May 2012

Josh Zajdman

fiction

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

In the first two volumes of her Wolf Hall trilogy, the eponymous first volume and the newly released second, Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel has managed to carve out Henry VIII's court with Michelangelean exactitude. With wit, daring style, and a staggering breadth of historical knowledge, Mantel breathes new life into reclaimed territory. She's done away with the Tudors we thought we knew; gone, too, is the man for all seasons and this or that Boleyn girl. There is no dark corner that hasn't been flushed of its occupants, no theological doctrine or lady-in-waiting left uncompromised, and no difficulty that Thomas Cromwell, Mantel's protagonist, can't overcome. That's assuming he hasn't already. In fact, by the end of Bring Up the Bodies, Cromwell has witnessed the death of his wife and daughters, several court-based opponents, royal children, a mentor, and two queens. And those aren't even the bodies of the title.

Don't get confused -- Mantel's Tudor Court is not that of premium cable or even the BBC. With her incisive, complex, and intriguingly stylized prose, Mantel has done the seemingly impossible and relumed the lives of Henry Tudor and his court. The sex is transactional and never titillating, the religion offers false salvation and guarantees death (the only matter up for question is who gives the benediction preceding it), and the spoils have probably just been stripped from a dead or no longer desirous body. Power, its pursuit, its maintenance, and the devastation that stems from the struggle to insure it propel the reader through the nearly thousand pages covered in the trilogy thus far. Mentions of Machiavelli pepper the pages, and with good reason. Mantel's scraping away of the gilding, in favor of such a dark, loamy depiction, offers readers countless rewards. First and foremost is the unyielding attack on the senses. Whether the salty tang of heated flesh, the smoky sweetness of burning flesh (human, that is), the raw stench of ordure or bodily decomposition, the Tudor Court and its environs are almost completely stripped of whatever glamour the popular imagination has previously bestowed on them. The world Mantel has rendered is not for the inattentive or the weak of heart.

Wolf Hall begins with a young Cromwell anticipating death as he lies, covered in blood and resting in his own vomit, at the feet of his abusive father. The year is 1500. In 1536, when Bring Up the Bodies draws to a close, that young bloodied boy is now Baron Cromwell of Wimbledon. Alphabetically, he is also chancellor of Cambridge University (though often faulted for his Greek translation), deputy to the king as head of the Church of England, master of the rolls, and secretary to the king. He's got two homes, a bustling household staff, and an oft-discussed portrait by Holbein. "When he saw the portrait finished he had said, 'Christ, I look like a murderer'; and his son Gregory said, didn't you know?" The progress and upward mobility of Cromwell runs parallel, only to a point, of course, to that of Anne Boleyn. The relationship between the two and its many sudden rises and sharp declines serves as the basis for most of Wolf Hall and all of Bring Up the Bodies. One of Mantel's strengths as a writer is allowing the characters to speak, in intimate and slyly illuminating exchanges, without the pageantry of history or royal rhetoric. It becomes quite clear that Cromwell knows exactly how far Anne Boleyn would go after she opens a gift from him on New Year's of 1531. "At New Year's he had given Anne a present of silver forks with handles of rock crystal. He hopes she will use them to eat with, not to stick in people." Eventually, she calls Cromwell's bluff. "Besides, I perceive how things stand with you."

Her perceptions, regrettably, are short-sighted when turned inward. Wolf Hall ends with a trip to Wolf Hall, the home of the Seymours, a family troubled by gossip and including Anne Boleyn's lady-in-waiting, Jane. Those who know their Tudor history can't help wincing at their proximity. Those who don't are in for a surprise.

When Bring Up the Bodies begins, only two months have passed, but they might as well have been a lifetime. Henry and Anne remain sonless, and his once nearly chronic lust has cooled considerably.His relations with the queen as the summer draws to its official end are chary, uncertain and fraught with distrust. Anne Boleyn is now thirty-four years old, a dark woman with a refinement that makes mere prettiness seem redundant. Once sinuous, she has become angular. She retains her dark glitter, now rubbed a little, flaking in places.

Things have changed. Like a child having grown tired of his toys, the King's eye begins to wander. At this point, a caveat: don't read this book if highly caffeinated. Almost all of its characters are "uncertain and fraught with distrust" and those select few who aren't are either dead or on their way. Accordingly, the book moves along under an ever-thickening cloud of doubt, anxiety, fear, uncertainty, and paranoia. As each page is rapidly turned, Mantel manages to consistently tighten the screws and ratchet up the tension surrounding Anne and Henry's relationship, the country's unrest, the threat from abroad, the greater threat from those around them, and Anne's eventual death. You'll move freely from sweat to chills as the narrative progresses.

Cromwell, himself, proceeds with caution and uncertainty, which is in great contrast to his typical calculation and behind-the-scenes manipulation. He is solely dedicated to "writing" the "Book called Henry: how to read him, how to serve him, how best to preserve him." Toward the end of Bring Up the Bodies, Cromwell takes a moment to lament at the extent of his reach. "God damn it, he thinks, I am already fully employed, and more than fully; it is no small enterprise, to bring down a queen of England." He is quick to recover and see it through. After Henry has rid himself of Anne, Cromwell steels his reserve and begins to wave his wand once more. "There are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings. Here is one." With a beginning like these two volumes, and four wives left, the third and final volume of the Wolf Hall trilogy will assuredly be nothing short of spectacular.

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Henry Holt
ISBN: 978-0805090031
432 pages