I’ve just spent an entertaining half hour reading some online reviews of Hilary Mantel’s two Booker prizewinners, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. I know it’s not good form to read others’ reviews before you write your own, but I did this because it’s nearly two months since I finished Bring up the Bodies, straight after reading Wolf Hall, and short of rereading the books, (though I plan to re-read Wolf Hall as soon as I get my copy back from my daughter) I needed a refresher. It was fascinating to see how these books have polarised their readers. For every reader who raves about them, there is one who loathes them or thinks they are ambitious failures.
I did read Bring up the Bodies last year, in a library copy, and liked it well enough to finish it but was not captivated. When I was going on a long plane and bus trip at Christmas time, I bought Wolf Hall at the airport, thinking that it might put the sequel in context. I was captivated. I hate train and bus trips, but the time passed easily for me as I turned the pages. And when I got to my destination, I kept reading whenever the family was not my centre of attention. Not my usual practice of reading for about an hour before sleep, but every chance I got, morning, noon and night. I finished it while I was with my family, and rushed down to the bookshop to spend the book voucher I’d been given, and bought the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies. I liked it much better the second time around, and it kept me content on the long journey home.
I will not waste words summarising the plot, as there are so many reviews out there that do it well. Suffice it to say the central character of these two books and their projected sequel is Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s secretary who became his right head man and chief headhunter. Cromwell has been much maligned by historical accounts, whereas his rival, Thomas More, Lord Chancellor after Cardinal Wolsey, has been sanctified. Mantel gives us Thomas from the inside, taking us into his private, domestic life, his inner thoughts and calculations, as well as his scruples and regrets. By the end of Wolf Hall, I had fallen for him, and could imagine that if I had lived in his world, I would have literally done so. One of the most endearing things about him is his passion for his wife and daughters, all of whom he loses to the fever when the girls are young. He does not marry again, though he thinks about it sometimes, and it’s hinted that he is not entirely chaste. But mostly, he is too busy to give his heart or carnal desires free reign. He is warm-hearted and loyal to those he loves, including Henry, sometimes at his own expense. But he is a cunning manipulator, and when he appears to give way, he always has a Plan B. In other words, he is mostly ahead of his rivals and enemies. But his nemesis is Henry, who, as history tells us, discards him when he has no further use for him, and has him executed. But that is for Book 3.
Why do I like these books so much? I have never read anything like them. I’ve read other historical fiction, including books of the Tudor period, but none have had me spellbound as these ones did. The main criticism reviewers have is of the use of ‘he’ to mark who’s speaking, without identifying who ‘he’ is. This is very noticeable in Wolf Hall, and I think Mantel was much criticised for confusing her readers. So in Bring up the Bodies it is less obvious, and is often modified as ‘He, Cromwell’. I found I got quite used to it after the first few pages, and knew Thomas’s voice and ways of thinking so well that I knew when it was his point of view and when it was not. I felt I was inside his head.
Cromwell is not a sweet man, or even perhaps a good one. He is dark and ambiguous, with a filing cabinet memory and steel will. He is an astute observer of character, ruthless when he needs to be, capable of violence, but he has his own code of ethics, and does what he needs to do to keep Henry happy and to maintain order and peace in the realm. First it means sidelining Katharine, Henry’s first wife, and manipulating the church and the constitution to enable Henry to have Anne Boleyn as his wife, crowned as queen. Then it means getting rid of Anne by finding men who who will appear to be guilty of treason and cuckoldry, even if they are not. Here he is at the trial of the men:
He gathers himself, gathers his papers; the judges wish to confer. The case against George [Boleyn, Anne’s brother] is flimsy enough in all truth, but if the charges are thrown out, Henry will arraign him on some other matter, and it will go hard with his family… And no one has denounced the charges as incredible, at this trial or the trials that preceded it. It has become a thing one can believe, that these men would plot against the king and copulate with the queen….
Another thing I love about the books is the sensuous details of life —sights, sounds, smells, textures. Here is a description of one of Thomas’s residences, when he is at the height of his powers.
These are sounds of Austin Friars, in the autumn of 1535; the singing children rehearsing a motet, breaking off, beginning again. The voices of these children, small boys, calling out to each other from staircases, and nearer at hand the scrabbling of dogs’ paws on the boards. The chink of gold pieces into a chest. The susurration, tapestry-muffled, of polyglot conversation. The whisper of ink across paper. Beyond the walls, the noises of the city; the milling of the crowds at his gate, distant cries from the river. His inner monologue, running on, soft-voiced: it is in public rooms that he thinks of the cardinal [Wolsey, long dead], his footsteps echoing in lofty vaulted chambers. It is in private spaces that he thinks of his wife Elizabeth. She is a blur in his mind, a whisk of skirts around a corner. That last morning of her life, as he left the house he thought he saw her following him, caught a flash of her white cap. He had half turned, saying to her, ‘Go back to bed': but no one was there. By the time he came home that night her jaw was bound and there were candles at her head and feet.
There are many superb passages like this, jewels among the more active, pragmatic prose of dialogue and events. The outside world and Thomas’s interior world are fused in a miraculous hologram wherein the past is present, immediate, so real you can imagine stepping into this world and becoming part of it.