When I read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall back in 2009, I was less complimentary than most. Despite the weight often attached by the cognoscenti to my sceptical eyebrow, the novel went on to win that year’s Booker Prize. I wanted, in the wake of that victory, to return to Wolf Hall and attempt to see past my discomfiture with its vision of Thomas Cromwell. It is, however, a big book – and I turned to new projects instead. Happily, then, the publication last month of Bring Up The Bodies, Mantel’s sequel, gave me the excuse I was looking for.
On the other hand, this new novel is a different beast. It is slimmer, for a start, and far more focused: where Wolf Hall began in 1500 and ended only in July 1535, its sequel covers barely 11 months – the period of Anne Boleyn’s fall from favour, from September 1535 to the summer of 1536. This paring-down has two principal effects: first, it imposes upon the novel something approximating a plot which, though often progressing off-stage in the way of a play, has a beginning, a middle and an end; second, it demands a more detailed appreciation of Cromwell’s own decision-making. In Wolf Hall, years flicked by rapidly and schematically – Cromwell moved in an upward trajectory at times almost by luck, and the wisdom of his canny maneuvres were the novel’s organising principle; here, he is more subject to events.
The style of all this, though, is broadly similar: as I wrote in my post on Wolf Hall, Mantel inspires in the reader a kind of fugue state, drifting at seeming random from one dream-like vignette to the next, always in the third person and always following him, Cromwell. He says, he speaks, he directs. Every other character – from the highest in the land to the lowest – revolve around him, Cromwell. “The fist of Cromwell is more proximate than the hand of God,” quips one character [pg. 115], and in so doing cuts to the quick of Cromwell’s dominating presence in the novel. Indeed, humour has a far more significant role in Bring Up The Bodies than its predecessor, with even its opening cast list featuring a grim punchline (the final actor listed as “a French executioner”. This makes for a more playful and supple style than Wolf Hall‘s occassionally occluding severity – although admittedly its lighter tone and shorter timespan works against quite the depth of Tudor grime accrued by the first novel.
What’s odd about this sunlight is that Bring Up The Bodies sees Mantel step away – only a little, but step all the same – from Wolf Hall‘s vision of the Good Cromwell. Her previous refutation of Robert Bolt was made rather too strenuously, and perhaps in recompense Bring Up The Bodies gives us a more ambivalent, more compromised character. The nature of this depiction is encapsulated early on: “He has always done what was needed to survive, and if his judgement of what was necessary was sometimes questionable … that is what it is to be young. Nowadays he takes poor scholars into his family.” [pg. 66] That is, we see a Cromwell haunted by his past (‘The Dead’ get their own section of the cast list) who is intensely involved in convincing himself he is making amends. When questioning the musician Mark Smeaton, and in an instance of the way in which Mantel captures beautifully the theological anxieties of the age, Cromwell says smoothly: “I think you have become too assured of forgiveness, believing that you have years ahead of you to sin and yet though God sees all he must be patient, like a waiting man: and you will notice him at last, and answer is suit, if only he will wait till you are old.” [pg. 336] It’s hard not to hear Cromwell talking to himself here.
As Colin Burrow has pointed out, however, the novel works like the Tudor court: rumours of beheadings and poisonings reach us of which Cromwell denies all knowledge, leaving us to wonder if they are unfounded or he self-deluded. “Ireland is quiet this Christmas,” Mantel explains, “in greater peace than she has seen for forty years. Mainly he has brought this about by hanging people. Not many: just the right ones. It’s an art, a necessary art.” [pg. 135] Yet Cromwell’s pragmatism still gives him room to mythologise the morality of his methods: “I will not rack him,” he insists of one of four men involved in the Boleyn affair. “I do not want him carried to his trial in a chair. And if I need to rack a sad little fellow like this … what next? Stamping on dormice?” [pg. 277] When we first meet the Cromwell of Bring Up The Bodies, “he comes into his hall to find versions of himself in various stages of becoming” [pg. 7] – his rooms full of portraits in varying stages of completion – and throughout the novel Master Secretary is writing himself a history.
As in Wolf Hall, that history is primarily one of the march to modernity. This Whiggish whiff is tempered by a sly vision of Englishness – “The Italians […] say the road between England and Hell is worn bare from treading feet” [pg. 34] – and Cromwell’s England is most clearly characterised by the double standards of his own self-awareness. “You will not hear of any talent I possess, that England cannot use,” he boasts to his enemy Stephen Gardiner [pg. 72], but these talents are so useful to this putatively modern England because it is itself emerging into an age which requires quiet hypocrisy. The dissolution of the monasteries, and the manuevers to enthrone Jane Seymour as Queen, both take place in sotto voice, less stated aims than private enrichments. “The French do not understand law courts and parliaments,” sighs Cromwell. “For them, the best actions are covert actions.” [pg. 380] But public actions are not necessarily private meanings, and it is the the spurned Katherine of Aragon who captures the tenor of Tudor England best: “Ah, do you see, I am an Englishwoman now! I know how to say the opposite of what I mean.” [pg. 140]
Indeed, Bring Up The Bodies has a sustained interest in the role of women in this apparently ineluctably male society. “Women have to adapt themselves,” sighs Margery Seymour [pg. 17], and the novel looks with some interest at the ways in which those adaptations are made. George Boleyn’s poor wife, Jane Rochford, says of her father, “He paid less mind to contracting me to Boleyn than he would to selling a hound or puppy” [pg. 265], and in his usual way Cromwell professes to feel pity for the downtrodden: “she is fighting with the women’s weapons that are all she has,” he opines of Anne. But in truth it is men’s visions which dictate this impossible position – and Cromwell does little to alleviate them, deciding Jane Seymour’s fate with only an interest in her virginal appearance. “What do we look for in a queen?” the King’s Treasurer wonders aloud. “She should have all the virtues of an ordinary woman, but she must have them to a high degree.”[pg. 215] This prescriptiveness – modesty, humility, obedience – sets the fate of the novel’s women as surely as they do the poor scholars Cromwell pretends to patronise.
Bring Up The Bodies, then, is about power and privilege – and in this way, like its forebear speaks to our present moment. Indeed, this Cromwell still feels “stuck like a limpet to the future” [pg. 406], and this still renders the historicity of the novel – which, though narrower than the world-creation of Wolf Hall, remains one of its primary projects (Mantel is good at images that evoke a society – Anne “orders her women out [… like] a child scaring crows” [pg. 106]). But in allowing a greater complicity in this older, more ambivalent, Cromwell, Mantel at least succeeds in subsuming her protagonist more clearly in the period through which he passes. This produces a surer sense of both time and place in which events overtake even this non-Machiavellian Machiavellian (The Prince “seemed almost trite to him, nothing in it but abstractions” [pg. 71]). Events – history – catch up with every figure, of course; they write over us, or writes is out, at their convenience. “Unless truth is pleasing, personable and easy to like, she is condemned to stay whimpering at the back door.” [pg. 159] Perhaps; but in the third volume of what seems increasingly to be a trilogy best judged in toto, the wolves will be at Thomas Cromwell’s door.