Sunday September 30, 2012
Tudor tour de force
Review by MARTIN SPICE
This is the work of a writer at the height of her powers.
Bring Up The Bodies
Author: Hilary Mantel
Publisher: Fourth Estate, 432 pages
WHEN Hilary Mantel started out on her project to write a book about the Tudor-era British statesman Thomas Cromwell, she little thought that it would develop into a trilogy.
Speaking at the Hay Festival in June in Britain (an annual literary and arts event), she explained, “When I got a little over half way through Wolf Hall, I saw – not gradually, but in a flash of insight – that one book would not tell this story. The battle for England’s soul was underway.” And then when writing Bring Up the Bodies, “I made another sudden and alarming discovery ... I had in fact written a second book and with the arrest of Anne (Boleyn) it was almost complete”.
And so a single novel became a trilogy, the first part of which, Wolf Hall, won the Booker Prize in 2009 and the second, Bring Up The Bodies is tipped by some to achieve an unprecedented double this year.
You could say that the British are obsessed with the Tudors and those turbulent years between 1509 and 1547 when Henry VIII married six times and divorced England from Rome and papal authority, declaring himself head of the Church of England. This is one of those periods of British history that has been endlessly taught in schools and continues to be picked over by historians. But the fascination clearly does not end with Britain’s shores, as the recent and very successful American, Golden Globe-nominated TV series The Tudors clearly shows. The fascination is understandable: there is nothing that the history of the Tudors does not have – politics, sex, violence, bloodshed, intrigue, high drama and political in-fighting – so it’s a heaven-made script.
Mantel’s take on all this is distinctly different from the very unsubtle (but, I must confess, gripping and highly entertaining) TV series. Her focus is on Thomas Cromwell, a man to whom history has not been kind yet one of the clearest examples of a self-made man we have from this period. Born into poverty and violence, he became, first under the guidance of Cardinal Wolsey and then on his own merits, the most powerful man in England, charged with the break from Rome, the dissolution of the monasteries and the downfall of Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second wife. If, as I say, history has been unkind to Cromwell it is in part because the famous portrait of him by the German painter Holbein makes him look “like a murderer”. But then he was. In a sense.
It is this “in a sense” that makes him, and Mantel’s depiction of him, fascinating. The truth, of course, is complex and largely unknowable. Her Cromwell is by turns brutal, devious, loyal and tender. His purpose in life is to serve the king and what the king wants is neither pleasant nor often wise. But Cromwell is his servant and if he is not to meet the same fate as his much loved master, Cardinal Wolsey (who was, historically, accused of treason just before he died), he will deliver what the king wants whether he is inclined that way or not. Man of conviction or of expedience? Both.
We are similarly confused about Anne Boleyn. Accused of high treason, adultery and incest, she was beheaded with a single stroke of a sword in the French manner. Was she guilty as charged? In an author’s note, Mantel warns us: “The evidence is complex and sometimes contradictory; the sources are often dubious, tainted and after-the-fact. There is no official transcript of her trial and we can reconstruct her last days only in fragments, with the help of contemporaries who may be inaccurate, biased, forgetful, elsewhere at the time or hiding under a pseudonym.” But whatever the truth, we know she was executed, and with her died five men, none of whom were Cromwell’s friends.
Bring Up The Bodies is beautifully written. Mantel has long been an admired writer and in this magnum opus of Thomas Cromwell she has clearly found her world. A small example: Thinking of his dead wife and daughter, Mantel has him blur the two in his mind – “This is what death does to you, it takes and takes, so that all that is left of your memories is a faint tracing of spilled ash.” Time and again I was impressed by the precision and the eloquence of Mantel’s prose. This is the work of a writer at the height of her powers.
There is, of course, a mass of historical material to handle and my only reservation about this fine book is that at times the reader (and perhaps the author?) becomes bogged down in extraneous details. Historians will, of course, quibble with her interpretation, suggesting that Mantel’s revisionist view of a national villain defies the facts. But “I am making the reader a proposal, an offer,” she writes, an offer about how these events may have looked through Cromwell’s eyes.
And her own view of her protagonist? “Sometimes people ask me what I think now of Thomas Cromwell. Nothing is the answer. I don’t think anything. He is a work in progress. I am not in the habit of writing character references for people I only half know ... I am not claiming that my picture of him has the force of truth. I know it is one line in a line of representations, one more copy of a copy. All I can offer is a suggestion.”
It is a formidable one.