Friday, January 10, 2014

2014 Book List Review ~ Hilary Mantel's "Bring Up the Bodies"

[To keep with his 2014 Book List post, and just for fun, James spends his hours off writing small informal reviews of what he has read, in no particular order. See the (partial) list of books, here]

Bring Up The Bodies ~ Hilary Mantel
Picador -- 2012

The second book of Mantel's "Thomas Cromwell Trilogy," Bring Up the Bodies covers only nine months of English history -- from autumn of 1535 to May 1536 -- the fall of Queen Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII's second wife. This is in sharp contrast to Wolf Hall, the first book in this trilogy, which covers a greater period of time, and the constraint in time and subject did seem to me to make its sequel a lesser novel. 

The problem may be a matter of subject and primary sources. Wolf Hall details Archbishop Wolsey's fall, Henry's divorce with Catherine, Thomas More's execution, and of course that little thing called The Reformation -- subjects that, since they had more resounding impacts on Western culture, were more fully documented and Mantel had more complete primary texts to work with. (My wife laughs derisively: "it's because they [Wolsey, Henry, More] were men," she says.) With these tools Mantel could powerfully re-create the tensions of that historical period, tensions which spurred us forward. In Bring Up the Bodies the tension is still there, but not the scope. Anne's trial and execution are clouded in historical vagaries; as Mantel notes, "the evidence is complex and sometimes contradictory; the sources are often dubious, tainted and after-the-fact. There is no official transcript of her trial . . ."

So Wolf Hall is a better novel because there was better source material for Mantel to work off of? I believe so. Bring Up the Bodies does what so many other books of Tudor-era England do: fall into the befuddled allure of Anne Boleyn's last days. But this doesn't mean you shouldn't read it. We all fall into that allure. Mantel's skills do not diminish, they just lack space to expand. You especially want to be there when the sword (yes, apparently it was a sword) falls, to see a writer re-create an event hundreds of years past, with all the emotion of the moment. Mantel does it. She's great.

As a side note, for reading groups: there is a passage, lurking in the last fifty pages, that does well to explain Anne Boleyn, Thomas Cromwell, and the challenge Hilary Mantel faced when approaching this time in history.
 Late into the book, Cromwell speaks to his clerk Wriothesley (pronounced "Risley") of Thomas Wyatt, a poet and Cromwell's friend, and rumored to be another lover of Anne's. Cromwell means to keep him safe from the trials and executions, and speaks to Wriothesley about Wyatt's poetry and genius. Says Cromwell,

Another time you trap him and say, Wyatt, did you really do what you describe in this verse? He smiles and tells you, it is the story of some imaginary gentleman, no one we know; or he will say, this is not my story I write, it is yours, though you do not know it. He will say, this woman I describe here, the brunette, she is really a woman with fair hair, in disguise. He will declare, you must believe everything and nothing of what you read.

There is in this passage a motif of the book, both for the reader and the writer. How words themselves are creations, hearsays, how Mantel is a creator and a liar, how Cromwell is, how Boleyn is. Cromwell certainly knows the power of words, as he begins to weave hearsay into a legal case. And it seems to be Mantel's chief anxiety, how to take the vagaries of the time and make them into something concrete for a reader of the twenty-first century.

Want a less glib more professional review? Why not the New York Times?

~ James Maynard, January 2014

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