Thursday, June 05, 2014

Nest of Vipers

Bring Up the Bodies (Thomas Cromwell, #2)Bring Up the Bodies 
by Hilary Mantel

What is the nature of the border between truth and lies? It is permeable and blurred because it is planted thick with rumour, confabulation, misunderstandings and twisted tales. Truth can break the gates down, truth can howl in the street; unless truth is pleasing, personable and easy to like, she is condemned to stay whimpering at the back door.”   ― Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies

I began reading this book with trepidation because I was dissatisfied with her earlier novel, Wolf Hall. Fortunately I was quickly disabused of this notion and found myself truly enjoying the narrative and style of this second volume of a planned trilogy, although I could not find any characters that I really liked.
The novel spans the death of one spurned Queen (Katherine) and the execution of another. It displays an Anne Boleyn reduced in power—“her dark glitter, now rubbed a little, flaking in places” (36)—to one encircled, tried, and eventually executed, flattened to a “puddle of gore”(397). This is not a novel about Queen Anne, however, so much as a continuation of Mantel’s thorough and interesting portrait of the man in charge of underwriting her doom, Thomas Cromwell. Mantel portrays a Cromwell as a penetrating and unsettling man who “has a way of getting his way . . . [who] will explain to a man where his true interests lie, and . . . introduce that same man to aspects of himself he didn’t know existed” (6).

Later in the novel this passage sums up Cromwell's mission:
“Rafe asks him, could the king's freedom be obtained, sir, with more economy of means? Less bloodshed?
Look, he says: once you have exhausted the process of negotiation and compromise, once you have fixed on the destruction of an enemy, that destruction must be swift and it must be perfect. Before you even glance in his direction, you should have his name on a warrant, the ports blocked, his wife and friends bought, his heir under your protection, his money in your strong room and his dog running to your whistle. Before he wakes in the morning, you should have the axe in your hand.”

After the death of Thomas More (in the previous novel) the Church and State are one under the mastery of Henry VIII. And immediately under Henry is Thomas Cromwell, a Machiavellian who finds Machiavelli’s book “trite,” a statesman who can crush a man’s life with a single word (71). He is also brilliant, untiring, and capable of deep loyalty and surprising acts of kindness and charity. Mantel presents through Cromwell's eyes an England teeming with beauty as well as with cruelty and death: a landscape where “each leaf of a tree, the sun behind it, [hangs] like a golden pear” (8). Cromwell is, like many of Mantel’s fictional characters, an outsider—in this case, one that cannot forget his own history, retaining empathy for the maltreated, the poor and ill-bred. His is the oblique gaze of a modern: even as he carries out the King’s dark orders, Cromwell imagines an England with better roads built from taxes levied on the wealthy (43). The court may scorn him as “a blacksmith’s boy,” but Cromwell is convinced a man can rise from humble origins: “In a generation everything can change” (43). However, I am not sure he is completely convinced of this as he is continually under pressure to carry out Henry's wishes. Thinking about writing a book about Henry Cromwell imagines a faux Henry in his mind as he remembers Erasmus's words: "you should praise a ruler even for the qualities he does not have. For the flattery gives him to think. And the qualities he presently lacks, he might go to work on them." (67) This is a dream for the lies abound and the deeds are often bloody, but the nobles and courtiers who are affected are not a sympathetic lot. The whole crowd of primary players resemble nothing better than a nest of vipers.
As the novel winds its way to the expected denouement Thomas Cromwell plays families against one another and uses the fear of Henry as a trump card. The result are indictments of the Queen and her "conspirators".
"When the indictments come to his hand, he see at once that, though the script is a clerk's the king has been at work. He can hear the king's voice in every line: his outrage, jealousy, fear." (346) They are filled with details about kisses, touchings, gifts, and multiple dates of offences, so "if there is specific denial of one date, one place, it will not be enough to injure the whole." (347)

There are some warm moments between Cromwell and his son Gregory, but by the end of the novel he is preparing Gregory for the realities of adulthood by bringing him to witness, albeit kneeling and bowed, the beheading of Anne Boleyn. In spite of the bloody politics of state among mostly detestable characters the tautly-written narrative was appealing and presented the events in a more understandable manner than the first volume. This is a historical novel worth reading for its insights into events that most will be familiar with before they open page one.

View all my reviews


Brian Joseph said...

Superb commentary on this one James.

I have heard much about Mantel's books but have not read them. Interesting that you were disappointed in Wolf Hall and still continued. Also interesting that you liked this one better. I actually am a bit sketchy on the historical details so I would want to brush up before reading these books.

James said...

Thanks for your comments on my review. I probably would not have read this book, but it was a selection of a book group that I have participated in for many years. We also read Wolf Hall and I my interest in historical novels also was a factor.
As I mentioned the result was positive as this second entry in her planned trilogy was a more focused narrative. These novels are particularly interesting because Mantel's focus is on Thomas Cromwell who has not been written about as much as some of the other major characters like Henry VIII and his queens; in this instance Anne Boleyn.
I cannot recommend any books about Henry VIII, but I would recommend Naked to Mine Enemies: A Life of Cardinal Wolsey by Charles Ferguson and the wonderful drama by Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons, about Thomas More.