar you uncomfortably and hold you to your seat as Cromwell does to his detainees; she will draw you in and then, like Anne Boleyn, she will tease you for being drawn. All the while, she maintain such calm and elegance and mastery over her craft that you will be loath to accuse her, as Eustache Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador, accuses Cromwell: “You are laughing behind your hand!”


Samanth said...

I'm the first to comment.

Tim lak lak time.

Best wishes


Amit Agarwal said...

Read this!! "We think time cannot touch the dead, but it touches their monuments, leaving them snub-nosed and stub-fingered from the accidents and attrition of time." This novel is based on Thomas Cromwell, It delves into the times and character of Thomas Cromwell and those associated with him during the reign of Henry VIII and set in 1500 AD. Read the first 50 pages and then comeback to get an insight into all characters as elaborated in the "cast of characters" prelude if you are unaware of the settings of bygone British (London) history. Gripping and compelling...from the start..till you finish.

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