On your way, phantom

Colin Burrow

  • Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
    Fourth Estate, 411 pp, £20.00, May 2012, ISBN 978 0 00 731509 3

Bring Up the Bodies is not just a historical novel. It’s a novel with a vision of history that magically suits the period it describes. Its predecessor, Wolf Hall, the first part of what will be a trilogy of novels about the life of Thomas Cromwell, carried the burden of beginning and perhaps also of containing too much history.[*] In it Thomas Cromwell frees Henry VIII from his marriage to Katherine of Aragon, engineers his union with Anne Boleyn by breaking from Rome, and has Thomas More executed. At the end of the book, in the late summer of 1535, Cromwell, the king and his attendants stop off at Wolf Hall in Wiltshire, the home of the blandly charming Jane Seymour and her family.

This is where Bring Up the Bodies begins. Its title may sound a bit Hammer Horror, but it comes from the phrase that was used when those accused of treason, and so legally dead, were brought up for trial. The king – who as he broadens and ages is becoming less sunny and a bit of a joke, a frightening one – is smitten by the apparently angelic docility of Jane, prompting the Seymour brothers to coach her in the arts of flirtation and queenship. Cromwell then has to see how he can bring down the increasingly bony Anne Boleyn. Bring Up the Bodies moves through what was probably the most anxious year in the 16th century, through Katherine of Aragon’s death and Anne Boleyn’s miscarriage of a son in January 1536 to the execution of Anne and her supposed lovers in mid-May of that year. This is followed by Henry VIII’s marriage to Jane Seymour at the end of the same month – a little month, or ere those shoes were old, as Hamlet says.

In all this, again, Thomas Cromwell is the chief focus of the narrative. He recognises the king’s stupefied desire for Jane at Wolf Hall. He sees how rumours spread about Anne can be used, as he puts it, to ‘separate her from history’ and get rid of her. And he sees how he can use her fall to punish the four men, Henry Norris, William Brereton, Francis Weston and George Boleyn (Anne’s brother), who six years before acted in the court masque that celebrated the fall of Cromwell’s master, Cardinal Wolsey. The events of the year 1535-36 become an improvised revenge tragedy, with Cromwell using Anne’s fall to avenge the death of Wolsey. This gives the novel the simple virtue of shapeliness.

Its span of a little less than a year also provides the even simpler pleasures of seasonal set-pieces. In winter the poor shivering Spanish ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, wraps himself in furs and acquires a silly Christmas hat, while Protestants make snow popes with mischievously tiny willies – which Chapuys is too dim to recognise. As spring comes in 1536, Mark Smeaton, an airy-headed lutenist (who has an unhealthy interest in playing with Cromwell’s boy singers, but who is persuaded to show off about his manliness by claiming to have had the queen), is tortured by being shut in a cupboard along with Cromwell’s Christmas ornaments. He imagines that the peacock feathers and the robes of the Three Kings are phantoms. He confesses to having had Anne a thousand times. When slapped he restates his guilt at a more plausible three or four tuppings.

The dark comedy that surrounds Mark Smeaton’s fall points to another reason this book is so very good. Hilary Mantel has relaxed into the 16th century. There is less of the artful by-play with historical sources which ran through Wolf Hall – which was clever, but risked in-jokes – and there is less of the slight over diligence about the historical record which made her 1992 novel about the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety, sometimes seem to have even more than its actual tally of 880 pages. Instead, despite the grim times, her characters have fun, and Mantel has fun with them.

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[*] Colin Burrow reviewed Wolf Hall in the LRB of 30 April 2009.