‘Death is your prince, you are not his patron; when you think he is engaged elsewhere, he will batter down your door, walk in and wipe his boots on you.’ – Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel
I’d been eagerly anticipating this sequel to Wolf Hall, a novel that enraptured me from start to finish, and that I would place along side the works that are, at least for me, supreme achievements in the art of historical fiction:
Rather to my dismay, I initially had trouble getting into Bring Up the Bodies. Perhaps the weight of expectation was too great. Right up through the first ninety pages or so, I kept picking it up and putting it down, in favor of other reading matter. (This definitely did not happen with Wolf Hall.) Then, on page 93, I encountered this paragraph:
He looks closely at Anne the queen, the day he brings back his report; she looks sleek, contented, and the benign domestic hum of their voices, as he approaches, tell him that she and Henry are in harmony. They are busy, their heads together. The king has his drawing instruments to hand: his compasses and pencils, his rules, inks and penknives. The table is covered in unscrolling plans, and in artificers’ moulds and batons.
Some random observations first: it was a pleasure to come across the word ‘artificer;’ it immediately brought me back to my first reading of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the last line of which is one of my favorites in all of literature: “Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.” Second, as I’m transcribing this passage, I seem to detect a problem with subject verb agreement, in the first sentence….Ah well, let it go, this time around, at least. It can be a curse, this being a fuss pot grammarian! Fact is, I didn’t notice the first time I read it, I was so enthralled by the image conjured by Hilary Mantel: Henry and Anne, huddled together in congenial conspiracy. I can almost see the king nudging her, or attempting to nudge her, in her brocade-encased rib cage.
From that point on I was hooked.
The ‘He’ in the above paragraph is Thomas Cromwell, King Henry’s Master Secretary, a wily and resourceful man who, although of lowly origin, has nonetheless achieved a position at court of enormous power and influence. (In her list of the cast of characters at the front of the book, Mantel identifies Cromwell as ‘a blacksmith’s son.’) His report on this particular occasion concerns the displaced queen Katherine of Aragon. She is languishing under a sort of house arrest. Henry and Anne both wish fervently for her death, but they must tread carefully; though discarded by the king, she has powerful friends, both in England and abroad.
In fact, the two of them need only exercise patience; ill and suffering, Katherine does not have much longer to live.
As for King Henry and Queen Anne, this moment of amity and common purpose proves all too ephemeral.
I’ve asked myself what are the particular features of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies that have made them so riveting. For one thing, Hilary Mantel writes terrific dialogue. The syntax and the vocabulary seem exactly apt, for the time and place. You can almost believe that these are actual conversations, faithfully, or nearly faithfully, transcribed.
Here is Thomas Cromwell’s report to Henry and Anne on the substance of his visit to Katherine of Aragon. Katherine has expressed to him her wish to see Eustache Chapuys, the ambassador to Henry’s court sent by Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. Chapuys is a staunch champion of Katherine’s cause; at the same time, he bears an unyielding enmity toward Anne Boleyn, whom he refers to as the Concubine:
He makes them his reverence, and comes to the point: ‘She is not well, and I believe it would be a kindness to let her have a visit from ambassador Chapuys.’
Anne shoots out of her chair. ‘What, so he can intrigue with her more conveniently?’
‘Her doctors suggest, madam, that she will soon be in her grave, and not able to work you any displeasure.’
‘She would come out of it, flapping in her shroud, if she saw the chance to thwart me.’
You can see from this exchange how fierce Anne is in her efforts to protect herself. She needs to be. (I love it that Cromwell “makes them his reverence.”)
Hilary Mantel has chosen to write these novels in the present tense. This is a device that I don’t always like, but she deploys it very effectively in these books. For me, it adds to the sense of immediacy, and of omnipresent danger. Speaking of which, the scene in which Anne arrives at the place of her execution is not for the faint of heart; as I read it, my own heart was pounding.
Hilary Mantel’s tremendous achievement in writing Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies has been recognized by her winning both the 2009 and 2012 Man Booker Prize. The Guardian begins its coverage of the 2012 award by informing us that “Hilary Mantel has made Man Booker prize history by becoming the first woman and the first British writer to win the literary award twice.” There’s a lovely video embedded in this article; I enjoyed this one on YouTube as well:
In her Author’s Note at the back of the novel, Mantel states of the following: “This book is of course not about Anne Boleyn or about Henry VIII, but about the career of Thomas Cromwell….” One appreciates the author’s loyalty to this character, and he is an interesting man to be sure, but for me, this book was about Anne Boleyn – much more so than Wolf Hall was. As I reached the conclusion of Bring Up the Bodies, I felt an increasingly urgent need to penetrate further into the mystery of what happened to her and why.