Sunday, 3 May 2020

Book review: Bring up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel (2012)

I bought this book probably in 2012; there is a price tag on the back but part of the white sticker has been eaten away by silverfish or some other creature of the shadows, which is fitting for this book about court intrigue and death. As though some insect from Anne Boleyn’s grave had scuttled into my apartment in SE Queensland and gnawed on my tome. I read the previous book in the series, ‘Wolf Hall’, but have no memory of doing so, so now cannot gauge how accurate my review was.

With the second book in the series – the third one, ‘The Mirror and the Light’, has just come out in print – I am unsure if Mantel has communicated to her readers what she intended to convey. Her clear intention is to make of Henry VIII’s right-hand man Thomas Cromwell a reliable narrator – the whole thing is focalised through his character – so that you can get a feel for how perverse was much of what went on at court. The scheming and the constant search for preferment or for a sinecure, the positioning of various “great” families of the realm for influence with regard to the person of the king, the intrigues surrounding different people (one of which is particularly nasty in its implications) in a hothouse of gossip and scandal. It’s as bad as a modern-day executive C-suite but how interesting is it really to try to convince people that something they already despise is bad?

There would have been a wide range of material available to Mantel in her effort to convey signification in relation to the two men but, unfortunately, the author limits her purview largely to the court, so you get a relatively limited sense of what life in the 16th century in London was like. The narrative goes slowly and there are plenty of opportunities for Mantel to intricate secondary plots using different characters, but she avoids venturing too far abroad.

Which is a shame. There is the odd nod to such things as (what was then known as) natural philosophy (or, as we call it today, “science”), but there’s not much in the way of discourse upon the great issue of the day: the Protestant Reformation. And no mention is made in the book, I was somewhat dismayed to find, of the fashion for old manuscripts that had gained traction in places like Italy over the previous centuries. Again, Mantel misses out on an opportunity to use contemporary trends to enrich character or to advance the plot.

She touches on the theme of religious orthodoxy only inasmuch as it affects relations between court factions – Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second wife, is an exponent of reformed religion as it was (and is) practised by the church of the state – but these threads don’t reach out into the streets or even into the houses of the gentry, where much of the foment for change was happening. Anne is found on occasion doing something radical such as reading the Bible in English – one of Henry’s innovations, though it took a while for the practice to broaden – but the matter of conscience does not occupy enough of this novelist’s time. Which is odd because, for his part, Henry is keenly aware of deficits of his own conduct and in 1535 and 1536, the years in which the novel is set, blames aspects of his various marriages for the lack of a male heir. Marriage was a sacrament (and still is, for various faiths and denominations) so it was close to a core concern of his pertaining to divine will.

Anne is finely drawn, however, and is a strong character in her own right. In the presence of a stupendously egocentric person of Henry’s ilk (much like Donald Trump today) peripheral individuals tend to get swallowed up, tumbled around, and spat out the other end. Anne, of course (as everyone knows who has the slightest knowledge of English history) was killed after she failed to carry a son to term but, in the novel, while she is alive she holds her own in an environment of intense partisanship. It’s just a shame that Mantel wouldn’t show how that partisanship was articulated in the broader community. Cromwell himself is meant to stand in for everyman, at least for the man in the street, despite his experience on the continent and his familiarity with other countries’ languages.

Because of his links to various families, it would have been easy for the author to open up a dialogue between the court and, say, a merchant family based in London. We know that Cromwell kept up correspondence with extended family, many members of which relied on him for support and preferment, but those links remain unexplored unless the people involved are actually within his household.

While reading this novel you feel slightly inebriated, as though the sauce for your fillet steak had been seasoned with too much claret and had not been sufficiently reduced in the pan. Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer is, furthermore, relatively bloodless; I thought more use could have been made of his putative spirituality to counter Cromwell’s ruthless pragmatism. Or perhaps their similarity is the point Mantel wants to make. I would also have liked to see at least one scholar – a poet named Thomas Wyatt appears near the end of the book, but Cromwell doesn’t discuss with him much in the way of ideas, and Mantel seems to hold a dim view of sonneteers as a class of individual – as well as more of the middling sort of people. There’s more coarse banter than perhaps is necessary to make Mantel’s points about the status of women, and I wasn’t entirely happy with her secondary male characters. Better realised are Anne’s ladies-in-waiting; the confidences one Mary Shelton shares with Cromwell are particularly well-drawn, and reminded me of a letter from an 18th century epistolary novel.

Such richness of texture in the narration is typical of this historical novel but it nevertheless has the drawback that it cleaves narrowly to actual events. Presumably, for the sake of that part of the community that demands accuracy; some might see this as an asset rather than a liability. A novelist of this kind must rely on records to furnish a lot of the material for their enterprise, but they will also have recourse to academic papers and books of history. Also fiction published at the time. The kind of expansive recounts that you get with such devices as interior monologues are rarely used here: apart from a bit of daydreaming, some actual dreaming, and the odd diary entry, most of the drama plays out in conversations that Cromwell conducts with other people. If we see something it is what he saw.

In order to create in a wider locus for her imagination I would have liked Mantel to have used more impressionism. More Dickens, less ‘House of Cards’.

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