Saturday, January 10, 2015

Bring up the Bodies - review

Hilary Mantel's Booker Award winning novel Bring up the Bodies continues the story, begun in Wolf Hall, of Thomas Cromwell, adviser to King Henry VIII. In that first volume, Mantel paints a sympathetic portrait of Cromwell, a blacksmith's son who through intelligence, alertness and luck has risen far, serving first Cardinal Wolsey, then after his death, appointed Secretary to the King. It was in large part his machinations that removed Henry's first wife, Katherine, and put Anne in her place. We have seen him as a loving husband and father, who lost his wife and both daughters to illness one devastating summer, who gathers into his household young men of promise, mentoring them to service in noble households where they report back on intrigues. He has a spy in his own house but doesn't worry - it's how news travels, alliances are made and careers improved.

This second volume opens with Anne Boleyn, now Queen (at great cost to England's standing in Europe, where the Catholic Church holds sway), becoming an impediment to Henry - he wants a son, but her only progeny is a girl, Elizabeth. Henry already has a daughter, Mary (child of the repudiated Katherine), as well as a bastard son. He wants a legitimate male heir. His eye falls on Jane Seymour, a virginal young woman with whom he feels he can succeed where Anne has failed him. But how to get Anne, crowned amid acrimony, out of the way? For this he depends on his advisers, none more than Cromwell.

And so the Secretary gathers gossip and witnesses to build a case against Anne - and her numerous family, who have profited greatly from her rise and intend to keep their wealth and honors. His allies are those put out of favor by the king's divorce of Katherine - which makes them his deadly enemies too - once he has engineered the ouster of Anne, they will have no further use for him. He has seen the deaths of those who loyally serve the king through his shifting demands, and knows he must act with especial care.

But this Cromwell is a loathsome man, using his power to take revenge on those who dishonored Wolsey after the Cardinal's death, making them the means for removing Anne. In some accounts of this fascinating period in English history, Anne Boleyn is a sympathetic character, but in Mantel's telling she is not only an adulterer but incestuous, and even as the executioner's blade swings, imagines herself redeemable, that Henry will let her retire in peace.

Having spent formative years in Italy, Cromwell learned from masters about manipulation, extortion and torture, tools he puts to effective use in the intrigues he must put in motion. Now we see the man in harsh light - he is kind when it costs him nothing, but he is without scruples, letting his position dictate what he must do, not pushing back against the cruel methods required. Even as his enemies grow more numerous, he will serve his king as demanded. Henry expects the path to be cleared quickly to his next desire, so his minions use whatever means they think they must, to achieve that end.

Cromwell observes: "He once thought... he might die of grief... but the pulse, obdurate, keeps its rhythm. You think you cannot keep breathing, but your ribcage has other ideas, rising and falling, emitting sighs. You must thrive in spite of yourself; and so that you may do it, God takes out your heart of flesh, and gives you a heart of stone."

Mantel's next book will surely chronicle Jane Seymour's failings as a bearer of sons, and perhaps the author will take us further in the succession of Henry's queens, along with the end of Cromwell. We have seen the man's good side and his ugly one - which will win out? 

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