He – the Cardinal, at his suburban Palace – introduces the book to the Council of Lords. It is “Bring up the Bodies” by Hilary Mantel (2012), the second instalment of the Thomas Cromwell trilogy. He has read both it and its predecessor “Wolf Hall” twice, enjoying them enormously, and finding them compelling despite their length. Mantel is one of the very small group of writers to win the Booker twice.
He hands round for our delectation some delicious salmon and bread rounds prepared in the famous Palace kitchens.
He – the Cardinal – is interested in the technicalities of how she writes and develops her narrative. He asks how we got on with the constant use of the present tense? Some commentators such as Philip Pullman are critical of the vogue for its use, arguing that present-tense narrative has a limited range of expressive use. He – Pullman - concedes that even writers such as Bronte and Dickens have used present-tense narrative, but in these cases it gains its effect by contrast with past-tense narrative.
We are happy with the present tense in this book. Perhaps the problem is that a success such as "Wolf Hall" breeds many imitators. In this case we love the immediacy and freshness of the book, her skill in judging pace, and the intensity of the drama.
He – the Archbishop of Brighton, resplendent in a tabard emblazoned with Brighton colours – wonders why the Cardinal chose the second and not the first book. “Has the Council found it difficult to start with the second?” He –we – maintain that this is not a problem. For “Bring up the Bodies” contains sufficient summaries of the previous plot to be self-standing. Indeed some of us are now reading “Wolf Hall” second, and without difficulty. “We shall therefore soon have both a trilogy and three separate books” the Archbishop concludes, with the finality of a dungeon door closing.
He – the Earl of Lancaster – now raises a quizzical eyebrow. “Does it matter if the history is inaccurate?” This question, a fox in the henyard, sets the Council aflutter. “We are judging the book as literature not history. Shakespeare’s histories are riddled with inaccuracy, but we think no less of them” is one response, which attracts some nods. But he – Lancaster - continues to chase the hens: “So what if the novel is about an entirely fictional set of characters? Would it be as good?” ….. “Ahhh ……well maybe not …part of the pleasure of the books is the sense of her trying to turn the bare bones of historical events into real life, into thinking and feeling people with their motivations….it gives it more resonance”… “Okay I agree...if just invented, the characters would be less complex.”
He – we – the Council - like the hypnotic, meditative rhythm of the book. It is a sort of stream of consciousness technique, but much more disciplined than earlier examples. The narrative and characters emerge clearly from what is revealed of Cromwell’s mind, and not a word seems wasted (although not all say the same of “Wolf Hall”, which some feel is the lesser book).
Mantel’s force of historical imagination is remarkable as she conjures up a complete sixteenth century world. She has immersed herself in an enormous amount of research, yet the narrative never flags or becomes weighed down by excessive detail. And we are fascinated by the way the thread of international politics is woven into the narrative.
Her Tudor world is tangible in all its sights and smells. We love the poetic language, the observation of the natural world, the evocation of the changing seasons, the mists off the Thames in the morning. “When Wyatt writes, his lines fledge feathers, and unfolding this plumage they dive below their meaning and skim above it." And it is a remarkable tribute to Mantel’s force of imagination that she only uses imagery – similes and metaphors – which draw on the actual world of the sixteenth century. "Sampson laughs; it is a clerical laugh, like the creak of a vestment chest”.
So a magnificent tour de force….but, hark, are there dissenters knocking at the door? Some are irritated by all the qualifying of who “he” denotes. “Why not just say Cromwell rather than ‘he – Cromwell’?” “Ah well” intones a defender of the Blessed Hilary – “ but if she just said ‘Cromwell’ you would lose the sense of being inside his head.” In “Wolf Hall” there was said to be too much ambiguity as to who ‘he’ was, hence the clumsy device of qualifying “he” in the second book.
“Any more dissent?”
He - le Seigneur de la rue de Pâques - confesses he finds the character of Cromwell less than coherent, despite the endless detail. It is a bold attempt to give a more sympathetic take on Cromwell. But somehow this thoroughly decent Cromwell with whose thoughts we engage, with his twenty first century consciousness and hand-wringing liberalism, does not square with the ruthless vindictiveness of the man who brings Anne and sundry courtiers to the scaffold. Yes, the emphasis on the brutality of his childhood is an attempt to construct a character comfortable with brutality, but it does not really hold together. One possibility is that the author is showing Cromwell’s self-deception, but that does not cohere either.
Other members of the Council bang their goblets down and rise to dispute this stain on the reputation of the embookered Mantel. He - Lord Shyberry Excelsior – sees Cromwell as the classic Machiavellian. Thus – taking into account Wolf Hall – he manipulates Anne Boleyn’s rise and fall to serve himself, Henry, and to revenge himself. Does it not make it more enjoyable to read when he is given a twenty first century consciousness? And do not even the worst monsters such as Hitler show sentimentality towards their family and pets? Perhaps he was not sadistic as such, but not at all concerned by procuring executions if they helped Thomas Cromwell achieve his objectives.
He - the Cardinal - points out how much space is given to Cromwell’s redeeming features. He may be cold-blooded, but he is sorry for Mary, and pleasant to Jane Seymour for no reason other than sympathy. And he was very loyal to he – the other Cardinal. Cromwell is fine as long as you are the right side of him. There is also a mystery about what went on in Europe - about how Cromwell makes the transition from abused child to the man who returned from Europe with such a wide range of skills and knowledge as to seem almost superhuman.
He - his emissary il Marquesa di Val Porcino from Lazio – takes a more charitable view. Cromwell is a man who has risen from nothing by means of his wits, and needs to protect his back in the wolf-eat-wolf world of the court, where whether your neck stays attached to your head depends on the latest whim of Henry. Cromwell’s behaviour is determined simply by an attempt to give Henry what he wanted – he was not a cruel man as such. If you do not give the King what he wants, or if his whim changes, your neck ceases to be attached to your head. And even the King’s erratic behaviour can be partly defended by the power of contemporary religious belief, and the King’s view that his failure to produce a son must mean that God disapproves of his marriage.
He – the Marquess of Lothian – feels Cromwell is intelligent, highly manipulative, and completely immoral in pursuing his ends. The fact that he has a caring side makes his ruthlessness even starker. Cromwell is a very damaged character, whose traumatic childhood led him to behave in such a sinister way. He is cruel psychologically – he puts people through great stress. And he succeeds only too well in ridding Henry of his wife and generating vast sums of money for the king and for himself. Moreover, given the limited amount of known historical fact, the portrait of Cromwell rightly leaves quite a bit to the reader’s conjecture.
The King’s Apothecary puts his finger on a passage which he feels sums up Cromwell well:
“How [he] has achieved such his present eminence is a question all Europe asks…No one knows where he has been and who he has met…He never spares himself in the king’s service,...and makes sure of his reward...He has a way of getting his way, he has a method; he will charm a man or bribe him, coax him or threaten him…he will introduce [him] to aspects of himself he didn’t know existed. He is not in the habit of explaining himself….Whenever good fortune has called on him, he has been there, planted on the threshold, ready to fling open the door to her timid scratch on wood...”
What he - the Archbishop of Brighton - sees is a multi-faceted portrait of Cromwell built up from snippets of his past, and a Cromwell who can only take decisions on the basis of what will help him survive. But he – Brighton – also draws attention to the Cromwell who is the “founder of the modern state”. He gives Parliament a constitutional role in the break with Rome, and modernises religion with a bible in English and the dissolution of the monasteries. At the same time he shows humanity with pensions for monks and the first introduction of poor relief.
So despite living inside Cromwell’s mind for hundreds of pages there are many different Cromwells who populate the minds of the Council. (Rather too many Cromwells methinks for your indefatigable scribe to follow). One of the reasons for the ambiguity is that Mantel shows very little of his reflections before he launches into action. In “Wolf Hall” she describes him as inscrutable, and even has him suggest that he does not understand his own motivations. And what historical evidence there is suggests a man of exceptional ability, and a man of great contradiction and complexity. Perhaps the third volume will clarify matters.
But the Council uniformly approves of the portraits of Henry and Anne. Anne is shown as shrill, manipulative and ambitious; she only achieves dignity in the lead up to her execution. Henry is shown as someone who wants to do manly things, and, sometimes, to do the right thing, but whose good intentions are easily over-ridden by self-deception. By the end of the book his powers are clearly waning, and he appears a weak bully.
And the Council of Lords are unanimous that “Bring up the Bodies” is a relative rarity amongst Booker winners in being completely deserving of the highest accolade.
He – the King’s Apothecary – then shares with us a few medical secrets from the King’s bedchamber about his virility or lack thereof, and some choice medical details about the scaffold. He – she, Mantel – is not reticent about scaffold gore either. As Margaret Atwood puts it: “Mantel generally answers the same kind of question that interest readers of court reports of murder trials or coverage of royal weddings.”
He – me, your scribe – finds all this talk of the scaffold unsettling. Idly fingering the back of my neck, I reach out for another salmon delicacy to distract me. Looking at it with relish, I then notice how cleanly severed the bread is. And the pink and white tracery reminds me only too clearly of Anne Boleyn’s final morning….
Then the drawbridge is lowered and the Lords thunder off back to the city.