Bring Up the Bodies
It is about a year later. Anne Boleyn is Queen, she has borne a daughter and there is pressure on her to give King Henry a son. That she fails to do is the crime that leads to her downfall. Not too different from today’s times, you would think.
The second instalment of Mantel’s trilogy of the life and times of Thomas Cromwell is not as shockingly fresh to our eyes as the first one, in terms of the setting and Mantel’s writing style. But it is far more terrifying. It chronicles a year in which Anne goes from being the smart woman who toppled a Queen to take her place, to a helpless woman tossed about by the vagaries of an all-powerful King. Thomas Cromwell, who’s story this is after all, remains the fascinating character he was in the first book, out to reform the Church, in the process amassing wealth for himself and his King, still unforgiving of the people who brought down his Cardinal Wolsey and still the right hand man of the King. And when the King decides he has had enough of his Queen, it is left to Cromwell to get rid of her. Anne goes and we are left none the wiser if she was really the horrific woman she is painted out to be – ‘He had asked Wyatt, how many lovers do you think she has had? And Wyatt had answered, ‘A dozen? Or none? Or a hundred?.’ The horror is that the uncertainty in no way slows down Anne’s downfall. The King has decided she has to go and the way must be cleared for Jane Seymour to become Queen. And Anne’s un-proved infidelity and her supposed thought-crime of wishing the King dead are enough to get her and her supposed lovers beheaded.
It is through Cromwell’s eyes we see the scenes unfold. Yet, he remains a slightly enigmatic figure. Is he driven by vengeance, out to get all those responsible for his Cardinal’s downfall? Is he out to get Anne because she and her family had crossed him? Or is he just faithfully following his King’s wishes? We are never to know. Maybe it is all of the above. All we know is that the people he dislikes do not survive and those he likes, like Wyatt, do. And nothing gets in his way of filling the King’s coffers with the bounty of the Church he is reforming.
Mantel’s language is as sparse as ever. She lets the dialogue do the storytelling. There is little description of the surroundings, yet she makes the uncertainty of the times come alive. Cromwell’s musings are the only commentary on the history-making events. There is no author’s voice. And while Cromwell is shown as a somewhat objective spectator (“He has studied the world without despising it. He understands the world without rejecting it. He has no illusions but he has hopes. He does not sleepwalk through his life. His eyes are open, and his ears for sounds others miss.”), we are left with doubts about it as well.
There is a third instalment yet. Katherine is dead. And so is Anne. Jane Seymour is being crowned Queen. There are more Queens to come in Henry’s life. Thomas Cromwell is still supremo. But we know that state is changing. Wriothesley asks him a question at the end. “A gentleman asked me, if this is what Cromwell does to the cardinal’s lesser enemies, what will he do by and by to the king himself?’. It strikes Cromwell as a presaging of his own downfall. Uneasy lies the head that causes other heads to fall.
A riveting read, Bring Up the Bodies keeps my faith in historical fiction.