The soap opera life of Henry VIII has been told so many times in film, novels and campy TV series that you could argue we don’t need another historical novel to rake over the ashes of the heroes and victims of this bloody age.
But Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies, the second novel dramatising the rise and, although we’re not there yet, the fall, of Henry’s right-hand man, Thomas Cromwell, raises Queen Anne and the other Tudor ghosts from the ground in such exquisite style that it renders so much that’s gone before it ordinary. I guzzled up the 600+ page novel, reading well into the small hours a story I’ve heard told in far less bewitching ways a hundred times before.
The novel begins at Wolf Hall, the soon-to-be royal cohorts the Seymours’ house, with Cromwell flying his falcons, named after his daughters and wife. It’s a disorientating opener as Grace, Lizzie and Anne, as those of us who read Wolf Hall or read Mantel’s handy ‘Cast of Characters’ know, are long dead, making their resurrected names momentarily distracting and ghostly. Surely grounded Cromwell hasn’t started seeing ghosts? But this opaque paragraph aside, it’s not Mantel’s desire to bamboozle you, she’s a writer of great clarity and simplicity once the historical fog clears. There’s been much made of her writing in the present tense and her (over?) use of the third person pronoun, but there’s a beautiful fluidity to her style that can go unnoticed until you’re ensconced in Mantel’s Tudor England. (I once joined a book group and on the first meeting some members were discussing Wolf Hall – a book they’d read a few months before – and one of the book clubbers dismissed it as ‘full of words and literature’. I am no longer a member of that book club).
The use of the present tense raises the novel from the past, giving a pace and urgency to a five hundred year old tale. Thomas Cromwell’s life and the Tudor age is brought vividly to life by the living nature of the present tense and the author’s deliberate use of non-historic language – this is not a pastiche of olden times, you won’t find a ye olde shoppe in Mantel’s 16th century. Mantel’s characters aren’t a strange race from the foreign land of the past, they are people who talk and think like us; they tell jokes (this novel is often very amusing); they’re ironic “Ah, do you see, I am an Englishwoman now! I know how to say the opposite of what I mean”, says the once Spanish Lady Willoughby; they hate paperwork and love sport; they nod off at the dinner table after too much wine. In short, they aren’t monsters hell-bent on sending everyone who disagrees with them to the Tower. Their very real emotions pulse through and off the page – the ending is of course no surprise, as much as this is a work of fiction Mantel’s not about to let Boleyn walk off into the sunshine with grumpy old Henry and his gammy leg. But despite the restriction of the inevitable ending, Mantel builds the tension to such an extent that my heart from beating furiously as Anne’s fate loomed over the novel.
Bring Up The Bodies, for all the gory connotations of the titles, is remarkably unbloody (“bring up the bodies” refers to prisoners at the Tower of London being brought up for their trial). The four men, Francis Weston, Henry Norris, George Boleyn and Mark Smeaton are not tortured (although Smeaton has an uncomfortable night with a pair of fairy wings in ‘Christmas’); the out-going queen is treated with respect in the chambers she spent the night before her coronation. This was the only part of the novel that didn’t quite ring true for me. Maybe I’ve been brainwashed by textbooks and The Tudors, but I was unconvinced by the rather modern leniency and compassion that the men were shown. Perhaps Mantel has become a little too close to her Cromwell to allow him to start ordering potentially innocent men to the rack?
For this isn’t a story of the downfall of Anne Boleyn, this is the re-telling of the much maligned Thomas Cromwell, a man who’s gone down in history as a ambitious, cruel man who would lop anyone’s head off on his way to the top. But Mantel’s Cromwell is a man of even temper, of great intelligence. He’s capable of kindness and is so loyal to his friends that he would, Mantel hints, seek bloody revenge for any wrong-doings to them (the four convicted men who fell with the queen were all players in a parody of Cromwell’s great mentor Wolsey after the cardinal was driven to an early grave. We are not encouraged to think this is a coincidence). He’s benevolent and generous; his contempt for those higher born than him who scoff and mock the blacksmith’s son is only barely concealed – although concealed, even to himself, it is. Mantel’s Cromwell is an honest man amongst a court of ignorant, greedy nobles. This is a man who wants to push through a Poor Law that is obstructed by a room full of titled idiots; who takes in begging jesters and undermines Lords. He’s a class warrior who is merely carrying out his king’s orders for the good of monarch and the nation. I am already lamenting his demise…