It was with a sigh of satisfaction that I finished the last pages of “Bring Up the Bodies”, the sequel to “Wolf Hall”, Hilary Mantel’s version of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. How anyone could breathe new life into this hoary old saga is a miracle, but Mantel (May I call you Hilary?) does it so powerfully and brilliantly that I want to kiss the hem of her gown.
To me, the difference between a good writer and a great writer is that a great writer makes you want to slowly reread whole sections again and again, so you can soak up the experience and make it last longer. She not only portrays the political and sexual intrigues of Henry’s court, the monstrous egos, subtle manipulations, and dangerous traps, but she does it in a way that makes it all seem as relevant as today’s headlines.
“But Parliament cannot see how it is the state’s job to create work. Are not these matters in God’s hands, and is not poverty and dereliction part of His eternal order?...It is an outrage to the rich and enterprising to suggest that they should pay an income tax, only to put bread in the mouths of the work shy.”
Mantel’s insights in to the human condition are timeless, and that’s what she brings to life in this book. The historical details are there; in fact every page is steeped in them. But the inner monologue, the feelings and the thoughts are as familiar as the inside of your own brain. What do five hundred years signify when it comes to the real core of human motivation?
And how does she take Thomas Cromwell, one of the most feared and demonic figures of history, and turn him into the most sympathetic and decent one in the book, whose principles are no worse than they should be, given the bloodthirsty times he is living in? At the same time she gives us a sense of the terror he strikes in the hearts of those who are unlucky enough to come up before him in his role as agent and prosecutor on behalf of the King. Mantel keeps the two sides of him in balance. He is a grief-stricken father mourning his wife and two little daughters, who died from the sweating sickness. He keeps a lockbox with their necklaces and Latin exercise books, and he remembers a Christmas costume made of peacock feathers that his daughter wore for a parish play. He misses his wife: “She is a blur now in his mind, a whisk of skirts around a corner. That last morning of her life, as he left the house he thought he saw her following him, caught a flash of her white cap….By the time he came home that night her jaw was bound and there candles at her head and feet.”
The other side of him is the ruthless pragmatist who knows what must be done: “Would Norris understand if he spelled it out? He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged.” As he patiently, and wearily explains to his nephew, “Once you have exhausted the process of negotiation and compromise, once you have fixed on the destruction of an enemy, that destruction must be swift and it must be perfect. Before you even glance in his direction, you should have his name on a warrant, the ports blocked, his wife and friends bought, his heir under your protection, his money in your strong room and his dog running to your whistle. Before he wakes in the morning, you should have the axe in your hand.”
In “Wolf Hall” there is a scene where Thomas first sees the finished portrait of himself done by Hans Holbein, and he says, startled, “Christ, I look like a murderer”, and his son Gregory says to him, "Didn't you know?"
He’s a complex character and Mantel makes him a fascinating one.