Monday, 13 August 2012
Book Review: Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Ever since I read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, the story of how Thomas Cromwell helped Henry the VIII break up with Rome and divorce his first wife Katherine, executing Cardinal Thomas More in the process, I have been keenly looking forward to the follow up book.
Bring Up The Bodies is the story of how Henry gets tired of Anne Boleyn and finally has her executed for treason – she was suspected of having been unfaithful to him. Henry is desperate for a heir through a legitimate wife – his illegitimate son Fitzroy won’t do. Henry had divorced his first wife Katherine of Aragon because she could not give him a son. Anne Boleyn, his second wife, gives him a few children, all of whom die, except for Elizabeth, which doesn’t satisfy Henry. Even if Henry hadn’t suspected Anne of infidelity, he was bound to divorce her and marry the plain Jane Seymour. It is interesting to note that one of the men with whom Anne has an affair (or rather sex with) is her own brother George Boleyn. The logic is simple. Anne needs to give Henry a male heir to retain her position as the queen of England. A child fathered by her brother could resemble the father and not raise as many eyebrows as one whose father is outside the Boleyn family.
Anne Boleyn is not the main character of Bring Up The Bodies, though the entire story revolves around her downfall and execution. As in the case of Wolf Hall, Thomas Cromwell steals the limelight. Mantel does not deviate from the character she had created in Wolf Hall. Cromwell continues to be a man of multiple talents, who eventually gets what he wants. Mantel’s writing is flawless, at the same booker prize standard as Wolf Hall. She writes in the present tense and somehow that makes this story set in the 16th century sound so much more authentic. Her frequent use of ‘he’ while talking of Cromwell gives our man an omniscient touch.
How authentic are Mantel’s characters, in particular Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell? In her author’s note, Mantel tells us that ‘I am not claiming authority for my version; I am making the reader a proposal, an offer.’ So, how good is Mantel’s offer? As far as Anne Boleyn goes, she fits the most popular stereotype. Mercurial, temperamental and intelligent, Anne expects to receive a reprieve till the last moment when a swordsman specially brought in from France hacks off her head. However, I did have a problem with Mantel’s Cromwell.
Cromwell is a blacksmith’s son who spent much of his youth .in continental Europe, fought in wars, educated himself, worked for Italian trading houses and then returned to England. He is a lawyer. He is also Secretary to the King, Master of the Rolls, Chancellor of Cambridge University and deputy to the King in his role as the head of the new Anglican church which has been created. In addition to all this, he runs a number of his own businesses, which seems to involve lending money (at interest), dealing in land and other property. In this book, we see him spend most of his walking hours talking to various people. He is either advising the King or chatting with people like Eustache Chapuys, the Holy Roman E mperor’s ambassador or Jean de Dinteville, the French ambassador, or his friend Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury or his son Gregory or other members of his household, as a Rafe Sadler his clerk. We never see him work on his personal dealings or accept a bribe, though Mantel tells us that like every other official of those times, he always takes a cut.
Until the tide turns against Anne Boleyn, we do not see Cromwell do anything to set the King against Anne, though he nurses a grudge against her for what she did to Cardinal Wolsey, his former boss. Once the King indicates that Anne is to be deposed, Cromwell goes around collecting evidence against her, effortlessly getting her ladies in waiting, including her sister-in—law and cousin, to snitch on her. Anne cuckolded Henry with many men, including Cromwell’s friend Thomas Wyatt. Unsurprising, Cromwell doesn’t collect evidence against Wyatt. Torture is not used while collecting evidence, except in the case of Mark Smeaton and even with Mark, threats rather than actual torture is used.
Cromwell’s only weakness seems to be his son Gregory, his only surviving child. Once when his son Gregory is all set to joust and it looks as if he might come up against the King, we see Cromwelll requesting the King to go easy on Gregory. Towards the end when Gregory is reluctant to watch Anne’s beheading, Cromwell is gentle with him, saying ‘I will be beside you to show that you can. You need not look. When the soul passes, we kneel, and we drop our eyes and pray.’ Cromwell’s household staff includes a number of boys and men who would otherwise have nowhere to go. Many orphans are cared for and brought up in his home. Cromwell comes across as a man who is kind to the needy and helpless as long as he can express his kindness without going too much out of his way.
Cromwell never loses his temper. Cromwell can hold his drink, but we never see him drink to excess. A widower, there are no women in Cromwell’s life, no prostitutes or concubines or mistresses, though towards the end we are told that Cromwell might remarry some time in the future. Once the King loses his temper with Cromwell, in front of a number of people. A few days later, when Henry wants to patch up with Cromwell, Cromwell shows some pride and plays hard to get for just a little bit. This incident had me thinking. Would a man like Cromwell whose position and wealth depended entirely on Henry’s patronage, display tough love to Henry? Does it all add up?
Would a hard drinking Cromwell with half-a-dozen concubines in tow have sounded more authentic than the paragon of virtue Mantel presents us with? Would Bring Up The Bodies be just as enjoyable if the protagonist wasn’t so likeable? Shouldn’t Cromwell be shown as a man who is nasty to his underlings, expecting, nay demanding from them, as much if not more that what he gives Henry? But then, Mantel's Cromwell is never servile towards Henry as one might expect him to be. Would a man like Cromwell have a son as sweet and innocent as Gregory is made out to be? There are no easy answers to these questions, but it cannot be denied that Bring Up The Bodies is yet another masterpiece from a writer from whom her fans have come to expect nothing less.