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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 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.

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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.

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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.”

This is lofty, and Mantel frequently aspires elsewhere too to the high style. Queen Katherine’s death is elegiacally recounted, and the account of how news of it reaches her arch-rival Anne Boleyn sounds almost like a pastiche of the description of fog at the opening of Dickens’s Bleak House:

8 January: the news arrives at court. It filters out from the king’s rooms then runs riot up staircases to the rooms where the queen’s maids are dressing, and through the cubby holes where kitchen boys huddle to doze, and along lanes and passages through the breweries and the cold rooms for keeping fish, and up again through the gardens to the galleries and bounces up to the carpeted chambers where Anne Boleyn sinks to her knees and says, “At last God, not before time!”

Mantel is capable too of laconic understatement: Jane Seymour “is a plain young woman with a silvery pallor, a habit of silence, and a trick of looking at men as if they represent an unpleasant surprise.” And at times she can be positively earthy: Norris is “chief bottom-wiper to the king.” From time to time there are curious half-echoes of Shakespeare. Gardiner speaks of Cromwell’s “dog Latin and your little bit of Greek,” recalling Ben Jonson’s taunt at Shakespeare’s “small Latin and less Greek”; Henry thinks that Anne has “practised on me with charms and enchantments” rather as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream Egeus accuses Lysander of having “bewitched the bosom” of Hermia. A steward’s interrogation of the young Cromwell fighting on the Continent recalls Lear’s of Kent: “‘So what can you do?’ ‘I can fight’ ‘Evidently, not well enough’ ‘I can cook’”; and in the author’s closing note she says, “I hope to continue my efforts to dig him [Cromwell] out,” rather as at the end of 2 Henry IV the epilogue promises that the “humble author will continue the story with Sir John in it.”

The novel’s narrative mode is oblique, as befits the ambiguities and ambivalences of the story it tells. It opens soon after the execution of Sir Thomas More, which forms a grim climax to Wolf Hall. Mantel recapitulates enough of what has gone before to enable a new reader to pick up the story. Cromwell, “about fifty years old,” is taking a short and unaccustomed holiday at the home of the Seymour family. His wife Elizabeth’s appallingly sudden death from the plague had been chillingly recounted early on in Wolf Hall, and his daughters Grace and Anne had died suddenly and within a few hours of each other. Now, in a poetical opening episode, Cromwell, hunting with the king, envisages the hawks that are pursuing their prey as his dead daughters: “His children are falling from the sky.” The brutality of the hunt serves as an image of the cruelty attendant upon King Henry’s reign. Cromwell’s wife’s memory haunts him, humanizing this often austere politician:

It is in private spaces that he thinks of his wife Elizabeth. 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. He had half turned, saying to her, “Go back to bed”; but no one was there. By the time he came home that night her jaw was bound and there were candles at the head and feet.

As he grows in power and in wealth he recalls too his humble childhood as the son of an abusive and drunken father.

Cromwell is entangled in complex webs of intrigue and religious strife, of personal dramas that have international repercussions. His master King Henry is a shifty character, lacking self-knowledge, constantly and casuistically looking for loopholes in the law, for ways in which he can justify to himself if to no one else the courses of action that he wishes to pursue in order to fulfil his sexual and dynastic desires. Repudiating the dying Katherine, he rebukes the French ambassador for referring to her as the queen: “‘The Dowager Princess of Wales,’ Henry says sternly. ‘Yes, I hear the old woman is off her food again.’” And he is mean. After she has died, Risley reports: “I said to him, Majesty, you will bring the body to St Paul’s? He said, she can be laid to rest in Peterborough. Peterborough is an ancient and honourable place and it will cost less.” Risley persisted:

I said to him, these things are done by precedent. Your Majesty’s sister Mary, the Duke of Suffolk’s wife, was taken to Paul’s to lie in state. And do you not call Katherine your sister? And he said, ah but, my sister Mary was a royal lady, once married to the King of France…. And Katherine is not royal, he claims, though both her parents were sovereigns. The king said, she will have all she is entitled to as Dowager Princess of Wales. He said, where is the cloth of estate that was put over the hearse when Arthur died? It must be somewhere in the Wardrobe. It can be re-used.

Though Cromwell is a master politician, keeping his head down when others are in danger of losing theirs, he is not without personal motives in what he does. Devoted to the memory of his late mentor Cardinal Wolsey, he is appalled to find him mocked in a Christmas entertainment given at court as Katherine is dying:

Henry is in holiday humour. He likes feasts, pastimes, an hour in the lists, a masque in prospect; he likes even more the idea that his former wife is lying in the fens [an unhealthily marshy area in the east of England] gasping her last.

As part of the masque, the courtiers Henry Norris costumed as a Moor, Francis Weston as a dragon, and William Brereton as “an antique huntsman” enact an entertainment that Cromwell sees as “a play in which the late cardinal was set upon by demons and carried down to Hell.”

Their fatuous malice inflames Cromwell’s desire for revenge, a desire that impels the long final stretch of the novel’s action, giving it splendid narrative drive. Growing rumors about Anne Boleyn’s conduct with her courtiers have culminated in a conversation between Cromwell and Anne’s sister-in-law Jane, Lady Rochford, who hints that Anne, desperate to get a child, has been taking lovers who “come and go by night.” She claims that before Anne and Henry were married “she used to practise with Henry in the French fashion…. She induced Henry to put his seed otherwise than he should have.” And she even suggests that Anne has committed incest with her brother, Jane’s husband. If Anne had a child by him, what would it matter to the King? “They cannot call it a bastard if it looks like a Boleyn.”

One of those accused is the dim-witted Mark Smeaton, described in the character list as “a suspiciously well-dressed musician.” But is he capable of seduction? Questions have been raised about his sexuality. With what the king calls “a smooth girlish countenance” he is at home among the women of the Seymour household; they “barely count him a man.” When Cromwell finds him in attendance on the queen, he thinks, “I wouldn’t trust you around my little boys.”

The turning point of the novel comes with a brilliant scene in which Mark is maneuvered into claiming that Anne is in love with him. Cromwell leads him up the garden path to his doom. “I thought, he says to himself, that this would be difficult. But it is like picking flowers.” He flatters the boy: “You are a very handsome young man.” “Though we thought you were a sodomite,” chimes in Cromwell’s nephew. Foolishly, Smeaton maintains his claims, boasting of his supposed sexual prowess. Tricked into naming other men who may have enjoyed the queen’s favors, he suddenly understands the trap into which he has fallen. “Five rash minutes of boasting” that, he suddenly realizes, will lead him and others to their deaths.

But is any of them actually guilty? History does not tell us, and Mantel exploits this gap in the record to add to the subtlety of her narrative. After being condemned to die the accused men go “to write their last letters and make spiritual preparations. All have expressed contrition, though none but Mark has said for what.” But Mark Smeaton’s testimony is not to be trusted. And Anne, preparing for execution—vividly described—takes the Eucharist “declaring on the body of God her innocence.”

Neither the historian nor the novelist can force the past to yield up its secrets.

  1. *

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