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Bring Up the Bodies: A Review and Interview With Booker Prize-winning Author Hilary Mantel

Posted: 05/09/2012 5:14 pm

Tudor England during the reign of Henry VIII is a place readers have visited many times--but in the hands of Hilary Mantel, it becomes territory both new and unsettling. In Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel to the Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall, Mantel weaves a richly textured world that is at once deeply foreign and entirely relevant, coalescing around the single thing that over centuries remains unchanged: the driving passions of people, even those who are kings. Through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, a man of formidable intellect, the psychological and political complexities of the court are unraveled for inspection. And as ever, Mantel's virtuoso use of language serves to paint images so compelling as to take root in the imagination.

Here the downfall of Anne Boleyn is remade into a chilling suspense story despite its age-old ending. As the characters dance toward their inevitable fates at the chopping block, the reader feels suspense because they do; Thomas Cromwell orchestrates events that lead to Anne's death because otherwise, chances are good that she will do the same to him.

Erotic desire and violent death are a constant, powerful undercurrent despite their subtle deployment. It is almost astonishing the way these books, which do not contain a single sex scene, are so erotically charged throughout. In Wolf Hall, the king was so driven by his desire for Anne to utterly upend the churches of England; a desire so intense that it seems to seep from the pages, evoking a tension that is at once exquisite and palpable. Now in Bring Up the Bodies, the whispers at court subtly insinuate sexual possibilities as everyone is preoccupied with Anne's body: watching for signs of pregnancy, listening for signs of adultery.

The novels are equally driven by the spectre of violent death. Beneath the pageantry and courtesies of Henry's court, Cromwell is constantly aware of the fate of his beloved former master Cardinal Wolsey, as well as that of others who were obstacles to the king. However jovial and kind Henry may seem at times, he is responsible for a succession of heads mounted on pikes -- heads of men whose crime was to stand in the way of his marriage to Anne Boleyn. When Henry's desire finds a new focus in Jane Seymour and he begins to wish for an end to Anne, Cromwell sees an opportunity to save himself from falling victim to Anne's schemes. As Cromwell's ruthless plotting escalates, and the body count of the men he aims to destroy increases, a reader's horror at his actions must be intermixed with an awareness that the threat of execution is very real; for Cromwell, it is kill or be killed. Lest we forget, there are those gray severed heads, still rotting. There is the skull of the once-revered Thomas More, now picked clean.

In such a world -- where sexuality is pervasive but seldom seen, and death threatens even the most powerful -- truth becomes inextricably entangled with imagination. To this day, most historians agree that the case against Anne and her lovers was thin at best. Yet through the use of his imagination, mingled with the conjecture of others, Cromwell fashions a reality in which Anne's adultery is suddenly plausible.

Cromwell imagines Anne's hypothetical motivations so vividly, it is as if his plottings are a parallel to the same mechanism employed by a writer of historical fiction. No one can know for certain the thoughts and feelings of historical figures -- but from extant evidence and an understanding of human nature, a writer can extrapolate, inventing an imagined reality that is convincing in every detail. We see this firsthand, as Cromwell sets out to write the story of Anne Boleyn -- and use it to bring about her death.


An Interview with Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel is the bestselling author of 10 previous novels, including Wolf Hall, which won the 2009 Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. Bring Up the Bodies is the second in her Wolf Hall trilogy. Among her other novels are A Change of Climate, A Place of Greater Safety, Beyond Black and Eight Months on Ghazzah Street. An Experiment in Love was the winner of the 2006 Hawthornden Prize. Mantel's reviews and essays appear in the New York Times, the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books. She lives in England with her husband.

This is your first trilogy. What is it about the figure of Cromwell that drew you to devote three novels to his life?

It was intended to be just one! I thought Wolf Hall would encompass his whole story. On paper, as a proposal, it had a good narrative shape and looked satisfying. But that's the torment and joy of writing fiction. The decisions you've taken upfront go out of the window when you actually begin work and the complexity and the depth of the material begins to reveal itself. You must jettison your tidy plans and respond to its demands.

I think both the man and his time are fascinating, and also the ways in which he was typical of his time and the ways in which he was ahead of it. I've always been intrigued by ambition (which, in the Tudor mind, was a vice.) Perhaps it's because it's an important part of my own make-up. I'm not particularly competitive (especially not in respect of other authors) but ever since I can remember I've wanted to push out the limits of what I could be and do. I gravitate to characters who have the same impulses. When I wrote about the French Revolution, I didn't choose to write about aristocrats, I chose characters who began their lives in provincial obscurity. It's the journey from nowhere to somewhere that fascinates me. Though, of course, their stories are bigger than my story, which is, after all, only the unexceptional tale of someone doing a bit better than you might have predicted when she was a child. The people I write about are going to make a mark on history, transform the outer world while they're transforming their inner world. With the revolutionaries, you could say they were riding the tide of their times. Thomas Cromwell, by contrast, was born into a world that was firmly hierarchical. Yet he began as the son of a brewer, and ended as Earl of Essex. You have to ask, "How did he do it?"

Your body of work is extraordinarily diverse, ranging from historical fiction to contemporary novels. Has it been challenging to stay focused on a project that is so vast, for so long?

On the contrary. I've found I'm built for the long haul.

Much of the book serves to humanize Cromwell, giving him understandable motivations for his actions -- self-preservation, the stability of England, vengeance for the downfall of Wolsey. Yet the graphic scenes of execution and their aftermath undermine Cromwell's humanity, provoking a complex response. Is he a hero or a villain?

I don't think he has to be either. I just want my reader to ask, "If I were Cromwell, in these circumstances -- and if I had his wit and determination -- what would I do?" Anne Boleyn was, at the least, a threat to his policies, a cog on his diplomatic aims; he told the Spanish ambassador that she was also a danger to his life. Faced with the juggernaut of Anne's implacable will, not many of us would consent to curl up and be squashed. And of course, we mustn't forget the main driver of these events: the king himself. When Henry wanted a new wife, his minister's job was to get him one. Wolsey had failed, and the example of Wolsey was always before Thomas Cromwell.

I love the way art of the period such as the tapestries, the Hans Holbein painting of Cromwell, and Italian paintings, are woven into the story. Was a study of period art integral to your research?

I wanted to establish a hinterland for my characters, a cultural awareness for them as well as a political awareness. Holbein is such an interesting figure because he gives a face to Henry's court, and he doesn't just depict these people, he interprets them for us; he makes us see them though his eyes, for better or worse. Cromwell had been in Italy and he had no doubt looked at more paintings himself than his English contemporaries had; in Florence, Venice, Rome, he will have been surrounded by Renaissance opulence and novelty. And he'd been in the cloth trade; he looks at texture and drape and weave and prices the wearer, he looks at a color and knows how the cloth is dyed and what the fixative is. I think this is an essential task with every character in fiction, to perceive the world through their senses. I didn't deliberately say to myself, "This month I will learn the art." It's more that I became involved in looking. And I remember I used to say to would-be writers, "You don't know your character till you can feel his clothes on your back." I think I was unconsciously preparing for Cromwell.

The sharp contrast between the ambitious, sexual Anne Boleyn and the meek, virginal Jane Seymour seems like a distillation of the medieval view of women, and makes Anne's fate seem all the more inevitable.

That's true; they seem to come from a manual of moral tales. Anne seems to embody nightmare: she's the seductress, the poisoner, the woman who makes her man impotent with one poisoned glance. But the canny reader may think back to Wolf Hall. When Anne found a drawing in her bed of a woman without a head, who was it who was in charge of turning back the her covers that evening? I've always suspected that Jane Seymour must have been smarter and nastier than we imagine.

Did you feel trepidation approaching the subject of the Tudors, which has been so widely depicted in art and entertainment?

It gave me pause, but once you start work, you forget about other people's versions. You go back to first principles. As a girl I never had enough to read, so I would borrow my mother's library books and read romances about medieval queens and Tudor queens and all sorts of men and women who wore costumes rather than clothes and said "Prithee," and "By my faith!" but had 20th-century thoughts. Much historical fiction that centers on real people has always been deficient in information, lacking in craft and empty in affect. There are, of course, a few glorious exceptions, but on the whole, those shelves and shelves of fiction about the Tudors don't contain much that is inspiring. I thought I could do better.

Hindsight and art are what primarily give a form to history. How do Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies diverge from history in the service of art?

Hindsight is the historian's necessary vice. I drive my people forward, telling their story in the present tense as it unfolds, and always mindful that if we know the ending, they don't. Like a historian, I interpret, select, discard, shape, simplify. Unlike a historian, I make up people's thoughts. But I try to make up on the basis of the best evidence I can get. To me, there is no point in willfully distorting the record. The truth (if it can be got) is stranger and more interesting than anything you could make up.

The court of Henry VIII seems so rife with treachery and gossip. How much of that depiction was a creative choice?

The importance of "faction" at Henry's court is a big topic with Tudor historians, but what's evident is the fluid nature of the groups: alliances form and reform, and in this case the plotters, whose natural interests are not identical, come together for the common purpose of bringing down the Boleyns. Someone has to perform the conjuring trick that makes them coalesce, and it looks as if that was Thomas Cromwell, moving smoothly between one group and the next. When you try to get a fix on the events of April and May 1536, what you quickly discover is the slippery nature of the facts. Cromwell had very little evidence against Anne, and yet his contemporaries were not incredulous, as we are, about the charges against her. They may or may not have believed she was a plural adulterer, but they didn't find the whole notion beyond belief. It is as if Cromwell knew how to thicken the fog, mobilize the power of rumor, so that everyone was afraid and everyone spilled their secrets in an effort to save themselves.

Will you be sorry to say goodbye to Cromwell at the end of the trilogy?

If I do my job properly, the reader will be as bereft as I am.


This review and interview originally appeared in a special Maximum Shelf edition of Shelf Awareness.

 

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