It is fair to say that Henry VIII is the most famous husband in Western history. His roster of wives is a wonder to contemplate: two beheaded, one dead from complications of childbirth, two put away, and one widowed, and that none too soon. It is especially arresting when one considers that Henry’s marital adventures inadvertently ushered in the modern state, a transformation brought about in great part by Thomas Cromwell, now one of literature’s most unlikely heroes. Some of us first made this consummate schemer’s acquaintance in history courses where we learned that he was not Oliver Cromwell and that he was passionate about legislation (ho-hum); more promisingly, he was a prime mover in the King’s Great Matter and the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and, as such, a dark figure. Hans Holbein’s portrait summed up the man perfectly: stodgy guy with earflaps — but devious.
In Wolf Hall and now in its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel has breathed inner life into this seemingly unattractive plotter and legislative grind. He is still the ingenious strategist and ruthless tactician, but he is also prey to anguished memories of a brutal childhood as the son of a blacksmith; of the persecution of his mentor and protector, Cardinal Wolsey; and of the deaths of his wife and little girls from the “sweating sickness.” In addition to these sorrows — undetected by the courtiers, bluebloods, and dignitaries who look down on him as a man of crude ambition — he possesses a restless conscience in which reasons of state, a sense of justice, and a taste for revenge are in constant suspension.
At the center of the novel is Anne Boleyn, whose fate we all know but whose path to it is a matter of dispute. Wasted by disappointment, suspicion, and jealousy, she has lost her looks and, after the birth of Elizabeth, suffers two miscarriages. The halcyon days with Henry are over; she clearly finds the increasingly heavy and sullen king repulsive. For his part, Henry, all superstition, passion, and petulance, yearns for a male heir, is disenchanted with Anne and, more unpropitiously, is unmanned by her. He is beginning to suffer his old complaint: doubt as to whether this marriage, like his last, is legitimate and, in tandem, fascination with another woman. This is mousy, meek Jane Seymour of Wolf Hall, the Seymour family pile that gave the previous novel both its title and sense of foreboding.
The novel has a huge cast of busy characters whose own fates and designs are linked to Anne’s. Her troubles have gladdened the hearts of her enemies, among them Mary Tudor (Henry’s daughter by his first wife, Katherine), who has refused to swear the oath acknowledging the legitimacy of Henry and Anne’s issue (and her own illegitimacy). Lord Norfolk — plainspoken, seasoned campaigner, uncle to Anne, and my personal favorite of all Mantel’s characters — offers advice on this score: “I would go up-country to Mary and make her swear the oath. I would plant her hand on the gospel and hold it there flat, and if she would not take her oath to the king and my niece’s child, I would beat her head against the wall till it were as soft as a baked apple.”
The first part of the novel coveys a feeling of dyspepsia, shared by court and reader alike, over the state of the succession and irresolution over the future of Anne. In other news, Cromwell has a romantic interlude of sorts, and life bustles on for his large household and retinue. But just as one is beginning to feel more dutiful than driven in turning the pages, the plot to remove Anne is finally mounted. Cromwell shows his Machiavellian chops, gaining the support of her enemies, of her own family, and of the king. The horror of Anne’s situation — and those of her favorites — grows, even as she cannot, or will not, grasp that she really must go. One way or the other.
At his house in Stepney, Cromwell sets things in motion by extracting a confession from the musician Mark Smeaton, a lowborn young man given to boasting of his supposed relations with the queen and hers with others. Cromwell is a fixer, but he is also a connoisseur of tragedy, savoring its elements:
…five rash minutes of boasting, in one ungratified life and, like a nervous tradesman, the gods at once send in their account. Mark has lived a story of his own devising, where the beautiful princess in her tower hears beyond her casement music of unearthly sweetness. She looks out and sees by moonlight the humble musician with his lute. But unless the musician turns out to be a prince in disguise, this story cannot end well. The doors open and ordinary faces crowd in, the surface of the dream is shattered: you are in Stepney on a warm night at the beginning of spring, the last birdsong is fading into the hush of twilight, somewhere a bolt rattles, a stool is scraped across the floor, a dog barks below the window and Thomas Cromwell says to you: “We all want our supper, let’s get on, here is the paper and the ink. Here is Master Wriothesley, he will write for us.”
Different versions of this terrible inevitability are played out as the other four men who will be implicated in Anne’s downfall are enmeshed in Cromwell’s coils. That they happen to be men against whom Cromwell bears grudges is both to and not to the point: showing the fluid mix of purpose, rationale, and emotion is part of Mantel’s genius. She is thoroughly brilliant in letting us see how her hero’s statesmanlike desire to preserve the nation’s peace and stability merges with his determination to stay in Henry’s good graces and with his own satisfaction in overseeing the fall of those who treated both Wolsey and himself with contempt. “He needs guilty men,” Cromwell reflects. “So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged.”
The novel, so aptly titled, is infused with a sense of corporeality, the bodily nature of existence is manifest everywhere as power and its absence are reflected in the most physical ways. It is entirely pertinent that Cromwell’s body waxes as Anne Boleyn’s wanes. Elsewhere, the predicament of being flesh is set out gruesomely as bodies are burned at the stake, their fat crackling; guts drawn out, their owners clutching at them; and heads severed to torrents of blood. But it is the king’s body that is of paramount interest, its condition a matter of state. It is a topic of incessant discussion especially — as Cromwell muses with distaste — among women, who “in conversations between themselves…trespass in places where a man would never trust his footing. The King’s body is borderless, fluent, like his realm: it is an island building itself or eroding itself, its substance washed out into the waters salt and fresh; it has its shores of polder, its marshy tracts, its reclaimed margins; it has tidal waves, emissions and effusions, quags that slough in and out of the conversation of Englishwomen.”
This strikes me as going a trope too far, and, indeed, it is an unlikely one to emerge from a sixteenth-century imagination. But it is pure Mantel. Her language combines woozy free association, drawn from Cromwell’s ruminations and imaginings, with touches of archaic construction in dialogue, wonderful visual metaphors (“the fatter priors basted in self-regard,” “the Boleyns…sleek cats, lolling in their seats and preening their whiskers”) and with a sprinkling of such clangorous anachronisms as “relocated” and “resources that could be freed.” The narrative itself proceeds by means of strategic ellipsis, jumping from place to place and encounter to encounter without wasting words on transition. The approach enhances the overall sense that we are privy to Cromwell’s consciousness, rather than having events ladled out to us. On the whole this is very much for the best, as it makes strange and new a story whose end we already know.
With the end of this second volume of the projected trilogy, we leave the “sleek, plump and densely inaccessible” Cromwell at his most powerful — though not at all as sympathetic as he was in the first novel. Even so, the student of history, having a good idea how the final volume will end, can’t help feeling a little melancholy over that future.