I just finished Bring up the Bodies -- and, lo and behold, look who won the Man Booker Prize again? Hilary Mantel won, first time for Wolf Hall, which I loved, and now for Bring up the Bodies, which both mesmerized and disturbed me. Did I love it? Yes, the writing is so beautiful and her psychological acuity so sharp and true, and yet the story is so awful -- damn Henry VIII, damn him, damn him! But I should be damning Cromwell as well, and I cannot, because Mantel has made him so deeply human, flawed but decent? How is that possible? The torturing of Mark Smeaton had me in tears and I dare to call Cromwell decent? Because he has the will to attend the beheading of Anne Boleyn, not to gloat but to witness? Because he knows what is his king is, and what is he not? Perhaps because Cromwell understands the possibility of tomorrow: "Wreckage can be fashioned into all sorts of things: ask any dweller on the sea shore."
The story of Henry VIII and his wives is one I've known my whole conscious life. I remember watching the Masterpiece Theater series when I was just seven or eight years old, and singing along with the I'm Henry the VIII, I Am song of Herman's Hermits. I await Mantel's further volumes -- after all, we are only brought to the cusp of wife number three, Jane Seymour, in Bring Up the Bodies -- how many more wonderful books are in store for us all?
Alas, poor Cromwell will not be there for all the wives and thus at most, have we one or two or three more books to hope for? Keep writing, Hilary, keep writing! I will allow Mantel a day or two off to quaff champagne and get her photo taken but then it is back to work. After all, as she writes, referring to Cromwell and his dead wife and daughters: "Do not forget us. As the year turns, we are here: a whisper, a touch, a feather's breath from you." Don't let us forget, Hilary, about the figures from the past: make them all real again for us, living, breathing, tangible and comprehensible.Mantel must be read and I warn you, it is not always easy reading, but it is captivating and hypnotizing, as in this passage:
"Jane is facing front, like a sentry. The clouds have blown away overnight. We may have one more fine day. The early sun touches the fields, rosy. Night vapours disperse. The forms of trees swim into particularity. The house is waking up. Unstalled horses tread and whinny. A back door slams. Footsteps creak above them. Jane seems hardly to breathe. No rise and fall discernible, of that flat bosom. He feels he should walk backwards, withdraw, fade back into the night, and leave her here in the moment she occupies: looking out into England."
Mantel herself is looking out into England now, the crowned queen of her present time, raking in the deserved prizes and accolades, and the literary queen of the past times with her books of a needy King, squabbling factions, and suffering people; of court painters and backstabbing ladies in waiting and covetous but gelded men behind the scenes...gelded by the king, class, or religion, but plotting to retake their own or, at the very least, bring down Cromwell, who after all, was merely the son of a blacksmith. I know how long Cromwell will last -- I know my history -- but in Hilary's hands, I know so much more.