Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning Wolf Hall, though fascinating, was a chore to get through – so it was with some misgivings that I picked up this book, the sequel; I was resigned to getting bored, but too entranced with Tudor England and Henry VIII’s court to leave the story. However, I was pleasantly surprised… no, that’s too mild a term, I was floored! Bring up the Bodies is one humdinger of a read. While Wolf Hall was ponderous, the sequel is breezy, without losing any of the beauty of the language. In cricketing parlance, Ms. Mantel is like a test batsman who, having negotiated a treacherous pitch, has got her eye in and is stroking beautifully.
Wolf Hall described the fall of Catholic England and the meteoric rise of Anne Boleyn. Bring up the Bodies describes her equally swift and frightening destruction. Having successfully persuaded the King into marrying her, Anne had bulldozed all her opponents mercilessly. Henry’s original queen, Katherine and her daughter Mary are separately under house arrest, living in fear that any day, they may fall prey to Anne’s machinations. All the clergymen who opposed the King’s marriage have been either executed (many in gruesome ways) or forced to recant. Anne is riding high, and one may excuse her for thinking that she is beyond any law; however, her enemies are watching, and they sense the opportunity when she cannot give a male heir to Henry, the carrot she lured him with. And accompanying the King is the Master Secretary, Thomas Cromwell, arch-plotter and kingmaker.
Cromwell has not forgiven Anne or her family for the treatment meted out to Thomas Wolsey (one-time Lord Chancellor and his mentor) for his downfall from grace and subsequent miserable death. However, he knows to bide his time and is well aware that it is the King who has to be pampered. So he has attached himself to Henry, bearing the slights of the “noble” hangers-on to the humble blacksmith’s son with fortitude. His patience is rewarded when the King falls for the plain and demure Jane Seymour, lady-in-waiting to the present Queen (ironically, once coveted by Cromwell himself). From then onwards, events proceed at breakneck speed. Cromwell, with the aid of the Seymour family, succeeds in casting Anne in the role of adulteress; worse, an incestuous adulteress. Both Anne and her brother George, along with four others, meet the swift “justice” of the executioner’s axe. Now Henry is free to marry the woman of his choice: and Master Secretary is now Baron Cromwell.
Hilary Mantel’s characterisation is terrific. Thomas Cromwell, who emerged as an enigma in Wolf Hall, is more clearly drawn here: his manipulator’s mind which the author inhabits most of the time, reminds one of Shakuni. The congealed ire and hatred, burning like cold fire at the bottom of his psyche which ultimately consumes Henry Norris, William Brereton, George Boleyn and Francis Weston, is at once frightening and fascinating, as he counts them off one by one in true “Count of Monte Cristo” fashion, for plotting the downfall of Cardinal Wolsey and exulting in it.
‘I must take your mind back. I do not ask you to remember the manifold favours you received at the cardinal’s hands. I only ask you to recall an entertainment, a certain interlude played at court. It was a play in which the late cardinal was set upon by demons and carried down to hell.’
He sees Norris’s eyes move, as the scene rises before him: the firelight, the heat, the baying spectators. Himself and Boleyn grasping the victim’s hands, Brereton and Weston laying hold of him by his feet. The four of them tossing the scarlet figure, tumbling and kicking him. Four men, who for a joke turned the cardinal into a beast; who took away his wit, his kindness and his grace, and made him a howling animal, grovelling on the boards and scrabbling with his paws.
It was not truly the cardinal, of course. It was the jester Sexton in a scarlet robe. But the audience catcalled as if it had been real, they yelled and shook their fists, they swore and mocked. Behind a screen the four devils pulled off their masks and their hairy jerkins, cursing and laughing. They saw Thomas Cromwell leaning against the paneling, silent, wrapped in a robe of mourning black.
Yes, Thomas Cromwell, dressed in black like death personified. The possibility of this scene (which is originally from Wolf Hall) having taken place in reality is anybody’s guess: but the author uses it to great effect to delineate the man Cromwell in frightening clarity – a tribute to Hilary Mantel’s consummate skills as a writer.
Henry VIII comes off more and more as a petulant kid, a kid who can shrewdly manipulate his parents; ultimately believing in the lies he has made up to absolve himself from blame. It is Cromwell’s skill to manage him like an indulgent parent while at the same time enacting the role of the loyal servant that enables him to keep on the right side of royalty at all times. He manages this tightrope walk, at the same time besting his better endowed enemies one by one. A certain nonchalance and detachment seems to mark all his dealings, even when they are life and death. It seems he has taken the advice on how to joust which an old Portuguese knight once casually gave him very seriously.
You have to keep your helmet on tightly so that you have a good line of sight. You keep your body square-on, and when you are about to strike, then and only then turn your head so that you have a full view of your opposer, and watch the iron tip of your lance straight on to your target. Some people veer away in the second before the clash. It is natural, but forget what is natural. Practise till you break your instinct. Given a chance you will always swerve. Your body wants to preserve itself and your instinct will try to avoid crashing your armoured warhorse and your armoured self into another man and horse coming full gallop the other way. Some men don’t swerve, but they close their eyes at the moment of impact. These men are of two kinds: the ones who know they do it and can’t help it, and the ones who don’t know they do it. Be neither of these kinds of men.
So how shall I improve, he said to the old knight, how shall I succeed? These were his instructions: you must sit easily in your saddle, as if you were riding out to take the air. Hold your reins loosely, but have your horse collected. In the combat a plaisance, with its fluttering flags, its garlands, its rebated swords and lances tipped with buffering coronals, ride as if you were out to kill. In the combat a l’outrance, kill as if it were a sport. Now look, the knight said, and slapped the table, here’s what I’ve seen, more times than I care to count: your man braces himself for the atteint, and at the final moment, the urgency of desire undoes him: he tightens his muscles, he pulls his lance arm against his body, the tip tilts up, and he’s off the mark; if you avoid one fault, avoid that. Carry your lance a little loose, so when you tense your frame and draw in your arm your point comes exactly on the target. But remember this above all: defeat your instinct. Your love of glory must conquer your will to survive; or why fight at all? Why not be a smith, a brewer, a wool merchant? Why are you in the contest, if not to win, and if not to win, then to die?
Towards the end, when the novel becomes abysmally dark in its depiction of court-sanctioned mass murder and the helpless Anne (a fine contrast from the haughty enchantress of Wolf Hall) spending her last days in the Tower, we see the Master Secretary grown somewhat muted and philosophical.
He thinks, strive as I might, one day I will be gone and as this world goes it may not be long: what though I am a man of firmness and vigour, fortune is mutable and either my enemies will do for me or my friends. When the time comes I may vanish before the ink is dry. I will leave behind me a great mountain of paper, and those who come after me – let us say it is Rafe, let us say it is Wriothesley, let us say it is Riche – they will sift through what remains and remark, here is an old deed, an old draft, an old letter from Thomas Cromwell’s time: they will turn the page over, and write on me.
Isn’t this what happens to all of us?
In the afterword, Hilary Mantel says that the book is not about Anne Boleyn or Henry VIII, but Thomas Cromwell. According to her “Mr Secretary remains sleek, plump and densely inaccessible, like a choice plum in a Christmas pie; but I hope to continue my efforts to dig him out.” One wishes her all the best in her endeavours – the saga is by no means over. And I, for one, can’t wait for the next installment.