Monday, June 11, 2012

Brilliant Executions

In Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel continues brewing a powerful historical concoction

The following has been posted on the Books page of the History News Network site.  

Toting around a book -- even one anonymously encased in a Kindle, as is increasingly the case with me -- is a natural conversation-starter. And in the last couple years, I've had a number of conversations about Hilary Mantel, first when I was carrying around her 2010 masterpiece Wolf Hall, and lately its successor (the second installment of a planned trilogy). Most of the time, my answer to the query of what I'm reading the evokes the mild curiosity of people more interested in hearing about a book than actually tackling it themselves. In the case of Wolf Hall, however, some friends had beat me to it, and raved. Yet there was another reaction that surfaced a number of times, one for which I had some sympathy: impatience. Yes, it's good, some said. But a bit slow.

I heard that again with regard to Bring Up the Bodies, and it delayed my acquisition of the novel, which I had half-resolved to let slide. But my curiosity about Mantel's real-life protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, Secretary to King Henry VIII, got the better of me. I'm glad I read it, and endorse this novel (as I did Wolf Hall). But this book too is a bit slow, though the narrative picks up steam in as it proceeds.

Mantel is an avowed revisionist. In most of the many times the saga of Henry VIII's reign has been chronicled, Thomas Cromwell is depicted as the hatchet man, a ruthless power player who destroyed the literally sainted Thomas More for More's refusal to acquiesce in the larger religious/political implications of the King's desire to dump his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, in favor of Anne Boleyn. In Mantel's telling, however, More, who's relatively incidental to the story, comes off as a pompous prig, while Cromwell's Machiavellian realism has a mordant wit that's tremendously engaging. Cromwell certainly has his personal loyalties, in particular to his mentor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who was also a victim of the King's intransigent marital will. But the core of Cromwell's appeal is his lively intelligence, which he deploys with tireless energy on behalf of a monarch who rewards this upwardly mobile commoner with power and honors that the elicit admiration and envy of peers and superiors in equal measure.

Wolf Hall focused on Cromwell's role in the rise of Boleyn. Bring Up the Bodies focuses on Cromwell's role in her fall, which results from the King's frustration over Boleyn's failure to deliver a male heir -- the one child of their union became Elizabeth I -- and his growing infatuation with one of Boleyn's attendants, Jane Seymour (whose family estate is named Wolf Hall, an allusion to where the end of the last book was heading). The narrative action here is compressed into nine months between 1535 and 1536 when Cromwell, knowing that Boleyn and her allies regard him as an enemy, pre-emptively strikes by aligning himself with former adversaries who hate her even more than they hate him.

As with Wolf Hall, Cromwell shows himself to be a ruthless political operator, which is troubling this time for two reasons. First, we're forced to confront that this attractive character commits evil acts. As he explains to one of his hapless victims, told to confess to crimes he probably did not commit, "He [i.e. Cromwell] needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged." Publicly, those charges involve incest and adultery, and results in a series of executions, including the notorious one of the Queen herself. Privately, they are reprisals against those who doomed Cromwell's beloved Wolsey. So Henry gets what he wants even as Cromwell gets what he does.

The other reason Cromwell's machinations are disquieting is pointed out by his friends: the people with whom he's allied will seek to dispose of him at their first convenience. Cromwell knows this, and his fate -- he would be executed five years later -- looms increasingly large over the story, which is slated for resolution in the third volume of what is now projected as a trilogy.

But the real satisfactions of these books is not the plot, but rather the ways Mantel is able to evoke the rhythms and textures of sixteenth century life, while making that life seem recognizable amid its strangeness. Bring Up the Bodies is at heart a series of conversations, some of them internal, in which characters make striking, yet plausibly prescient, remarks. "Our learning both acquired or pretended; the stratagems of state, the lawyer's decrees, the churchmen's curses, and the grave resolutions of judges, sacred and secular: all and each can be defeated by a woman's body, can they not?" Cromwell thinks. "God should have made their bellies transparent, and saved us the hope and fear. But perhaps what grows there has to grow in the dark." Other observations almost seem to wink in their contemporary relevance: "Chivalry's day is over. One day soon moss will grow in the tilt yard. The days of the moneychanger have arrived, and the days of the swaggering privateer; banker sits down with banker, and kings are their waiting boys." But sometimes those winks are ironic: "Though the whole of England has taken an oath to uphold her children, no one abroad thinks that, if [Boleyn] fails to give Henry a son, the little Elizabeth can reign."

It's precisely because I -- God help me -- like Cromwell so much that I find myself dreading the final installment of this saga. Bring Up the Bodies ends in triumph for its protagonist, but, as Mantel concludes, "the word 'however' is like an imp coiled beneath your chair." Our greatest triumphs are temporary; our greatest disasters are trivial. So it's probably worth it to slow down and listen to the remarkable voice that emerges from these pages. In the end, time is the only thing we've got.