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Hilary Mantel

The New Yorker reposts an article from 2012 on Hilary Mantel’s imagination and historical fiction. It’s worth a read especially for those who are daunted by the sheer size of her historical fiction.

The article tries to dissects some of the reasons why historical fiction is not treated as seriously a genre. It borders between fiction and nonfiction. Because historical fiction is bound by history, facts, and real characters, wanton invention when facts are to be found, or, worse, contradiction of well-known facts, is a horror. This therefore limits the writer’s authority. But Mantel seems to pull it off brilliantly, in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. While she cannot know her characters completely, she conjures up reasonable, plausible details leading to well-known historical events. The article also explores why Mantel doesn’t care for royalty and aristocrats—and exactly why she would shine the limelight on Cromwell.

[689] Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel


” 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]

[392] Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel

” He, Cromwell, is no longer subject to vagaries of temperament, and he is almost never tired. Obstacles will be removed, tempers will be soothed, knots unknotted. Here at the close of the year 1533, his spirit is steady, his will strong, his front imperturbable. The courtiers see that he can shape events, mold them. He can contain the fears of other men, and give them a sense of solidity in a quaking world: this people, this dynasty, this miserable rainy island at the edge of the world. ” (Part 5, II, 427)

Aptly titled Wolf Hall although the residence of the Seymour family plays only a peripheral role, “wolf” evokes the allusion that “man is wolf to man,” and is especially true for the English courtiers in 1530. The country is merely a heartbeat from disaster. If the king dies without a male heir, an inevitable civil war could destroy the country and its monarchy. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of twenty years and marry the infamous Anne Boleyn. The novel begins in 1500 when young Thomas Cromwell runs away from home and his abusive father to be a soldier in France and Italy and jumps ahead 27 years. It finds him a lawyer under the patronage of Cardinal Wolsey. The book chronicles how Cromwell becomes the main player in mediating the king-vs.-church crisis over royal supremacy that ultimately leads the demise Thomas Wolsey, and his successor, Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor who refuses to swear by the Act of Supremacy.

[Cromwell] tells Anne to dismiss the slanderers who claim that the cardinal obstructed her cause. He tells her how it distresses the cardinal that the king should not have his heart’s desire, which was ever the cardinal’s desire too. He tells her how all the king’s subjects repose their hopes in her, for an heir to the throne; and how he is sure they are right to do so. He reminds her of the many gracious letters she has written to the cardinal in times past: all of which he has on file. (Part 3, II, 166)

Astute in reading people and surgically precise in seizing the opportunity, Cromwell is a consummate politician. Until the annulment crisis roils over England, he knows better to put distance between himself and any Boleyns at all, for they don’t seem like a family who mind about their souls. As per his own family, to which Mantel gives consistent weight in the novel, Cromwell treats his wife as his equal and rears a house full of children, biological and fostered, whom he educates.

From the day he was sworn into the king’s council, he has had his face arranged. He has spent the early months of the year watching the faces of other people, to see when they register doubt, reservation, rebellion—to catch that fractional moment before they settle into the suave lineaments of the courtier, the facilitator, the yes-man. (Part 4, I, 262)

When Henry VIII believes that the papal dispensation for his marriage to Katherine, who fails to produce a male heir, was invalid because it was based upon the claim that she was still a virgin after her first husband’s (Henry’s brother Arthur) death. The king argues that Katherine’s claim was not credible, and thus the original papal dispensation must be withdrawn and their marriage annulled. Convinced that Wolsey’s loyalties lay with the Pope, who threatens to excommunicate Henry, and not not with England, Anne Boleyn, as well as Wolsey’s enemies (mainly the monastic houses he reverted in order to channel money into funding colleges) ensured his dismissal from public office in 1529. His successor, Thomas More, also refuses to concede to the Act of Supremacy that he is put on the death row. Mantel persuasively depicts Cromwell as one of the most appealing and enlightened character, whose acumen and cunning are necessary to steer clear of such treacherous waters. No wonder he reflects that “utopia, after all, is not a place one can live.” It is the king who really hits home about Cromwell’s no-nonsense: for he is a task-master:

‘Do I retain you for what is easy? Jesus pity my simplicity, I have promoted you to a place in this kingdom that no one, no one of your breeding has ever held in the whole of the history of this realm.’ [The king] drops his voice. ‘Do you think it is for your personal beauty? The charm of your presence? I keep you, Master Cromwell, because you are as cunning as a bag of serpents. But do not be a viper in my bosom. You know my decision. Execute it.’ (Part 6, II, 516)

At the center of the book, which overflows with private and public incidents, is the emerging doctrine of royal supremacy over the church. 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. What his master couldn’t achieve in time Cromwell has sealed with the king’s praise. Told in the perspective of the self-made man, who at the end of the annulment ascends to Henry’s right-hand man, Mantel gives us a Cromwell who has little interest in what motivates his Majesty, but hopes to secure a free England that he honors above all else. Instead of focusing on the royalties, the well-researched novel shows the struggles of those who are well behind the scenes during this tumultuous period of England

532 pp. Hardback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Additional advisory: Pitched against Restoration England, the book employs a huge array of historical characters. The glossary at the beginning of the book, which gives me a pause at first, ends up being be very helpful. Mantel has a masterful grasp on the facts without weighing down her prose—but the writing calls for perseverance. Unless otherwise stated, as the context shall reveal, the many pronouns “he” usually refer to Thomas Cromwell.

Say Wolf

I have never jotted down so many quotes from one novel. Some add to the intrigues of the story, others just provide comic relief.

1. “My lord. what do you call a whore when she is a knight’s daughter?”

2. “Who is he?”

3. “I tell you, Cromwell, you’ve got face, coming here.” “My lord—you sent for me.” “Did I? It’s come to that?”

4. “Certainly, she says sweetly, she will become a nun: if the king will become a monk”

5. “Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor, put his signature first on the articles against cardinal Thomas Wolsey.”

6. “She pronounces it as if she can’t manage the English: Cremuel.”

7. “My lady, are we having this conversation in English or French? Your choice entirely. But let’s make it one or other, yes?”

8. “So,” Johane demands. “Tall or short?”
“I’d heard she was very tall. Sallow, is she not?”
“Yes, sallow.”
“They said she is graceful. Dances well.”
“We did not dance.”
Mercy says, “But what do you think? A friend to the gospel?”
He shrugs, “We did not pray.”
Alive, his little niece: “What was she wearing?”
“Are her teeth good?” Mercy says.
“For God’s sake, woman: when she sinks them into me, I’ll let you know.”

9. “Anne’s out for bloody murder. She wants the cardinals gut in a dish to feed hr spaniels, and his limbs nailed over the city gates of York.”

10. “Anne has very long legs. By the time [the king] comes to her secret part he will be bankrupt. “

11. “Alas, what shall I do for love?”

12. “Utopia, after all, is not a place one can live.”

13. “If it’s Heaven, she speaks in a high voice. If it’s Hell, in a deep voice.”

14. “We ask ourselves, but by the steaming blood of Christ we have no bloody answer.”

15. “The king cannot see you this morning. He and Lady Anne are composing some music for the harp.”

16. “There is nothing between us. It won’t be like Wolf Hall, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

17. “It’s no disgrace to be a royal bastard. Or so we think, in my family.”

18. “But I must make her a bastard. I need to settle England on my lawful children.”

19. “But he needs Mary [Boleyn] for himself. The child is due in late summer and he is afraid to touch Anne. And he does not wish to resume his celibate life.”
Richard looks up. “He said this?”
“He left me to understand it. And as I understand it, I convey it to you, and we are both amazed, but we get over it.”
“I suppose if the sisters were more alike, one could begin to understand it.”

20. “Nulla salus extra ecclesiam. Outside the church there is no salvation. Even King come to judgment. Henry knows it, and is afraid.”

21. “He thinks, tomorrow is another battle, tomorrow is another world.”

22. “Already there are too many books in the world. There are more every day. One man cannot hope to read them all.”

23. “Welcome to this world below.”

24. “Death is a japester; call him and he will not come. He is a joker and he lurks in the dark, a black cloth over his face.”

25. “The king demands that Katherine give for his coming child the robes in which the child Mary was christened.”

26. “All the women of your house are heretics, and the plague will rot them body and soul.”

27. “They say when you christened [Elizabeth] you warmed the water to spare her a shock. You should have poured it boiling.”

28. “She would look out for my old master [Wolsey], on one of her excursions to Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, and I offered to pay her traveling expenses on the occasion.”

29. “Show us your Christ-is-Risen. Show us your Jack-in-the-Box.”

30. “The common law does not deal with women who say they can fly, or raise the dead.”

31. “Look how the innocent end; used by the sin-sodden and the cynical, pulped to their purpose and ground under their heels.”

32. “Have you ever observed that when man gets a son he takes all the credit, and when he gets a daughter he blames his wife? And if they do not breed at all, we say it is because her womb is barren. We do not say it is because his seed is bad.”

33. “You have been at court long enough, you know what games are played. It is no matter if any lady receives verses and compliments, even though she is married. She knows her husband writes verses elsewhere.”

34. “It is almost treason to hope so. And if it is [a girl], she will have a third child, and a fourth.”

35. “They’ll fight you because of who you are. Even if they agree with you, they’ll fight you. Even if they know you’re right.”

36. “We try to write laws sparingly. And so that they are not personal.”

37. I hate ingratitude. I hate disloyalty. That is why I value a man like you. You were good to your old master in his trouble. Nothing could commend you more to me than that.”

38. “Listen to me, I intend this for your good. The queen does not expect your friendship, only an outward show. Bite your tongue and bob her a curtsy. It will be done in a heartbeat, and it will change everything. Make term with her before her new child is born. If she has a son, she will have no reason afterward to conciliate you.”

39. “Whatever can have occurred to upset the queen?”
“It’s Lady Carey [Anne’s sister Mary], she is—that is to say she finds herself—”
“With a bellyful of bastard.”

40. “And now she is afraid of every woman at court—have you looked at her, have you looked at her lately? Seven years she schemed to be queen, and God protect us from answered prayers. She thought it would be like coronation everyday.”

41. “Incest is so popular these days!”

42. “I told my master in dispatches that the king has visited you. My master is amazed that the king would go to a private house, to one not even a lord. But I told him, you should see the work he gets out of Cromwell.”

43. “Some said the world would end in 1533. Last year had its adherents too. Why not this year? There’s always somebody ready to claim that these are end times, and nominate his neighbor as the Antichrist.”

44. “For if I had an opinion against your Act of Supremacy, which I do not concede, then your oath would be a two-edged sword. I must put my body in peril if I say no to it, my soul if I say yes to it. Therefore I say nothing.”

45. ““Do I retain you for what is easy? Jesus pity my simplicity, I have promoted you to a place in this kingdom that no one, no one of your breeding has ever held in the whole of the history of this realm.” He drops his voice. “Do you think it is for your personal beauty? The charm of your presence? I keep you, Master Cromwell, because you are as cunning as a bag of serpents. But do not be a viper in my bosom. You know my decision. Execute it.

46. “All I own is the ground I stand on, and that ground is Thomas More.”

47. “I pray with all my heart that you will see that you are misled. When we meet in Heaven, as I hope we will, all our differences will be forgot. But for now, we cannot wish them away. Your task is to kill me. Mine is to keep alive.”