Monday, November 01, 2021

the last book I read

Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel.

So, our protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, has achieved what his illustrious mentor Cardinal Wolsey could not and contrived an end to Henry VIII's marriage to Catherine of Aragon, mainly by virtue of Cromwell's having the will to do what the other guy wouldn't, in this case separating the Church of England from the Catholic Church and telling the Pope to go fuck himself. 

No time to rest on one's laurels, though: Henry's pursuit of Anne (and marriage to her in 1533) was only partly predicated on her being a younger, more nubile model - it was partly inspired by the thought that she might be able to do what Catherine had not and provide him with a male heir to the throne. But here we are in the autumn of 1535 and no son has been forthcoming - Anne has produced a daughter, Elizabeth, and endured a couple of miscarriages, but that's it. And Henry is not a patient man. Anne, furthermore, is a bit spiky and opinionated and Henry's eye has begun to alight on Jane Seymour, an altogether meeker and more pliant type, and hey, who knows, maybe just waiting to rattle out a fusillade of male heirs, given the opportunity.

But the queen is not inclined to stand aside and make way for a younger successor by just conveniently retiring to a nunnery, nor would it be constitutionally acceptable for her to do so. So another way must be found: either her marriage to Henry was never valid in the first place for some reason (the same sort of ruse that was used on Catherine) or a reason must be found for her to be found guilty of some crime against the king (i.e. treason) and, hem hem, "removed" from the throne. The penalty for women found guilty of treason would be either burning or beheading, depending on the whim of the king, but, hey, omelettes, eggs, etc.

Naturally, as the go-to man for fixing all sorts of awkward problems, it falls to Thomas Cromwell to make what Henry desires to happen happen. He soon decides that a charge of adultery will be the best way to achieve this, and as it happens there are a few rumours flying around relating to a few younger members (fnarr) of the royal court. Henry is in his mid-forties by this time, increasingly overweight and increasingly incapacitated by gout and leg ulcers, and there is a suggestion that he may not be able to, perform the, hem hem, spousal duties in quite the way that Anne would like, making her inclined to look elsewhere. More surprisingly the list of potential suitors includes her own brother, George Boleyn, adding a bit of spicy incest action to the standard adultery charges.

In a sense it doesn't really matter whether any of the accusations is actually true (Wikipedia says, with splendid understatement: "Modern historians view the charges against her [...] as unconvincing"); their reading out in court and the clear knowledge of all concerned that it is the king's will to be released from his marriage to Anne and that this is the way that has been chosen for it to be done drives the whole process through to its inevitable conclusion pretty quickly. And so we arrive at a May day in 1536 as Anne ascends the scaffold to meet the French swordsman specially hired for the occasion and, shortly afterwards, her maker. 

This is, of course, the sequel to Wolf Hall which I read three years ago and I recall mildly criticising for taking a long time to describe the events of around six years. Well, Bring Up The Bodies is a shorter book (about 480 pages) but covers the events of a much shorter period (about nine months between autumn 1535 and summer 1536). Nonetheless it seems a much more compelling story than Wolf Hall and I would say I enjoyed it more. Maybe this is because less time is spent on Cromwell's home life (his wife and daughters having died during the first book) and therefore more time is spent in the orbit of Henry, a charismatic but terrifyingly impulsive and unpredictable character with the power of life and/or fairly immediate death over anyone in his vicinity. Maybe it's also because the bringing about of the end of Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn is inherently more dramatic and bloody than the end of his previous marriage to Catherine of Aragon, involving as it does actual public bloody dismemberment rather than discreet shuffling off to a nunnery.

What the books are really about, of course, is Cromwell's ability to navigate Henry's moods, deliver the outcomes he wants, and avoid getting his own head cut off, something he is intelligent enough to know could come at any time. Cromwell is what Stephen King calls the "I-guy" here, the principal protagonist of a novel not written in the first person but constrained to being seen through the eyes of its main character. This does lead to some odd constructions where being able to say "I" would have made the meaning (i.e. in terms of who was being referred to) clearer:

Mantel makes this as unobtrusive as possible but once you start to notice it it becomes, well, noticeable. Cromwell is, in his own gruff and impenetrable way, starting to become a bit of a Mary Sue (or possibly Marty Stu) by the end of the second book, not because he is portrayed as being morally unimpeachable (he is ruthlessly pragmatic in all things) but because Mantel's affection for him (or at least her fictionalised version of him) is so obvious. She's going to have to let him go, though, because I assume that the third book, The Mirror And The Light, concludes with his inevitable fall from favour and execution. 

I enjoyed this more than Wolf Hall, for the reasons stated above: it just seems tighter and more focused. The portrayal of Cromwell and indeed all the major characters here shouldn't be taken as historically accurate or definitive, of course, and less sympathetic portrayals of Cromwell are available, notably in Robert Bolt's A Man For All Seasons. Like Wolf Hall, and several other books featured on this blog, most recently The God Of Small Things and The Siege Of Krishnapur, Bring Up The Bodies was awarded the Booker Prize in 2012. It also won the Costa Book Award in the same year; recent winners featured here include Brooklyn and Middle England

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