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[689] Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel

1bodies

” Anne, it appears, was a book left open on a desk for anyone to write on the pages, where only her husband should inscribe. ” (Part Two, II p.383)

Bring Up the Bodies picks up what was left off in Wolf Hall, in which Thomas Cromwell, secretary to the king, helped erase his queen, Katherine of Aragon, cancel his inconvenient daughters and edit those chapters in the narrative which were getting tedious. Working diligently on Henry’s divorce both in the courts and politically behind the scenes, Cromwell brings before the Parliament a number of acts that recognize the king as the head of the church, thus finalizing the break with Rome.

Now at 50, Cromwell wields so much power that affairs of the whole realm are whispered in his ears, and all parchments pertaining to state business are pushed across his desk. He only has privacy in his dreams as he is always under the obligations of a servant and an official.

Cromwell wonders exactly how much you’d have to leave on the table for Anne. She’s cost Henry his honour, his peace of mind. To him, Cromwell, she is just another trader. He admires the way she’d laid out her goods. He personally doesn’t want to buy; but there are customers enough. (Part Two, I p.207)

It’s at Wolf Hall in 1536 that the king encounters Jane Seymour, who to Henry represents a source of future sons, as Anne Boleyn has yet to give him a heir. He also suspects whether she had been debauched before being queen. The king wonders if there is some flaw in his marriage to Anne Boleyn, some impediment, something displeasing to God. Cromwell, having heard these concerns all along, is ordered to conclude the matter of Anne Boleyn, and to do it swiftly. The subject of Bring Up the Bodies concerns the downfall of Anne Boleyn, whose flaw is infidelity and the guilty men, though “perhaps not guilty as charged,” are Mark Smeaton, a musician, Henry Norris, the chief of king’s privy chamber, the aristocrats Francis Weston and William Brereton, and the Queen’s own brother, George Boleyn.

No one need contrive at her ruin. No is guilty of it. She ruined herself. You cannot do what Anne Boleyn did, and live to be old. (Part Two, II p.309)

It’s no spoiler to reveal that Anne Boleyn is beheaded. While it is in the nature of historical fiction that one knows what happens next, the genius of Bring Up the Bodies is that Thomas Cromwell, opaque, labyrinthine and vengeful, despite controlling the fates of so many, doesn’t know the outcome of these events that are narrated through his consciousness. On top of his acumen and perspicacity, Mantel suggests that it’s Cromwell’s origins, together with his almost total absence of friends and family that allows him to play the role he does. He has nothing to lose. This is how he can join with Anne Boleyn’s enemies to overthrow her. The ambiguous Cromwell fits well with Mantel’s agenda, because someone who is too good or too evil does not fit into the intricacy of the plot, as there are hordes of people lurking around in Henry’s court, all of them on the make or trying to sidestep the axe. This book explores the nature of the border between truth and lies. This border is permeable and blurred because it is planted thick with rumor, confabulation, misunderstandings and twisted tales.

409 pp. Fourth State London. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]