Sunday 9 February 2020

Book review: Bring up the Bodies

Mantel has a third in the trilogy coming, and so Waterstones has the first two out on display, and so I re-read Bring up the Bodies (I re-read Wolf Hall late in 2018). For reasons that I can't recall I didn't quite like it the first time round. I still don't like the title; it carries none of the force or subtlety of WH; but never mind that. The Graun has a decent review; and as usual Goodreads has some words.

Life must have been difficult in those days for those who needed to interact with the king or his works; and since he was dictating the religion of the country, that could be almost anyone. HM points this out as Cromwell tries to persuade Harry Percy to testify: previously, he had obliged him to say that he had had nothing to do with Anne and had certainly not contracted any secret understanding with her; now he seeks to force him to reverse, so that Henry could say she was pre-married. Cromwell is presented as excused by only seeking to serve the king; and as having learnt from Wolsey's downfall; but nonetheless the problem in the realm where everyone has to remember whether Mary is today a Princess or a Lady and getting it wrong can be treason is terrible. As before in WH, Henry remains mysterious, but thinking about it now the aura of kingly omni-kingness cannot be right. By which I mean, his excuses for doing things are always turned on his honour; or on what god might mean. They come out so neatly that they could not have come from one man alone, but would have had to come from a coterie (update: or, be traditional?).

A thing I find surprising: Cromwell has no exit plans. No-one had. It doesn't occur to anyone to flee abroad (well, apart from Tyndale, and it doesn't look like he fled abroad, though he fled while abroad, but was got by the Imperials anyway) perhaps because of revenge-on-families if one tried; perhaps because people just didn't think like that. I mean of course that in real life he didn't flee, and the book doesn't describe any plans; it does briefly I think show him considering it. Perhaps it is just that London and the Court were the centre of life, and none of these people could bear to leave it. Sitting quietly contemplative in the wilderness would have taken them out of the stream of history and been equivalent to death.

Irritatingly, HM feels obliged to say "he, Cromwell" a few times; tut tut.

On the delicate matter of whether Anne was actually sleeping around, HM manages to preserve ambiguity: she never says definitively, and neither do her characters. This feels correct.

Why is it good? It is well written, and delightful to read for all that. The subject matter is grand (shades of Thucydides). I think she does a good job of presenting at least one version of how the kingdom was run; not just the day to day business but the direction: how the whims of one man came to distort so much. In that sense, it is anti-monarchical, for all its shades of mysticism about Henry contemplated by Cromwell. And Cromwell's wistful recollection of his dead children, his dead wife, of Christmas past, of incidents from his time in Italy, all fit well.

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