Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies

My favorite book of 2012 is hardly an original choice, since it also won the Booker Prize and has been extravagantly reviewed. But Mantel deserves all the praise she’s received for the second volume of her Thomas Cromwell series, Bring up the Bodies. The first volume, Wolf Hall, was my favorite book of 2010. Of course, I don’t read all that many novels–but many more than I blog about, and twice, Mantel’s were the best.

Below is a typical sample of her vivid imagination and fresh writing. Stephen Gardiner, the Bishop of Winchester, is Cromwell’s nemesis. Although he plays a small role in this volume, he makes an impression when he arrives in an early scene:

Gardiner, the Bishop of Winchester, blowing up like a thunderstorm, when for once we have a fine day.

When Stephen comes into a room, the furnishings shrink from him. Chairs scuttle backwards. Joint stools flatten themselves like pissing bitches. The woolen Bible figures in the king’s tapestries lift their hands to cover their ears.

To the right is a Tudor joint stool pictured in front of a woolen tapestry. It’s the kind of furniture that Shakespeare’s Fool cites when he says to Goneril, “Cry you mercy, I took you for a joint-stool.” If its top moved away from the Bishop of Winchester in consternation, its legs would bend to rightward exactly like a female dog urinating.

Of course, that doesn’t literally happen when Gardiner walks into the room; it is Cromwell’s perception. The whole book is told in the third-person present tense from a vantage point very close to Cromwell’s. “When for once we have a fine day,” is Cromwell’s implied voice, describing the actual weather–unremitting rains have ruined England’s crops–while¬† expressing his jaundiced view of the Bishop. Cromwell is “he” throughout the book. Mantel works hard to avoid using his proper name, thus making the “he” almost the same as an “I.”

The immense challenge she undertook was to restore the perspective of a man who lived long ago, who left few illuminating personal records, and who has figured mainly as the ruthless villain in the biographies of more famous people whom he sent to the block, especially St. Thomas More and Anne Boleyn. We know that he was an effective, reforming statesman who rose from humble origins; that is enough to make him intriguing. But to make him sympathetic is a tremendous achievement.

For the first volume-and-a-half, we see things from Cromwell’s perspective and learn to appreciate his humor, his efficiency and hard work, his unpretentious observations, and his love of family. He has survived a violent father, street brawls, wars, and the fall of his master, and we want him to survive at court. But I think the last part of Bring Up the Bodies shifts the moral center of the book. I will explain what I mean below the fold in order not to spoil the conclusion (which comes straight from history, but you can’t predict where Mantel will choose to end this volume).

Henry VIII wants to get rid of Anne. When frustrated, the king is dangerous, less as a scheming politician than as a force of nature:

Henry grew up believing that all the world was his friend and that everyone wanted him to be happy. So any pain, any delay, frustration or stroke of ill-luck seems to him an anomaly, an outrage. … He has councillors employed to fry their brains on his behalf, and if he is out of temper it is probably their fault; they shouldn’t block him or provoke him. He doesn’t want people who say, ‘No, but …’ He wants people who say, ‘Yes, and …’

Like a mafia don, Henry reminds Cromwell that he can destroy him at any instant. Cromwell concludes that he must remove Anne. So he efficiently organizes the judicial murder of four men on unbelievable charges of sexual liaisons with the Queen, which opens the way for him to judicially murder her. The jurors comply because they are afraid of the king and eager to profit from rivals’ fall. The accused comply–all the way to the instant when the sword bites into the back of their necks–because it is always wisest to conciliate the king. He could pardon you, even on the scaffold, and he can choose whether you die by a clean beheading or public torture. Cromwell uses this leverage to obtain death sentences and to prevent the victims from presenting their own defenses effectively.

Meanwhile, the perspective is subtly shifting away from “him.” As Cromwell’s actions cease to be justifiable, we are no longer sure what motivates him. We no longer know what he plans to do next.

The book concludes with executions. Nothing focuses the mind–or draws a reader’s sympathy–like a beheading. Cromwell is safe, which is what we have wanted since the beginning of Wolf Hall. But now it is not clear that we should celebrate.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.