In her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, Hilary Mantel writes about Cinderella’s story: “I worried about the glass slipper. It is such a treacherous object to wear: splintering, and cutting the curved, tender sole of the dancing foot.”
Mantel is impossible to docket: she fits edgeways, if at all, into any of the standard categories. Her novels have explored friendship, religion, the Reign of Terror, professional mediums, the life of an English giant, and in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Henry VIII’s tumultuous times and marriages, as seen through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell.
Disparate themes; and yet all of them have the Mantel gaze, curious and dispassionate, attracted to the glittering, the murderous. As an adult, she learned that Cinderella’s slipper was made not of glass, but of fur — vair, not verre. It called up yet another unsettling image: the prince and his agents, searching for the ideal princess, “with a tiny female organ in hand”. Under Mantel’s questing eye, detail is everything.
Bring Up the Bodies takes its title from the instruction sent to the Tower of London: deliver the accused (soon-to-be-dead) men. It begins with Thomas Cromwell watching his flying falcons: “All summer has been like this, a riot of dismemberment, fur and feather flying…” The traces of one queen, Katherine, have been hastily plastered over, to make way for Anne Boleyn’s falcon; the book will end with the Boleyn lions being covered over by the Seymour panthers, as Henry VIII turns from the voluptuary Anne to the virgin Jane.
Neither Wolf Hall nor Bring Up the Bodies is a historical novel, except in the sense that their scaffolding is founded in history. If Wolf Hall was a dispassionate study of how to acquire power, Bring Up the Bodies is a chillingly contemporary tale of the price power extracts, told deliberately in the present tense. Thomas Cromwell has come up in the world: “through courtyards and throne rooms, his path in life is now made smooth and clear.” He does not wade through blood so much as he deals in it, measuring the weight and worth of information on one scale, lives on the other. This is a portrait of how to wield power as an accountant, through the keeping of careful ledgers where betrayal, honour and power are ranked neatly in separate columns.
The view from Cromwell’s all-encompassing perspective is a bloody, uneasy one, and Mantel steps seamlessly between the rapid beat of the plot and the inner workings of his mind. “Anne was wearing, that day, rose pink and dove grey. The colours should have had a fresh maidenly charm; but all he could think of were stretched innards, umbles and tripes, grey-pink intestines looped out of a living body; he had a second batch of recalcitrant friars to be dispatched to Tyburn, to be slit up and gralloched by the hangman.” Gralloched: the Scots term for gutting a deer and drawing out its intestines, among the many useful terms Mantel collects, turns over and passes on to her readers.
Bring Up the Bodies follows Cromwell’s story to the expected beheading — Boleyn’s slender neck on the block, not his. Aside from his wives and their named lovers, an assortment of friars and traitors, Henry VIII also had Thomas Cromwell executed, eventually, and lived to regret his decision. Anne merited her own executioner, brought in at great expense from France; Cromwell was unable to oversee his own execution, and had an inept hangman who hammered away at his neck. But this Mantel saves for her next book, where she hopes to delve into the greater mystery of Cromwell — “sleek, plump and densely inaccessible,” she writes in the afterward.
Instead, treachery, plots and the payment of old scores in the span of a few crucial weeks occupy all of their lives — all of them fascinating, the queens, their supposed lovers, the warring families, the plotting priests, Cromwell and Henry, and not one remotely sympathetic. This is the landscape of the Middle Ages, where to live is not so much to take part in a potentially deadly struggle for power as to risk daily disillusionment, a court-bred cynicism that deadens the soul. Four men who played a pantomime dragon in a masque mocking the dead Cardinal Wolsey, once Cromwell’s patron, are in his sights as he lines up Boleyn and the four courtiers for the executioner’s axe, the capering dragon destined for a bloody end.
Mantel’s great triumph in the execution scene is to present the living Anne – “her face expresses bewilderment” – uncertain whether she has time to tie the strings of her cap beneath her chin, before the indelible image of the body cleaved by the hangman’s sword. “And its flat little presence becomes a puddle of gore.” (As a British reviewer says, Bring up the Booker.)
A historical novel would have ended here. Bring Up the Bodies ends with Cromwell’s understanding that he has done well, his story could end here, if it were not for the buts and the howevers. He hovers in mid-air, like the falcons who began the book, bloodied by his kills, not yet plummeting to the ground.
BRING UP THE BODIES
432 pages; $15