Fourth Estate, £20
HISTORICAL novels are never just about the past, and Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies – the sequel to her Booker Prize winning Wolf Hall – is no exception. It is not just a profoundly political novel; it is about the emergence of modern politics as we know it.
It is even more finely grained than its predecessor, covering less than a year: but, as Mantel has indicated this is the middle volume of a proposed trilogy on the life of Thomas Cromwell, the chief minister of Henry VIII, it is also the fulcrum. Tudor poetry frequently invoked the trope of the inevitably turning wheel of Fortune – Wyatt, who appears in the novel, wrote “Sith fortunes will is now so bent / To plage me thus pore man / I must my selfe therwith content / And beare it as I can” – and in Bring Up The Bodies Cromwell reaches his apex.
So richly imagined is Mantel’s portrait of Cromwell that as he becomes Baron Cromwell in the final pages, the moment is shot through with premonitions of his coming fall. While Wolf Hall covered Cromwell’s efforts to secure Henry’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon and remarriage to Anne Boleyn, alongside the fall of his mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, Bring Up The Bodies shows him taking his revenge on those who plotted against Wolsey, the very Boleyn faction he put into power, as Henry’s affections move towards Jane Seymour.
The most compelling sections are the interviews Cromwell conducts with the queen’s favourites and family, and which show him as “the overlord of the spaces and the silences, the gaps and the erasures, what is missed or misconstrued or simply mistranslated”.
There is something excruciating about the way in which he incapacitates the arrogant parvenus with nothing more than cobwebs of innuendo, hearsay and speculation. Mantel’s wonderful novel about the French Revolution, A Place Of Greater Safety, was remarkable in humanising the “fatally pure”, incorruptible Robespierre. Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies manage to evoke a similar imaginative empathy to Cromwell, who is almost the polar opposite of Robespierre: he is loyal to Henry – in a moving scene he realises that the monarch is his only friend – but that loyalty manifests itself in intrigue, in relentless duplicity, in the half-truth and something like the truth.
The legal interviews also show how Bring Up The Bodies is very much a 21st century novel about the 16th century. There is the ever-present threat of torture (“there don’t have to be formal arrangements”, Cromwell says, “I could put my thumbs in your eyes, and then you would sing ‘Green Grows The Holly’ if I asked you to”), and it is supremely chilling when, under interrogation, one of the unfortunate courtiers says “you cannot make my thoughts a crime”. Tudor London segues into Guantanamo Bay seamlessly.
Mantel’s prose is even more mellifluous here than in Wolf Hall. There is a subdued coupling of assonances and alliterations which is established on the opening page, with the “sigh and riffle of pinion” of Cromwell’s birds of prey, going on to describe the “flittering, flinching” universe the birds (and, indeed, Cromwell) see. This runs continually through to the novel’s final page, where Cromwell imagines one of his protégés discovering his handwriting after his death: “they will sift through what remains and remark, here is an old deed, an old draft”.
Part of the accomplishment of Mantel’s novel stems from its being historical fiction. Historical fiction, by definition, lacks a degree of narrative surprise. Mantel circumvents this problem in a number of ways. The narrative is intensely focalised through Cromwell himself and the shimmering variability of his particular stream of consciousness. The decision to write in the present tense adds both impetus and the unknown. Cromwell himself remarks on his indisposition towards nostalgia (although he is constantly reminded of both Sir Thomas More and Cardinal Wolsey, effectively also pre-empting his future destiny), and describes himself as “like a limpet stuck to the future”.
Cromwell’s endeavours are set against a fear that “otherwise England cannot go forward, she will keep spiralling backwards into the dirty past”. The Tudor present is typified by peace, but Cromwell senses “the great limbs of those dead men, stirring under the soil. War was their nature, and war is always keen to come again.” There is a wonderful sense of contingency, of the chance that things might be otherwise: in a bravura scene, Henry falls during the tournament, and for one ghastly half-hour all they think he might be dead. Almost immediately, there is a maelstrom of positioning and hypothetical strategies.
It will be intriguing to see how Mantel manages the final volume of the trilogy. Her version of Cromwell – blunt and sly, endearing and calculating – is already a contemporary classic.
There is a scene where he reminisces about his wife making a silk braid: “Slow down,” he said, “so I can see how you do it,” but she laughed and said, “I can’t slow down, if I stopped to think how I was doing it I couldn’t do it at all.” It’s a metaphor for Cromwell’s own character, and, more than that, almost an image for Mantel’s own style. «