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The historical novel has remained a doubtful enterprise since Sir Walter Scott’s day. The reader of historical romances will be rewarded with neither the meagre certainties that can be scraped together by historians nor the splendours of unmitigated literature. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (2009) had heeded Nathaniel Hawthorne’s definition of historical romance. The history had provided the cold bare lines of the map, whilst the fiction had added the colours, even perhaps “the mimic charm produced by landscape-painting.” The title of Bring Up The Bodies, the sequel to Wolf Hall, quotes the court order which had summoned Anne Boleyn’s supposed sweethearts to trial. But Mantel may be simultaneously congratulating herself for raising all of these bodies up from the dead.

We may accept everything about Mantel’s world until it seems perfectly natural that a wayward courtier would be beheaded; that the womb of a celibate woman would “wander” around her body; and that Thomas Cromwell should quake in the dead of night because his ambition has violated the natural order. Pulling ourselves out of this novel, we are back home in modernity and it is merely different. Although Mantel borrows these characters from history, we may struggle to remember that they once had their own lives and destinies. She may have not created Cromwell, but he seems to only really flourish in her hands. Perhaps she could even save Cromwell. Maybe she will liberate him from history, so that her trilogy will end with his triumph and Henry VIII and Norfolk’s heads on spikes.

Any truth to Bishop Gardiner’s book has been scotched by the state. Henry and Cromwell both threaten to author their own testimonies. In Cromwell’s estimation, Machiavelli’s The Prince could be improved upon. At one point, Henry is spotted carrying a little book around with him and reading it to himself like a child. But you don’t have these books, Mantel seems to warn us, and even if you did, they would still not be Bring Up The Bodies. Henry and Cromwell have together engineered Boleyn’s excruciatingly inadequate trial. They can be hardly trusted to do the history justice.

Perhaps Mantel has joined forces with Hans Holbein the Younger, one of those characters who scuttle about in the corners of these novels like a mouse or a conspirator. Like Holbein, Mantel will execute superbly sharp portraits of Henry’s dusty old court, which will – however uncanny their likenesses – impress us with their power rather than their truth. Cromwell finds that Holbein makes him look “like a murderer,” and Mantel’s own portrait agrees wholeheartedly. Holbein’s incredible, crystalline portrait of Henry makes one tremble at the might of the King as no biography ever could. The jewels of Mantel’s prose are those little sketches, sometimes one liners, delivered sparingly but perfectly, often with the waspish malice of delicious gossip. We find ourselves comfortable and intimate with these great historical personages, gloating over their shortcomings.

And so when Cromwell discovers Henry with some plans for new spending, the King “looks like a child caught with its fingers in the sugar box.” Cromwell sits at dinner looking as “carefully blank as a freshly painted wall.” Anne Boleyn turns up dressed in colours that remind Cromwell of “stretched innards.” Jane Seymour’s brothers think that a night with her would be like taking a stone to bed, and they dismiss Jane as being “as much use as a blancmange.” The baby Queen Elizabeth’s eyes gleam “as a cat’s do when she sees the whisk of some small creature’s tale.” The Duke of Norfolk, no less, resembles “a piece of rope chewed by a dog,” whilst Thomas Boleyn “smirking and stroking his beard… thinks he looks enigmatic, but instead he looks as if he’s pleasuring himself.”

Poor George Boleyn gets off worse than he did at his trial: “He’d go to it with a terrier bitch if she wagged her tail at him and said bow-wow.” The speaker here is Boleyn’s own wife – a sour but ingenious gossip whom Mantel seems to invite into some dark covenant with her and Holbein. Cromwell concedes that he will “never get” the picture of Boleyn fucking a “little ratting dog” out of his mind. Almost five hundred years after his death, this could be history’s final word on George Boleyn.

We may believe that the King is “secure on his throne.” “Looks can deceive,” Cromwell warns. We may assume that Bring Up The Bodies should dissent from the common rabble of films and soap operas about the Tudors to capture the depth rather than the appearance of their history. It would be certainly pointless to film Bring Up The Bodies, because its uniqueness lies entirely in its prose, rather than in its characters and events. Yet Mantel’s novel remains equally trapped on the surface of history.

The narrative of Bring Up The Bodies is stunningly intricate. The prose chatters like wine pouring into a glass, with the inescapable freshness and immediacy of the present tense. Henry is the king of this world and it is said that “you are always struck afresh by him, as if it were for the first time.” Mantel’s writing breathes new life into everything within Henry’s kingdom, and not merely to bring back its bodies. When Bishop Gardiner enters a room, “chairs scuttle backwards” and joint-stools “flatten themselves like pissing bitches.” Anne Boleyn is clothed in intestines, her ladies “flap languidly” around her like crows. News from the kingdom will eventually reach China, where “even the existence of England is… a dark myth, a place where men have their mouths in their bellies and women can fly, or cats rule the commonwealth and men crouch at mouse holes to catch their dinner.” No wonder that Cromwell spurns Latin for English – “A good language for all sorts of matters.”

Mantel’s narrative wanders through Cromwell’s consciousness, from thought to thought, whilst he is on the road to Austin Friars. She seems to authentically capture the floating of a restless mind in some subtle masterful way. Cromwell’s consciousness is Mantel’s fellow traveller, through sundry murky pasts and into a possible future where the rich provide for the poor and it is “the state’s job to create work.” Cromwell scoffs at the thought of Sir Nicholas Carew “at some solemn business like admiring himself in the looking glass,” but we find a much greater depth and breadth of pride in Cromwell himself, who is never more at ease than when he is reflecting upon his own image. He admires himself in his “iron belly,” he picks at his adventures in Putney and overseas as one would an absorbing old scar.

A little quirk echoes throughout this novel, in which the third person pronoun is repeatedly affirmed to refer to Cromwell. We have to be reminded of our allegiance, that the “he” of the novel is not the King but he; he, Cromwell. When Henry slinks off alone to pray, Cromwell “wants to know what he’s praying for.” It would be easier if Henry prayed directly to Cromwell, with God being the one who merely eavesdropped in. Perhaps Henry cannot form attachments to other women because Cromwell is effectively his wife – the more practical companion who knows his secrets and petty failings, remains wary of his temper, and manages his daily affairs. Whilst many reviewers have been moved to liken Cromwell to Stalin’s Beria, he is more of a botched Bismarck, entirely splendid but sadly eclipsed by a King whom it would be really a mercy for him to replace.

If we are being generous, we may commend Cromwell for his generosity. Cromwell or Mantel displays a fondness for Merry England, its dank lanes and irrepressible cockneys. But if we are mesmerised by Cromwell, it is because his suave self-assurance is always weighed against the immensely terrible precariousness of his position. When the King seems to humiliate Cromwell, it is actually a stalemate. The King’s majesty is unveiled like a full moon, but Cromwell will not grovel or explain himself. We are conscious that Cromwell must fall, but we are surely desperate for him to only keep his dignity.

There is more at stake in Cromwell than merely his character. Cromwell’s danger is deepened, or at least rendered more disconcerting, by the household of “tender things” whom have bought into his future. He seems to personify ambition, enterprise, efficiency, and everything that is clean and modern. He despises England’s morally shambolic monks not because they are Catholic, but because they have failed. He is not intolerant of their treason but of their weakness. They are supposed to “rise above nature.” Austin Friars does more good than any decrepit friary.

Ambassador Chapuys does not share Cromwell’s ideals nor live in his world. He sees “a restless population… discontent, I see misery; I see famine before the spring.” With surprise, we may be forced to acknowledge that Cromwell’s perfect world may look rather different in life to its beauty on paper. Cromwell believes that the day has arrived when, “banker sits down with banker, and kings are their waiting boys,” but this insistence upon modernity is artificial and somewhat implausible. Henry does not concern herself with bankers to any greater extent than his forefathers did.

Cromwell will indulge his ideals, but, unlike those of the inflexible Thomas More, they ultimately bend to the demands of power. He is governed by the rule that “where the word of a king is, there is power.” Cromwell has here accepted a fool’s game, albeit one which he plays consummately. It is a game of language, in which intrigue is robed in polite deceptions and deliciously playful dialogue. Henry will peel himself of servants, shedding old skins like a snake. Wolsey, More, Katherine, Anne, Cromwell, Norfolk – Henry is prepared to abandon all of them to the wolves. This is not some weird destructive obsession, but simply how his government works. When Cromwell wonders, “What is there, without Henry? Without the radiance of his smile?” this is not a joke. But the King’s majesty is obscured within the clouds of his character.

Henry may be a hearty bumptious figure, who remains desperately needy in the corners of his life, but he can only stand alone as a king. Those who earn his confidence will represent different possibilities and futures and not all roads will be followed. Cromwell freely admits that Henry will turn on him “one day.” Honesty can only be achieved amongst equals, and if the King and Cromwell for once spoke honestly, man-to-man, then the whole system would tumble down around them, not least because the King would have to bow to Cromwell’s otherwise undeniable superiority.

Mantel laughs in Cromwell’s face when the King is knocked unconscious in the lists and the court assumes that he is dead. Rampant panic ensues – rather like the fatal interruption to a smooth performance on stage – and the most comic moment in this novel is suddenly the most serious. Cromwell and all of his refined accomplishments would be wiped off the map if Norfolk managed to seize the throne, leaving the smear of a crushed insect across history. The kingdom would gamble all over again on a new king, and it could lose everything.

Cromwell will move against Anne with a determination not to “make a liar” of the King, although a great many lies may be needed to make a liar out of Anne Boleyn. Cromwell sounds glum when he remarks of his diplomatic niceties that “he hears these phrases flow out of him.” When Cromwell remembers his wife laughing that she “can’t slow down” whilst spinning silk, this perfectly captures Cromwell’s own spinning. He can only react to cycles which will never cease; he is trapped within the rhythm of the state’s machinery.

Recalling “the public bath-houses they have in Rome,” Cromwell broods upon the prospect of “men you know, but you don’t know them without their clothes.” The “unnatural conjugations” of these naked figures reflect the carefully dressed subterfuge at Henry’s court. Anne’s circle will offer a forlorn imitation of Henry’s court, and when she spills her “secrets,” her sub-courtiers stand “frozen like statues” or actors who have forgot their lines, resembling those who were dumbfounded before Henry’s unresponsive body. When Anne “opens her lips… out slides the devil’s tail.” But Cromwell will not reconcile her empty words with dark realities. He instead transforms words which may have scant truth to them into evidence of treason.

We may carve into this novel, salivating at all of the old world drama of Boleyn’s tragedy, but Mantel portrays her speedy downfall as most definitely an anticlimax. When Norfolk threatens to carry Anne to the tower with her “arse in the air,” there is general condemnation. She is subsequently treated as the subject of a complicated legal conundrum. Cromwell professes to “pity” the musician Mark Smeaton and he likens torturing him to “stamping on dormice,” but these are only words. The reality is that Mark must comply. Cromwell’s machinery moves inexorably and without obstruction, an efficient and impersonal “process”, reducing everybody, even his victims, to helpless spectators. The case against Anne may be fatuously unsound, but it is unthinkable that she can be innocent. Nobody imagines that she will live. Her lovers all happen to have previously reviled Cromwell’s old mentor Wolsey, but Cromwell pockets his bland revenge like a lawyer’s fee.

Some quotes ring like a bell. Wriothesley will remind Cromwell that, “All our labours, our sophistry, all our learning… all and each can be defeated by a woman’s body.” Henry will turn from Anne, who talks too much – whose final days entail a pitiful outpouring of “fooling sayings” – to the meek, gawky Jane Seymour, who can be relied upon to emit stiffly-rehearsed pleasantries and prayers. Cromwell explains that the King “thinks she’s stupid. He finds it restful,” but this appears to be a studied stupidity.

Portraits are deceptive. Anne was a triumphant queen, and then a reckless libertine, and then finally a treacherous witch. The King speaks of “unbounded” appetites and he decides that Anne was “always unnatural.” To Cromwell, Anne’s immanent death reveals her to be “a very ordinary person.” She has not actually spilled any secrets, and the truth is that Mantel may have not reached beyond the spectacle and subtefuge of this history only because there is no reality behind it. A Queen should be both ordinary and elevated, possessing the common touch and offering an “example” to her kingdom. Anne fades out of this world before her “flat little presence” can be reduced to a “puddle of gore.”

[Tychy has previously reviewed Wolf Hall. Ed.]