I’ve been considering reading this book for over a year–since it won the 2012 Man Booker Prize. I base most reading decisions on the Man Booker prize winners. I read the first novel in this trilogy, Wolf Hall about a year ago. I wasn’t overly fond of it, I’ll be honest. For one thing, the 3rd person narration is abnormal. Thomas Cromwell narrates the story, but his thoughts and his words are always described with ‘he’ or ‘his’. It doesn’t say “Thomas Cromwell went to see the King.” It says “he went to see the king”. Sometimes, when Cromwell is alone, this is no large problem. But the majority of the characters, just like the majority of people of note in the 16th century, are men. So you get a lot of sentences like ‘he said to him’. Confusing. Sometimes, you can follow it. Other times, not so much. Mantel occasionally clarifies, but she does so in a strange way. As the New York Times described it, “Where necessary, “Bring Up the Bodies” helpfully deploys the phrase “he, Cromwell,” dispelling a lot of syntactic confusion.” I find this to be rather stupid, to be honest. If you’re going to say ‘he took the pen; he, Cromwell’, why not just say ‘Cromwell took the pen’?!?! this ‘he, Cromwell’ rubbish is very tedious. On the other hand, sticking to the ‘he’ pronoun does create a unique reading experience. This is a subject simultaneously so familiar (who hasn’t heard of Henry VIII and his many wives?) and simultaneously very alien (who can comprehend life in 1536 as readily as they can comprehend in 1936, or even 1836?). So that unique reading experience achieved through the pronoun use in some ways adds to the feeling of delving into another time, another frame of mind, another way of organizing the world. In conclusion, I’m on the fence about the whole pronoun issue. I hated it in the first book, but it was far more easy to follow in the second.
Bring Up The Bodies was, in almost all respects, an easier and breezier book. Not as demanding, not as tiring, more enjoyable. Shorter, faster, and (I think), better. The New York Times said that it’s less surprising, and that Cromwell sinks in our estimation from the first book to the next. I don’t think I agree. He was never particularly high in my estimation, nor do I think Cromwell is the type to care. He’s a practical person, a realist, and not in the business of charming anyone.
In the second book, he is the same person, with the same ruthlessness and terrifying, cold pragmatism. The difference is his mission.
In Wolf Hall, Cromwell’s mission was to make it possible for the king to marry Anne Boleyn. He sees Cardinal Wolsey, his mentor and friend, fall from power into disgrace and death–and don’t think he’s ever going to forget those that made this happen–but he also uses the changing tide to his own advantage. Cromwell assists the king in every possible way to get his marriage to Katherine annulled, and to make way for his marriage with Anne. This means reformation of the church (which allies with Cromwell’s personal beliefs), and it means being allied with the Boleyn family. But his mission is to get the king married to Anne, and he succeeds.
In the second book, Cromwell’s mission is to get rid of Anne so that the king can marry Jane Seymour (not the actress from Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman). Though they may seem the same, the situations are different. Anne will not accept an annulment, she is not the type of woman to go quietly. She’s more like Cromwell. Henry is so angered and upset with her, with her inability to give him a son, with her emotional trickery and her lack of proper obsequiousness, he begins to suspect her of witchcraft. He has been ensnared by her, and has been taken out of favor in God’s eyes. His thoughts turn to plain, shy, virginal Jane Seymour. She is the antithesis of Anne in nearly every way. Henry wants Anne to never have happened. At first, it seems an annulment might be enough this time, as it was before, but no. He wants her to never have existed. She needs to be dead, if he’s going to be happy and fortunate again.
Cromwell does his best to make the king happy. That’s the same in book one and book two. It’s the king, and what he wants, that shift to a much darker place. His darker nature is reflected in his body, fat and sweaty, with a recurring wound to his leg. He is turning into an embarrassment, where he was once an astonishingly bright and energetic figure. Accordingly, this book ends, not with a happy couple and a fortuitous baby bump, but with the public execution of Anne Boleyn, and the 4 men accused of sleeping with her. With a downturn, a hint of things to come.
Ah, but it’s not just Henry that goes darker and meaner. Cromwell handpicks the four men who will be killed, and, shocking coincidence, they are the four men who publicly mocked Cardinal Wolsey before his death. His motive, revenge, is incredibly clear. Another man is rumored to have slept with Anne, but he is Cromwell’s friend, and is spared a conviction. Free to go. I don’t deny that revenge is his motive, but I do think that the king’s changes have given Cromwell the opportunity to act on both of their worst instincts. If the king were magnanimous and forgiving, Cromwell would find lesser punishments for his rivals.
We also see an older Cromwell, a more tired and less ruthless version of the man we learned of in Wolf Hall. A few sections stuck out to me, so much that I dog-eared the pages to reference them later. He ‘falters’ in his course, as he describes it, when feelings overcome him. He hides it. But he ‘did falter, but no one knows it’, no one saw him walk away from Weston’s interrogation. No one saw him when ‘Anne laid her hand on my arm and asked me what I believed in my heart’. He feels the weight of his own hypocrisy, and his corruption. At one point, he compares his power struggles with a dance. ‘He has spun his enemies to face him, to join him: as in a dance. He means to spin them away again, so they look down the long cold vista of their years: so they feel the wind, the wind of exposed places, that cuts to the bone: so they bed down in ruins, and wake up cold.’
That is an incredibly detailed thing to wish on your enemies. And only someone who has been forced to do the same, in his own life, would know the pain that would come with those circumstances. As someone gets older, the value of warmth and comfort are more important, and the unstoppable threat of negative thoughts are less avoidable. Though Cromwell has sent many a man (and woman) to their deaths, that paragraph is the scariest he’s ever seemed.
But he’s also pensive and emotive, and full of a strange wisdom. This paragraph cut my heart when I read it. One of the characters claims he will ‘die of grief’. Cromwell shakes his head and says the man will live. ‘He once thought it himself, that he might die of grief: for his wife, his daughters, his sisters, his father and master the cardinal. But the pulse, obdurate, keeps its rhythm. You think you cannot keep breathing, but your ribcage has other ideas, rising and falling, emitting sighs. You must thrive in spite of yourself and so that you may do it, God takes out your heart of flesh, and gives you a heart of stone’
My dog died a few weeks ago, just as I was reading this book. I’m a wreck. When I read that paragraph, I recognized the same feelings, the same sighs and same anger and slow bitter resignation that I feel now. That I know I’ll feel again, the next time I lose something I love.
I connected with this book pretty significantly, and my reading experience was a good one. I’m glad I slogged through Wolf Hall, and I’m even more glad I decided to read the sequel.