In the Court of a Monster

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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 …

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