“Roses Snatched From The Thorns”: Hilary Mantel’s “Bring Up The Bodies”

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.

Booker Winner Announced

So it was indeed Wolf Hall, in the end (though not, I note, as the result of a unanimous vote). On Newsnight Review last week, Gavin Esler and John Carey loved it, whilst Rosie Boycott and Michael Portillo felt much the way way I did about the book. They could not, however, agree on a book which was better – Carey clearly liked the Coetzee (and had what seemed a grudging soft spot for The Little Stranger), Portillo and Boycott the Byatt (which I won’t be rushing to read after Adam Roberts’s review of it).

I’m just halfway through The Glass Room, which is a sort of modernist soap opera and certainly not close to the Mantel on any level, whatever issues I have with its historiography and forbidding style. I still think that The Quickening Maze is better written, and Summertime better structured, but Wolf Hall was perhaps the favourite because it is so vast. I probably owe it a re-read.

“Write Your Heart Wide Open”: Coetzee and Foulds’s Booker Books

“A book should be an axe to chop open the frozen sea inside us,” declares one character in the course of J.M. Coetzee’s latest novel, Summertime. Were this line not written by a man who has already won the prize twice, it might be fair to suspect it of being shameless Booker bait. Likewise, the luminous prose of Adam Foulds’s The Quickening Maze is just the sort of writing the Booker likes to reward. No surprise, then, that both novels wound up on the shortlist – not least because, Booker boxes ticked aside, they are both of the very highest quality.

The Quickening Maze
The Quickening Maze

Foulds’s novel is the story of the High Beach Private Asylum in and around 1840. He presents Dr Matthew Allen’s sanitorium in Epping Forest as a literary nexus, into which both John Clare – an inmate – and Alfred Tennyson – a patient’s resident relative – are drawn. This pair are different from each other as both poets and men, but Foulds resists the temptation to throw this separation into high relief by contriving anything as unsubtle as an actual meeting. He instead settles for the passing quality of coincidence. It proves enough: Clare, almost forgotten by the literary establishment, and Tennyson, about to take off, move through the novel along distinct but comparable lines.

This trick is extended to the large cast of characters, major and minor, who populate the Asylum: Allen himself, a vain self-styled liberal whose attention is too easily drawn from project to project; his daughter, Hannah, who develops an unreciprocated romantic attachment to the misanthropic Tennyson; a band of gypsies at large within the forest who provide the novel with its few moments of true community; and assorted inmates, from self-denying Margaret, who suffers from religious mania, to George Laidlaw, who is convinced he is personally responsible for the National Debt. If the depiction of Clare’s madness remains the book’s great achievement – and this is a book which believes unequivocally (and perhaps unfashionably) that madness exists – then it is not because he economises when dealing with the rest of cast. Each character is given their own distinctive voice – indeed, it is part of the novel’s project that each consciousness is given an almost hermetic completeness. In particular, Hannah’s doomed courtship of Tennyson, and subsequent attempts at others (she has inherted her father’s flightiness) is executed with such precision and care that her voice manages to pull together what would otherwise threaten to be a disparate selection of barely related narratives.

The other unifying factor is Foulds’s language, about which Adam Roberts has already waxed lyrical. I’m more positive about the book than Adam I think because I also see unity elsewhere. Concerned with the formation of identity, this is very much a novel of construction – on one level, Allen becomes obsessed with the idea of manufacturing a machine which can carve wood to the standard of a human artisan, whilst on another Tennyson broods about the reception of his poetry by the London elite. In this way, the novel asks us to understand a person not just by how he sees himself – Clare’s madness is essentially seen as a solipsistic insistence on ideas without external corroboration – but also by how he is seen by others – Allen’s deep-seated need to prove himself, for example, proceeds not in small part from the pressures of his dead father and disapproving brother, devout Sandemanians both. The sense of community with which Foulds so tenderly (and yet visercally, in a scene of animal dismemberment) invests the gypsy scenes, is the best hope of a sane give-and-take between self and society. Of course, the Victorian completion of enclosure finally removed the gypsies’ right to the land.

Summertime
Summertime

Summertime, too, asks questions about identity, choosing as its focus John Coetzee, a recently deceased writer who is as isolated and solitary as Foulds might fear we all are in a post-enclosure age. John Coetzee is, of course, a fictionalised version of the author himself, and there is much amusement to be had here merely from enjoying the vast helpings of meta which are heaped upon the book: it follows Coetzee’s Youth and Boyhood, and those books are referenced here as the opening two volumes in an uncompleted trilogy; our interlocutor, a young and somewhat gauche English biographer, is drawing together John Coetzee’s notebook fragments and interviews with five important figures in John’s life of the early 1970s, attempting a sort of ersatz third volume. “It sounds a peculiar way of selecting biographical sources, if you don’t mind my saying so,” remarks one of the interviewees, and the reader is led to agree. This is no definitive biography, fictional or otherwise.

The point here, of course, is two-fold. Firstly, there is no such thing as definitive biography, or indeed a logical way of selecting “biographical sources”. Secondly, and more importantly, Coetzee contends that – whether famous or no, alive or dead – we cede much of our ability to construct our identity to those around us, and yet even a compilation of those responses cannot reach the truth. Coetzee’s language is, naturally, less showy than Foulds’s, but if so it is also, as if this needs saying, more controlled. Summertime is a clear, crisp and intricate novel – the work of an expert. If its central themes sounds rather obvious, it is true that perhaps the novel’s failures, such as they are, lies in a lack of ambition. Most notably, The Savage Detectives performs exactly Coetzee’s trick but better: though John Coetzee is constructed throughout the novel, the reader also feels he is always in plain sight; Bolaño performs the quite phenomenal sleight of hand of never allowing his poet protagonists to appear centre-stage, however much his interviewees circle them. The Savage Detectives is a tour de force which Summertime, for all its clarity of thought and language, cannot match.

Yet for all that similarity of purpose and presentation, it’s still unfair wholly to condemn Summertime for its failings in comparison with another, greater, text. As one would expect, Coetzee still packs into 260 pages enough aphorism and observation to nourish a lesser writer’s whole career. His novel is a beautifully structured anti-narrative, with resonances and echoes throughout which lift the material beyond itself. In particular, the manner in which he renders the personal political – extrapolating outwards John Coetzee’s personal failings (about which the interviewees are merciless) into the larger tapestry of South Africa’s political history without apparently straining or stretching – is very neat. Neat, in fact, might be the best description of the book. If this makes it sound polite or safe, that may in a sense be fair; but from its ironic title onwards it is also a deeply ambivalent, playful, and quietly contrary novel, which rewards deeper thought and closer reading. It is almost, therefore, a quintessential Booker winner.

‘Almost’, of course, because it has yet to win the prize. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall remains inexplicably the favourite to win. Though on further consideration I begin to see its advantages over what looks increasingly like the slight-if-clever The Little Stranger, subjectively I still found Mantel’s opus the least satisfying novel on the shortlist. Already sufficiently garlanded, Coetzee may be looked over this time, since this is not quite his best work; but in that case Foulds’s effort, though obviously an outlier, deserves consideration: a work of great poetic beauty which shares thematic muscle, as well as focus, with Summertime, it is also perhaps more spirited and daring. Wolf Hall, on the other hand, is probably more ambitious still – but its larger canvas still looks messier to my eye than Foulds’s bravura miniature.

“What Is There, But Affairs?” Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall”

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel
Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

Just Google for reviews of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. The critical response to this historical novel has been rapturous: everyone seems agreed that it is a staggering achievement, a historical novel of rare scope and humanity. Diana Athill thinks that the book boasts a better imagined world than any book since Middlemarch. This is some praise. So why was my experience of the novel not quite so enjoyable?

In part, no doubt, it’s because I can’t entirely get on board with its historiography. The book builds on the early positions I described last week, until it’s clear that Cromwell is an ambivalent figure: modern, yes, but largely because of his lack of belief. Those around Cromwell are characterised by an allegiance to a system: More’s Catholicism, Norfolk’s feudalism, Wolsey’s royalism. Cromwell, on the other hand, has an almost Nietzschean approach. “I distrust all systematizers, ” wrote the philosopher, “and I avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.” Mantel’s Cromwell likewise believes in personal respect and education, a fully humanist perspective which sets him at odds with the medievalised England to which he is born. Mantel sees his meritocratic rise – from smith’s son to soldier, trader to merchant, lawyer to Lord Chancellor – as a symbol of the birth of our modern age.

He doesn’t give birth alone: Wolsey builds the apparatus of the state, Cranmer creates the intellectual and theological space for Cromwell’s actions. But these men are not the novel’s focus. So tightly is the novel about Cromwell that it is written in the present tense, with a reliance on the third person: Cromwell is always ‘he’, like God. Like a deity, Cromwell is in the process of creation, of forging modern England. This is a valorising of the traditional view of Cromwell as venal and self-serving, his lack of principle turned into a virtuous absence of dogma. But it also places him to one side of his own period – time and again, he is used a sort of counterpoint to the Henrican court which never truly accepts him – and yet undboutedly Cromwell’s opinions and actions were products of that age. His dissolution of the monasteries was less the inauguration of a brave new world than an implicit adjustment to its terms.

So the novel’s central project feels anachronistic to me: it is shrouded in witty dialogue and some nicely alien set pieces which add versimilitude, but ultimately it never quite feels real. I’m fairly sure this is unfair on the book, and I wish I could feel differently. The novel emphasises its unreality, floating past in dreamy vignettes which succeed each other in a sort of trance-like passage of events. This isn’t history. And yet nor is it quite fiction: there are no passages of elaborate description or internal monologue, no attempts at rigorous characterisation. The figures enter and exit the stage very much in the style of reanimated historical personages: the novel expects us to know something of the story of Anne Boleyn, wants us to join in with a knowing wink and a nod of the head. It cannot claim to be doing its own heavy lifting; and yet it treats the material on which it relies with a cavalier detachment, all Cromwellian justification to the point of the creation of a Mary Sue.

It Is He
It Is He

Undoubtedly, there is much to like about this novel: an intelligent exploration of power, a lovely new version of a familiar story, and a depiction of politics which rescues the politician-as-human-being. Many important events pass in a paragraph; others, far more mundane, take pages. That focus on Cromwell is the beating heart of the book, and if you buy it the novel works. If, like me, you don’t, then the narrative starts to falter. The modern age to which Cromwell plays midwife is indeed a hall of wolves: full of rapacious apetites and unfathomable agendas, no longer governed by a system and home to mere ambition. I like this idea, and yet it is hung so entirely upon its questionable depiction of one man, and fanned so thinly across its other characters and their own stories, that it doesn’t work for me.

Perhaps all this represents an exciting experiment in the historical novel. On the other hand, it risks reading a tad portentously: Cromwell is mythologised whilst the novel tries to pretend to realism. In responding so vigorously to A Man for All Seasons, Mantel has perhaps fallen into the trap of beatifying Cromwell too much. Maybe I’m missing something, but however complex and peopled her tale, it never attains the depth of Middlemarch, a novel which gave each of its voices equal weight. Wolf Hall is instead a fabulation with borrowed supporting structures: a doorstop of a book which ultimately has room for only one perspective. If you like that perspective – and most seem to – then you’ll love the book. I, on the other hand, am a mere curmudgeon: for me, Wolf Hall is ultimately an interesting, but unconvincing, read. The Little Stranger remains my favoured candidate for the Booker.

“We Have Done As Our Predecessors Have Been Wont To Do”

A nice line in bowing...
A nice line in bowing...

Those three Henrican Lord Chancellors – Wolsey, More and Cromwell – seem to hold an endless fascination for historians and fiction writers alike. From Anthony Munday to Robert Bolt, that procession of Thomases has proved fertile ground for speculation. I’m just in the midst of yet another example of this tilling, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. It’s been on my shelves for months, and was shortlisted for the Booker in July – which was probably the kick I needed to actually read the thing. Communicator has already pointed out that Mantel opposes Bolt – in her fiction, Cromwell is the humane moderniser, More the (faintly absurd) medieval hangover.

I haven’t yet read enough of the book – I’m not quite halfway through – to be able to pass judgement as to whether Mantel succeeds in her design to present Cromwell as an accidental politician, a modern spirit in an otherwise alien age. I do so far like, however, the extent to which the intense politicking of the Tudor court is not made the be-all and end-all of the plot: Cromwell’s inner life is here much broader than that, and the depth of the characterisation is strong. It may not, though, ultimately be convincing – More was, it seems unecessary to say, as much a product of his age as either of his predecessors. No signpost to the future, him.

It’s interesting to compare Mantel – though no doubt she would be scandalised by this – to the often close-to-farcical US TV serial, The Tudors. The show makes absolutely no attempt to be historically accurate – it is happy to merge two or more historical figures into one character, collapse time for its own narrative convenience, and most of all makes each and every one of its characters a modern figure in a remote historical age. It is  disjointed, illogical and unintentionally hilarious, but one of its most compelling figures is Thomas Cromwell, played with more than a dash of charisma by James Frain as the ultimate pragmatist – one moment a secret Calvinist, the next a thorough moderate, allied with the Boleyns and then against them, Wolsey’s servant and then his Judas. (In Wolf Hall, Cromwell’s loyalty to his first master is stressed again and again.) Unbelievable as it may seem to claim historical fidelity for The Tudors, this feels closer to the truth of the real Cromwell than the ‘oops, I seem to be popular at court again’ career path Mantel has so far given hers.

The Tudors‘ third season begins here in the UK on August 21st, on BBC Two. Wolf Hall is, as they say, in all good bookshops, yadda yadda.