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In the Court of a Monster

Alfredo Dagli Orti/Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence/Art Archive at Art Resource
An eighteenth-century portrait of Anne Boleyn, by an unknown artist

The title of Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, we learn late in the narrative, is a legal phrase, the command to court officials instructing them to deliver to their trial men who, because they are accused of treason, are regarded as already dead: “The order goes to the Tower, ‘Bring up the bodies.’” But the phrase is suggestive too of the march to death, specifically to the scaffold, that is undertaken by many of the book’s characters. Bring Up the Bodies is a sequel to Mantel’s Booker Prize–winning Wolf Hall* and in both novels she ambitiously attempts to reconstruct in fictional but credible form a series of crucial events in English history, specifically here those leading up to the execution of Anne Boleyn. In the process her book provokes thought about the relationship between fact and fiction, the problems inherent in the attempt both to reconstruct the past and to transmute it into art.

History has no plot. It happens randomly, goes beyond human control. People plot, but things go amiss. The desire to capture the past is unquenchable but fruitless. A historian, whether of recent or long-past events, tries to tell it how it was, but the attempt is vain. History books have to have beginnings, middles, and ends. Whether consciously or not, their authors tell stories from particular perspectives; they choose who and what to write about; they select from the multifariousness of human experience, imposing order on randomness, seeing what they choose to see or what their subconscious minds put before them, setting their stories within a frame of their devising, revealing subjectivity even as they seek to convey an impression of objectivity.

Any account of the past requires artistry in the telling, but those storytellers who proclaim their artifice, melding the stuff of history with the forms and conventions of art, are more honest about the illusory nature of their endeavors than those who seek to convey an impression of impartiality. The reign of King Henry VIII has been especially attractive both to historians in the narrowly defined sense of those who, like Polonius, claim to use no art, and to those who draw upon it for fictions of many different kinds. It was exceptionally significant in diverting the course of history and so in shaping the future of the nation. It was packed with political and personal crises and with multiple threads of violent action. It fascinates because of its ideological warfare and religious conflicts, centering on Henry’s break with Rome and the establishment of the Anglican communion. It abounds in men and women, such as Sir Thomas More, Cardinal Wolsey, Sir Thomas Wyatt, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, Thomas Cromwell, Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, and Jane Seymour, who are exceptionally interesting because of their personalities, or of what happened to them, or both. All of these, along with a great many more of their contemporaries, figure in the four hundred and more pages of Bring Up the Bodies, which, like the considerably longer Wolf Hall, considerately provides both lists of characters and genealogical tables to assist readers in keeping abreast of the complex action. No doubt its projected continuation of the story into a third volume will do so too.

Even within the lifetime of King Henry’s daughter Queen Elizabeth I, the events and personalities of the reign, which had been recorded by historians, became fictionalized in drama. The time-limited traffic of the stage imposes severer limitations on content than the more hospitable form of the three-decker novel. The central character of Wolf Hall is Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s chief minister from 1532 to 1540. The Life and Death of the Lord Thomas Cromwell is the title of a play published in 1602 under the initials “W.S.”—not William Shakespeare but probably the prolific but undermemorialized Wentworth Smith. Acknowledging the need for concision imposed by dramatic form, its author causes its play’s Chorus to confess to a major omission from the historical record:

Pardon if we omit all Wolsey’s life,
Because our play depends on Cromwell’s death.

But Wolsey—the cardinal who served as Henry’s lord chancellor from 1515 to 1529, and fell from power when he failed to secure from Rome an annulment of the king’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon—gets his due in the play about Henry written a decade later and known in its time as All Is True, composed jointly by Shakespeare and John Fletcher. Much of the subject matter of their play parallels that of Mantel’s novels. There are overlaps too with the early manuscript play of Sir Thomas More, to which Shakespeare pretty certainly contributed its finest scene, though that play again takes different perspectives on the reign. Later ages too have found material for drama, film, and opera in many of the events that Mantel narrates; but few if any other tellers of Cromwell’s story have tried to encompass so dense a mass of material within the confines of art.

Mantel herself brings questions about the relationship between history and art to the fore in a couple of revealing pages where for a while she appears to withdraw from the immediacy of her narrative to meditate both directly and indirectly on the differences between fact and fiction, on the unreliability of both oral and written evidence, and on the problems inherent in the attempt to reconstruct past events and, still more problematically, to divine the emotions that lie behind the happenings.

“What,” she asks—or should we say her narrator asks?—

is the nature of the border between truth and lies? It is permeable and blurred because it is planted thick with rumour, confabulation, misunderstandings and twisted tales. Truth can break the gates down, truth can howl in the street; unless truth is pleasing, personable and easy to like, she is condemned to stay whimpering at the back door.

As King Lear’s Fool says, “Truth’s a dog must to kennel.” And Mantel follows this generalized suggestion that we believe only what we find it pleasing to believe with a more particularized passage that relates to the difficulty of reclaiming the past and to the variety of sources that we may explore in the effort to find the information we seek. Tidying up after Katherine of Aragon’s death, “he [Cromwell] had been moved to explore some legends of her early life.” In the attempt to do so he examines her accounts:

Account books form a narrative as engaging as any tale of sea monsters or cannibals. Katherine had always said that, between the death of Arthur and her marriage to the young Prince Henry, she had been miserably neglected, wretchedly poor: eaten yesterday’s fish, and so on. One had blamed the old king for it, but when you look at the books, you see he was generous enough. Katherine’s household were cheating her. Her plate and jewels were leaking on to the market; in that she must have been complicit? She was lavish, he sees, and generous; regal, in other words, with no idea of living within her means. You wonder what else you have always believed, believed without foundation.

Katherine’s account books form just one of the diverse channels of evidence relating to her way of life, all of which may lead to different conclusions.

And a passage follows in which Cromwell (more clearly identified now) fancifully imagines the variety of answers that might emerge from different people if they were asked the hypothetical question “What happened to [Anthony’s teeth]?” Anthony is a grotesquely toothless jester who had insinuated his way into Cromwell’s household by a trick and whose master had been killed in an explosion.

Imagined answers grow increasingly preposterous: the teeth were “knocked out by his brutal father,” says Anthony himself to Thomas Cromwell. But to Cromwell’s nephew Richard they were blown out of his head in a siege; to Thomas Wriothesley (known as Call-Me-Risley) they were “traded…for provisions with a man who could carve chessmen out of teeth”; to the Solicitor General Richard Riche they were lost in a political argument; to Cromwell’s servant Christophe they fell out under the influence of a spell; to his cook Thurston they came out because an “enemy painted a batch of stone to look like hazelnuts, and invited him to a handful”; to his son Gregory, with whom he is talking, “they were sucked out of his head by a great worm that crawled out of the ground and ate his wife.” Asked by his father “what should I do about the great worm?” Gregory responds by joining in the fantasy: “Send a commission against it, sir.” To which Thomas “gives his son a long look. ‘You do know it’s Arthur Cobbler’s tales?’”

Arthur Cobbler, I can only imagine, is Mantel’s ahistorical way of anticipating the cockney rhyming slang expres- sion “it’s all a load of old cobblers,” i.e., where “cobblers” calls to mind “cobblers’ awls” rhyming with “balls”—the sort of nonsense that accretes like barnacles to the hull of a vessel that sails in search of truth. On the last page of her book too she reminds us of the impossibility of accurately reconstructing the past as Cromwell looks forward to his extinction:

When the time comes I may vanish before the ink is dry. I will leave behind me a great mountain of paper, and those who come after me—let us say it is Rafe, let us say it is Wriothesley, let us say it is Riche—they will sift through what remains and remark, here is an old deed, an old draft, an old letter from Thomas Cromwell’s time: they will turn the page over, and write on me.

Cromwell is the unifying figure throughout the two novels so far offered to the public, partly no doubt because, though readers are likely to know that he is destined for the chop, he managed to keep his head on his shoulders for longer than most of the other leading figures of the time. The story, told in the present tense, is seen largely through his eyes. Deeply involved and at times manipulative, he is nevertheless almost a choric figure, a recipient of other people’s secrets. He is referred to sometimes as Cromwell, sometimes as “he Cromwell,” but all too often baldly and confusingly just as “he” even when there is a different antecedent to the pronoun. As in Wolf Hall I found myself constantly having to reread passages to discover who “he” was.

Mantel is a modern storyteller, making no attempt to imitate the language of the period. But she often writes poetically, evoking (or should we say creating?) the beauties and the sordidness, the tenderness and the cruelty of the Tudor world. Early in the book she sets Henry within a romantic landscape of an England in which “our forefathers the giants left their earthworks, their barrows and standing stones. We still have, every Englishman and woman, some drops of giant blood in our veins.”

  1. *

    John Macrae/Henry Holt, 2009; reviewed in these pages by Stephen Greenblatt, November 5, 2009. 

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