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Tag: hilary mantel

Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Spoiler alert: Do not read this review unless you are already aware of the history of Wolf Hall. It has been brought to my notice that this review contains spoilers. Well, I’m sorry. It never occurred to me that this could be seen as a plot-oriented novel, in the least… nevertheless, you have been warned.

All of last week, I have been struggling with a review and disinterestedly reading bits of this novel. A creative block of sorts. I realized why this evening. There is no room for new in my mind since I read this most haunting account of the execution of Anne Boleyn. Wolf Hall was amazing. And Bring Up The Bodies makes a fitting sequel. Wolf Hall is about the tides of religious reform in Europe, and the separation of the English church. Here, the focus shifts to the immediate affairs of the court. But what happens in Bring Up The Bodies will have unalterable consequences across the realm for years to come.

Picture this: The year 1555. England has a new church, and a new queen. Anne Boleyn is finally at the throne. Katherine, the first wife of Henry VIII, is on her deathbed, and her daughter Mary is no longer the princess. But the King is still unhappy. Anne has not yet borne him a son to secure the Tudor line. Following a visit to the Seymours at Wolf Hall, a distraught Henry finds himself falling in love with little Jane.
Enter here, the infamous calculating genius of Thomas Cromwell, our unlikely hero and the King’s right-hand-man. With the safety of the nation at stake, Cromwell cooks up a plan that ensures the eventual destruction of Anne Boleyn… ‘As he eases a way through the sexual politics of the court, its miasma of gossip, he must negotiate a ‘truth’ that will satisfy Henry and secure his own career. But neither Cromwell nor Henry will emerge undamaged from the bloody theatre of Anne’s final days.’

The first book in this trilogy went out of its way to shine a positive light on Cromwell. In Bring Up The Bodies, the light flickers. His character now casts beastly shadows reminiscent of the stark image historians have built of him – dangerous, ruthless, the man with the face of a killer. The power of this book lies in Cromwell’s slipping grace, in how it shows a good man turn into the monster that he will forever be known as. In the months leading up to Anne’s arrest, you watch Thomas Cromwell deceive and lie, driven by revenge towards those who wronged his old master, Cardinal Wolsey. He constructs an unshakeable case against the Queen he calls a serpent and seals his own fate as a villain.

He once thought it himself, that he might die with grief: for his wife, his daughters, his sisters, his father and master the cardinal. But 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.

And yet, you cannot place the blame on one man. That is the beauty and the horror of Bring Up The Bodies. Cromwell is a puppet master pulling strings and slowly the fiction he spins becomes more real than the truth. There is little good in the world of Bring Up The Bodies, and no one to trust. It is a series of wrong choices, unthinking decisions, and bloated egos that lead up to the fall of the Boleyns, and pave the way to the undoing of the man orchestrating it.

Consider Anne. Coaxed into wooing Henry by her greedy family, wary of being cast aside like her sister, Anne is composed of strength and determination. But it is so hard to summon sympathy for someone so conniving and heartless. The woman rejoicing in the death of Katherine of Aragon. Anne of Wolf Hall was feisty and attractive. In Bring Up The Bodies, she seems old, burdened by the expectations of the King. But the fleeting pity she conjures in you is squashed. Still just as boastful, it is her very spirited coquetry that breaks Anne. After her arrest, Cromwell observes her crumble. He does not consider her guilty of the crime. To him, she suffers not because she has been caught, but because she has failed, lost Henry to another woman. Anne is dead to herself, he says. And Mantel writes about how Anne laughs during her final days, clutches her neck and jokes about being beheaded. Those moments leave you shaken. And her ending builds a lump in your throat.

Henry, though, is in no uncertain terms, excuse the bluntness, a pig. Mantel describes him as imposing, intelligent, handsome, jovial; he exemplifies the entitled brat, revelling in the luxury of having so many at the mercy of his whims. A god-fearing man, Henry never fails to invoke the holy name when it suits his cause. He is used to getting his way, a child who wants a toy and will tell all manner of lies to get it. Mantel brings out his hypocrisy in such funny moments as when Henry accidentally refers to Katherine as his ‘first wife’, and sheepishly takes it back – the reason for their divorce having been the fact that he did not consider the marriage real. But you see, Henry of the first book was this lost lamb. What he did to Katherine was scandalous, true, but Anne’s fall makes him the devil who will go on to destroy every life he touches. The sinking realization is, he is only getting started.

Jane Seymour. There is so much and so little to say about her. The final book should display the fullest intrigue of the third queen, the one Henry VIII is supposed to have truly loved. Till then, I will let Mantel’s enchanting writing speak for itself,

He asks Jane, ‘Would you do anything you can, to ruin Anne Boleyn?’ His tone implies no reproach; he’s just interested. 

Jane considers: but only for a moment. ‘No one need contrive at her ruin. No one is guilty of it. She ruined herself. You cannot do what Anne Boleyn did, and live to be old.’

He must study Jane, now, the expression on her downturned face. When Henry courted Anne she looked squarely at the world, her chin tilted upwards, her shallow-set eyes like pools of darkness against the glow of her skin. But one searching glance is enough for Jane, and then she casts he eyes down. Her expression is withdrawn, brooding. (…) French hood, gable hood, it is not enough. If Jane could veil her face completely, she would do it, and hide her calculations from the world.

What a solid second instalment. In case you haven’t guessed it by now, I highly recommend these books. I cannot wait to read The Mirror and The Light, the end of Thomas Cromwell’s tragic story, sadly yet to be published. 

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Homo homini lupus – man is wolf to man.

Floating on waves of post-book happiness. Blown away. So dark, menacing, so urgent. Painful. Cerebral. Compulsively readable…. an outpouring of admiration, that was me for hours after I finished the book. I had to call my sister to effuse. This review is thanks to her. 

“The fate of people is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions. This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman’s sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rosewater; her hand pulling close the bed curtain, the discreet sigh of flesh against flesh…”
Picture this. England of the 1520s. As secret wildfires of a new religion are lit through Europe, Englishmen are burned for heresy. Queen Katherine has failed to bear Henry VIII a son. England is on the brink of a civil war. Enter Anne Boleyn, a sly serpent, a shrewd temptress. Henry, desperate in love, seeks to break free of the heirless marriage, to annul it. Scandal ensues; the Roman Church and most of Europe stand staunch against King Henry and his wish to marry Anne, to renounce the law and be his own master. Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell. He is vastly different from the nobility of the Tudor court, a man with the face of a killer, the only one who can realize the impossible. 
This is Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. A biography of politics and the beginnings of the English reformation through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, lawyer and councillor to Henry VIII. Famously chronicled as ruthless beyond redemption, Cromwell slips into the role of a protagonist with surprising ease. In the eyes of those who surround him, he is a bully and a hack, but through his thoughts, his memories, we see a man capable of much warmth, passion and understanding. With a deliberate reassessment of one man’s perspective, Mantel brings to our attention the lack of that human element in most dry historical fact. Cromwell’s recasting as a hero may be a fantasy, perhaps, but it makes you wonder…
Because Mantel’s Cromwell is a person, not a symbol. A loyal servant and a kind father, he is religious in his own way, not orthodox nor explicitly a Protestant. Above all, he is a man who has examined himself and has reconciled with what sin he has found within. Some of my favourite scenes star Cromwell and his wife, their quiet intimacy is very real. The strangest moments are when Cromwell feels surprised by the way he is perceived by others, and is then surprised by his own surprise. He frequently doubts his own beliefs. In his musings on religion and his thirst for knowledge you see an intellectual. His endless displays of cynicism, quick wit and bold plotting reveal the calculating genius that coaxed the Parliament into breaking away the Church of England.
The characters in Mantel’s England are all retold from this quasi-villain’s perspective. Cardinal Wolsey plays a huge part in building Thomas Cromwell and has hence the most crucial role in this redefining of history. Saint Thomas More, the philosopher and martyr, appears dangerously self-serving. Henry to him is intelligent but a lost lamb. Anne Boleyn, full of surprises, not to be trusted. Mary Boleyn, pretty and feisty, earns his sympathies. Katherine of Aragon he finds proud to the point of foolish. Princess Mary, frightfully but perhaps deceptively weak… the list is long and I’m afraid I am running out of adjectives.
The sheer scope of the book inspires wonder. Six hundred pages and never a dull moment. Mantel has garbed the story in intricate detail, converting research seamlessly into plot. No clunky dumps of information. It takes great narrative skill to flesh out the story like that. Stylistically, the book is odd. It has colons and hyphens where none are necessary and a noticeable dearth of quotation marks. For the most part of the book, Mantel refers to Cromwell not by name but as “he.” Cute. Except, with a cast of some fifty characters and at least five Thomases, her copious use of the indefinite pronoun does get a little trying. Truly hen-peck-ish of me, I know, to call that a flaw. The story is narrated entirely in the present tense and it feels as if you have been placed right in the middle of the action. 
Prior knowledge of the Henrican reformation is not mandatory to read and enjoy the book – I had only vague recollections from an old obsession with the Tudor dynasty. That being said, an interest in politics, theology and history would certainly make the book more lastingly effective. If you know your history, by the way, you would know that Cromwell had anything but a happy ending. But in Wolf Hall, Mantel has given him just that. The book ends when he is at the peak of his career. So the one thing keeping me from diving for the sequel is the undeniable fact that there is trouble to come. I shall grant me and Cromwell a month more of happiness before taking on Book #2 – Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel.
The world is not run from where he (Henry) thinks. Not from border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, from where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from the castle walls, but from counting houses, not by the call of the bugle, but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.”

A must read, if ever there was one.