Book Review: Bring Up the Bodies
The royal court is in progress at Wolf Hall, Jane Seymour’s family home, but Cromwell knows a crisis is approaching. Henry VIII, already wondering if there is a flaw with his marriage to Anne Boleyn that means God will not bless it with a son, sets his eye on Jane Seymour. Anne’s status as Queen of England is causing problems; no other European country recognises her marriage and many in England regard Henry’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon, as the rightful queen and Anne as a grasping religious reformer, maybe even a witch.
Cromwell realises that, unless she produces a son, he must get rid of Anne and her supporters to ensure both the stability of the country and his own position.
In Bring Up the Bodies, Cromwell is sometimes elevated to the title “He, Cromwell” rather than the confusing “he” used in Wolf Hall, which appears to be an awkward solution to address one of the few criticisms of that novel. But this odd close third person narration is a brilliance of the books. It draws us into Cromwell’s mind to experience the drama as it unfolds, sharing Cromwell’s uncertainty of outcome, bringing an immediacy and freshness to a history we feel we know so well. Maybe it is missing the point to complain too much.
Positioned behind Cromwell’s eyes, we have the ultimate insider view of the events that lead from Henry VIII’s first meeting with Jane Seymour in September 1535, to the death of Anne Boleyn nine months later. As Henry’s Chief Minister, Cromwell is the architect of his court, willing to persuade but also to terrorise to keep king and kingdom safe.
Enriching extensive historical research with her interpretation of character, Mantel humanises court politics, and in particular the use of women in them. As well as depicting the established political forces that shaped those tumultuous few months, such as the threat posed by Charles V of Spain, Katherine’s nephew, Mantel also shows the murky layer of personal politics that was crucial in the fall of Anne Boleyn and rise of Jane Seymour.
Mantel give us a profound sense of the minds of an array of courtiers, none more so than Cromwell’s, but also Anne’s and, refreshingly, Jane’s. The family loyalty and feuds, personal vendettas, ambitions and insecurities of many characters are a constant force, sustaining the gossip and rumours that alter the court like a cloud of toxic gas.
It is Cromwell’s alliance with the Seymour family to make Seymour the King’s mistress that will eventually place her on the throne when Anne fails to give the king a son. As was the case in Anne Boleyn and her family’s rise to power, unmarried aristocratic women in the world of Tudor politics were foremost powerful assets to their families, most often as potential mistresses of the lecherous king. But Anne’s own rise to the throne showed that the throne itself could be there for the taking.
The structure of Bring Up the Bodies is a narrative including three successive queens, two of whom are doomed by their inability to produce a male heir. The tragedy of this novel is that, although it depicts three very different women with very different approaches to queenship, it makes it terrifyingly clear that the only thing that truly matters is whether they can produce a son.
Mantel’s artistry is to slowly suck you into Cromwell’s view of morality. Objectively, Henry wants Anne gone and Cromwell is there to carry out Henry’s wishes. But the means of achieving this are wholly Cromwell’s. He decides who is accused of adultery with Anne to settle an old score dating back to Wolf Hall. This still fits with the historical interpretation that particular men were accused to make the queen’s crime appear more shocking and remove those influentially close to the king. But Cromwell’s rationalisation that this serves both justice and need gives a political decision a credible new interpretation and reflects Cromwell’s established deep loyalty and ruthless, efficient plotting. The scene in which Cromwell destroys each man after the other in interrogation is devastating and feels like a climax to both Bring Up the Bodies and Wolf Hall.
One of the unexpected pleasures of the book is Mantel’s re-interpretation of Jane Seymour, most often characterised as a passive ‘doormat’ placed into the King’s bed and onto the queen’s throne by her ambitious family. From the moment Jane meets the King she is a character present at the sidelines and, Mantel hints, awaiting her own chance. Jane is conveyed as the ambition behind her own rise, though in contrast to Anne she presents a passive exterior. As Cromwell observes, “If Jane could veil her face completely, she would do it, and hide her calculations from the world.”
The book is not just a list of women whose lives and deaths Thomas Cromwell had power over. His own psyche is shaped by the absence of the women in his family. The story opens with the King, Cromwell and Cromwell’s chief clerk hunting with hawks named for Cromwell’s beloved dead daughters. This scene is one of several powerfully poetic ones in the book, illustrating not only Cromwell’s state of mind, but also the state of the country and the freedom living women lacked. “Weightless [the dead women] glide on the upper currents of the air… When they look down they see nothing but their prey, and the borrowed plumes of the hunters: they see a flittering, flinching universe, a universe filled with their dinner.”