Aaaand he’s back! “He, Cromwell.” Hilary Mantel’s improbable protagonist, first met in the magisterial and brilliant Wolf Hall. Let me bring you up to date. It is September, 1535. Henry VIII has been married to Anne Boleyn for two and a half years. She has given him a daughter, the Princess Elizabeth, but not yet a son. He is becoming restless and testy. The royal eye has fallen on the anti-Anne, mild-mannered and modest Jane Seymour. Do you remember how the rhyme goes, to number Henry’s six wives? “Divorced, beheaded, died…” So you know where Bring up the Bodies is going, don’t you?
Like Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies is a substantial book, over 400 pages. But it covers a much more compressed period of time. Did this denseness make it drag a little in the first half, or was that the need to recapitulate? More likely the fact that I was on a plane — Mantel has an extremely deft hand with exposition. Anyway the conflict in Bring up the Bodies is more dense, too. Thomas Cromwell’s character and his role in Henry’s court is established. Likewise Henry’s dilemma, which is beginning to sound familiar (“divorced, beheaded…”). What actually happens in this novel is more fine-grained than the action in Wolf Hall. Cromwell’s handy utilitarian philosophy takes on an ugly edge as he works to grant the king’s desire in a way that won’t blow apart the country. Mantel describes the great Holbein portrait of Cromwell clutching a document, and thereafter you may find yourself counting references to Cromwell’s fists. There’s a mood of suppressed violence in the novel that pays off magnificently in the end.
Henry himself, who had a certain, well, majestic charm in Wolf Hall, verges on the petulant at times. The Court walks on egg shells. And I find I missed some of the great, complex characters of Wolf Hall, like More and Wolsey. Finally, because Cromwell is widowed, he has become something of a business machine. Mantel does her best to give him friendly moments but there is a lot of procedure without much respite in this novel.
But oh! the writing! Mantel’s narrative voice, as in the earlier novel, straddles eras. There are contemporary constructions and vocabulary, easily sharing sentences with phrases that take us back in time. The result for me was like perceiving the action on two levels, or hearing it in stereo — Now and Then, more closely related than we’d ever thought.
Writing isn’t just about words, though, it’s also about imaginations and this may be where Mantel really excels. Time and again, I’d read a passage with delight as a metaphor or an image took me right to her scene, placing me in the heart of the action, at Cromwell’s velvet-clad elbow. I’ll leave you with the opening lines of the novel:
His children are falling from the sky. He watches from horseback, acres of England stretching behind him; they drop, gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze. Grace Cromwell hovers in thin air. She is silent when she takes her prey, silent as she glides to his fist. But the sounds she makes then, the rustle of feathers and the creak, the sigh and riffle of pinion, the small cluck-cluck from her throat, these are sounds of recognition, intimate, daughterly, almost disapproving. Her breast is gore-streaked and flesh clings to her claws.”
Leaving aside the fabulous conceit that Thomas Cromwell named his falcons after his daughters, leaving aside the dextrous prefiguration of violence, I have to wonder — how does Hilary Mantel know what a raptor sounds like? Oh, wait — that’s what the best novelists do. They make stuff up, and make you believe it’s true.