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.

Fun, indeed, is a theme of the book. One of its running jokes is that the king writes bad poetry. He says: ‘There are some who say that Wyatt writes better verses than me, though I am the king.’ While courting Jane he struggles to revise old verses to make them suit his new mistress, and asks Cromwell for advice on rhymes for the word ‘blue’, apart from ‘new’. And like a grim chorus Henry’s most famous poem, ‘Pastime with good company/I love and shall until I die’, runs through the whole book. It’s sung by a louche gentleman of the privy chamber, Francis Bryan, known as ‘the vicar of hell’, and lewd variations of it are hummed by soldiers. Cromwell’s jester struts and performs it in the persona of the king. ‘Pastime with good company’ is really what the book should have been called, since the fall of Anne depends on the slow turning of ‘pastimes’ and casual entertainments into fatal allegations of lightness, of playing too much with a lutenist, of excessive company with her brother, of overfamiliarity with poets. The revenge plot, too, depends on the transformation of pastime with good company into a deadly game: the malicious rejoicing of Weston, Norris, Brereton and George Boleyn in the masque which celebrated Wolsey’s fall is the principal reason Cromwell decides to make them guilty of adultery with the queen. As Norris protests, ‘It was a play. It was an entertainment.’ There is in this world no such thing. The dissemination of the king’s song, its transformation into an ironical and cruel chorus, is a little version of what goes on throughout the social structures of Mantel’s Tudor England. Innocent boasts about intimacy get turned into allegations about sexual infidelity. Little barbs of malicious gossip, rumours spread by pastry chefs or soldiers, gradually resolve into deadly legal processes. The flirtatious Mary Shelton says of the gossip about Anne’s behaviour that Henry VIII ‘may suppose it is all light words? No harm?’ Her question marks (it is clever to give this Tudor socialite the anxious rising tone of a contemporary teenager) show that she knows this isn’t true. ‘Pastime with good company: but where’s the company now? It’s cringing against the wall.’

The recurrence of Henry’s song goes along with some artful thoughts about the relationship between manuscript poetry and the relatively new medium of print. Ballads about the king and Anne are printed, and the king insists that their author should be punished. Cromwell delivers an implausibly good disquisition on the elusive skill of Wyatt’s verses, which explains why the poet escaped the fate of Anne’s other lovers: he keeps rewriting himself. He is the ‘cleverest man in England … He writes himself and then disclaims himself. He jots a verse on some scrap of paper, and slips it to you, when you are at supper or praying in the chapel. Then he slides a paper to some other person, and it is the same verse, but a word is different.’ Thomas Wriothesley grimly suggests that ‘someone should take his verses to the printer’ because ‘that would fix them.’ That’s a great pun on ‘fix’: print will hold the poems rigid, pin them down, but also undo them and their author by pinning them to a relationship between the poet and Anne.

‘Fixing’ in these various senses makes up a central element of the novel’s vision of history, which is the deepest ground of its excellence. Bring Up the Bodies is related, like Wolf Hall, mostly in the present tense, and like Wolf Hall goes in for pictorially vivid descriptions in which time seems to freeze. Sometimes these are just delicate pieces of period detail, like embroidery on the edge of a tapestry (‘Light shines on the curve of a pewter jug’). But often the process of history seems to be fixed in a series of stills, of moments when the king’s or Cromwell’s attention is suddenly caught by something or someone, and time stops with their gaze. Some of these moments are effectively (as in Wolf Hall) descriptions of portraits by Holbein. Jane Seymour, depicted by Holbein with her old-fashioned head-dress and pursed little lips, becomes here ‘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’. Mantel’s pictorialism can become almost imagist, in the Ezra Pound sense, when she is describing Jane. So when she first touches Henry VIII, ‘her hand, a petal, hovers above his sleeve; then it descends, and flesh grazes embroidery’. Remember Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’: ‘The apparition of these faces in the crowd;/Petals on a wet, black bough.’ But this description of a visual effect also hints at a future. ‘Flesh’ and ‘grazes’ just faintly anticipate the axes and bodies that will follow from this initial grazing of flesh on fabric. Later there is another trace of threat to the singularity of attention which Jane Seymour invites: ‘She stands and looks at Henry and the king’s eyes fly straight to her, a space opens around her and for a moment she stands in the vacancy, like a dancer left behind when the line moves on.’ These arresting visual moments reduce historical process to a string of instants it is hard to connect together: a new sight flashes, the king’s eye turns. This is a profoundly intelligent way of evoking what it must have felt like to live through the later reign of Henry VIII, in which what was happening now was vividly present but did not necessarily offer any clues about what would happen tomorrow or next year.

Reading the novel is initially like being trapped in a gallery, watching a series of pictures which follow one after the other without any clear sequence or rationale. But the rationale gradually emerges. At the start of Bring Up the Bodies ‘the falcon of Anne Boleyn is crudely painted up on hatchments,’ where it replaces the pomegranates of Katherine of Aragon. At its end there are similar acts of erasure: ‘For the heraldic lions of the dead woman, the panthers of Jane Seymour are substituted, and it is done economically, as the beasts only need new heads and tails.’ Henry gives Jane Seymour a prayer book which had been Katherine of Aragon’s, and then Anne Boleyn’s. On this book it’s still possible to see the outlines of the initials of the earlier queens. Objects and artworks have their moment of still clarity, and then they’re remade into new forms, to suit new times and new wives.

Words don’t fare much better than images: it’s not only Wyatt’s or the king’s poetry that gets unfixed by rewriting and repetition. Before Anne’s trial Cromwell tries to bully poor Henry Percy, who was compelled once to say that he had nothing to do with Anne Boleyn, to recant and say that actually he was drunk when he made his previous oath, and that yes, he had actually had her. He refuses to change what he had sworn to be the truth, despite the fact that it was a lie, and despite the more pressing fact that – as Cromwell coldly recognises – ‘our requirements have changed, and the facts have changed behind us.’ This means that Bring Up the Bodies presents the history of the Reformation as a story about the replacement of one image, or one story, by another. Pictures become palimpsests, poems are revised, the truth is rewritten.

The dissolution of the monasteries is being planned and executed in the background. Cromwell sets up the court of augmentations and sends out his agents to the monastic houses. Meanwhile before our eyes a different kind of dissolution is enacted. Bodies are vividly present. Then they simply dissolve. The Duke of Norfolk is threatened, almost as a joke, with being melted down by Cromwell, the ‘Blacksmith’s boy’: ‘“He may melt you,” Fitzwilliam says. “You began as a duke and end as a leaden drip.”’ This is not quite an empty threat. In this book people can snap into sharp focus at one moment, like Jane, and then simply melt away. So when Anne Boleyn is imprisoned and learns that her alleged lover Henry Norris has refused to clear her name, ‘she seems to dissolve and slip from their grasp, from Kingston’s hands and his, she seems to liquefy and elude them, and when she resolves herself once more into woman’s form she is on hands and knees on the cobbles.’ That moment describing the physical dissolution of the body is reprised in the vivid, almost balletic, description of Anne’s execution. The person who caught the king’s eye becomes a doll in a pool of blood: ‘The body exsanguinates, and its flat little presence becomes a puddle of gore.’

Bring Up the Bodies is for these reasons haunting. That word is much abused, but is absolutely, almost literally, right for this book, since its strongest representations of bodies that are there and then not there are ghosts. At one time or another almost every character (except plain, prosaic Jane) sees something like a spectre. Cromwell’s dead children are present in the novel’s very first scene, in which their names are given to falcons who seem to carry their spirits. The supposed lovers of Anne Boleyn are said to pass through the royal palaces like spectres. Even Wyatt is at one point compared to a phantom, as his ‘well-dressed shade, silken, slides across the window, blocks the cold starlight. On your way, phantom.’ When Cromwell’s house is quiet ‘dead people walk about on the stairs.’

Mantel is of course past mistress of phantoms. The thing in the corner that isn’t quite there but nonetheless occupies the centre of your attention because it can’t really be there lies at the heart of Beyond Black (2005). These sort of un-beings take on a similar peripheral prominence in Bring Up the Bodies, and show how completely she has acclimatised Tudor history to her own imagination. Her ghosts become the past which everyone in 1536 is trying to forget: ‘Ghosts are glimpsed in doorways, standing by windows, against walls, waiting to overhear the secrets of the living.’ In their way, though, these ghosts are consoling presences, because they are the guarantees that however much the present flows on, re-forming one image into another, swapping one wife for another, revising one poem into another, shifting one truth for another, one religion to another, there will always be something at the edge of your vision to witness what happens and to remind you of what was. The ghosts effectively become the historical sense that runs through the experience of the Reformation: they mark an awareness that behind the vivid present is another reality which resists erasure.

Cromwell is central to all this. When I reviewed Wolf Hall I said, roughly, that it represented this greatest of all the many great bastards in the 16th century as far too nice. Cromwell’s excess of sensitivity, indeed his Whiggish modernity of consciousness, is still there in Bring Up the Bodies, where he is, around the edges of all his plots, attempting to introduce income tax and a single system of law that might be fair for all, as well as working on a bill to protect orphans. He also repeatedly remembers his past experiences of the high points of Italian art. Cromwell was indeed a reformer, and did use his control over legal and parliamentary process to address larger problems in the commonwealth. But the crude question ‘Does this mean that he could have felt as much and as finely as he does in this book?’ still needs to be asked. The novel’s present-tense mode of narrative, focalised through a single principal character, has an intrinsic problem. It would be almost impossible to write this kind of fiction and make the central character a brute, since so much depends on what he or she notices and feels, on sensitivity. If a fiction represents the sensorium of one character’s feelings, then an inert or insensitive sensorium would probably generate inert fiction.

This is where the actions and events and people who are ghostly presences on the edges of the novel’s vision come into their own. Periodically something happens at the edges of the book’s zone of awareness that has to have been done by Cromwell, and yet we are never shown him thinking about it or doing it. So on a visit to see the old queen, Katherine of Aragon, he sleeps with an innkeeper’s wife. A rumour is repeated a little later that this innkeeper’s wife has been set up as his mistress, and that her husband has been imprisoned and killed off. Cromwell’s interest in Wales is mentioned several times. Then we learn of a rumour that Katherine of Aragon was poisoned by Welsh beer. We never see him issue a command to a Welshman to end her days, so conveniently, just as Henry’s marriage to her successor Anne is unravelling, though soon after Cromwell laughs off the rumour about the Welsh beer (more bitter pastime with good company) a Welsh boy in his household is mentioned. These details work in several ways at once. They invite readers of the novel to participate in the Henrician rumour game, turning Cromwell into a ruthless monster who can be blamed for everything. But doing this also requires you to see him as a kind of psychopath who has things done which he can’t bring himself to think about, who wants to keep his worst actions beyond the edges of his own consciousness while he tries to think of himself as the person who attempts to persuade the rich to take some legal responsibility for the poor, and who does a series of terrible things for the ultimate good of more than himself.

As a result Bring Up the Bodies is not just a revenge tragedy in which Cromwell manoeuvres his master’s enemies to their death. It also sets up the outlines of another tragedy, that of Cromwell himself, in which his attempts to turn the present towards the advantage of his king generate unforgettable acts of unpleasantness, which eventually hem him in and haunt him however hard he tries to erase them from his mind. In the final interrogation of Anne’s lovers he becomes, and sees himself become, all lawyer and all bastard, cornering his victims into being damned if they did and even more damned if they didn’t. The revenge plot gives room for his malice to come through, and allows him to start becoming ensnared by his past. The novel ends with the statement: ‘There are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings. Here is one.’ The end of Bring Up the Bodies leaves us with the stage set for Cromwell the avenger of Wolsey himself to be encircled and destroyed. He has removed his former allies the Boleyns, and is left trying to make alliances with the unreliable Seymours. Meanwhile Stephen Gardiner threatens him from the wings. This is the beginning of new nastiness which will presumably play out in the third act of this great drama.

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