Monday, May 11, 2015
Bring Up the Bodies (Thomas Cromwell #2) by Hilary Mantel
In Mantel’s novel I often got the notion that Cromwell directed the King’s attention towards Jane Seymour. That Cromwell mistrusted Anne Boleyn, I don’t think there can be any doubt, though he supported her until her jealousies and scheming became too much for even Cromwell to stomach. It doesn’t make any sense for Cromwell to put Henry and Jane together unless he suspected all along Anne’s tendency to plot would be her epitaph.
In the BBC production starring Mark Rylance, however, we get a slightly different interpretation: in Rylance’s performance we see Cromwell’s surprise, uncertainty, fear, and a growing knowledge that Henry would throw off the yoke of marriage once again, and entreat Cromwell to "fix" a divorce for him. Cromwell himself had always been attracted [either sexually or simply as a father figure] to the young, silent Jane Seymour and notes with consternation how Jane drew the King’s eye. With his knowledge of the King, he surely fears for anyone coming unprepared into the King's orbit.
Either interpretation deepens the character of Cromwell, though one is far more scheming and less attractive. I think Mantel meant us to recognize the humanity in Cromwell, though she has him serving up the coldest dish of long-held revenge we have perhaps ever seen. Cromwell hates the young Master of the Privy Chamber Harry Norris for his role in a play which humiliated the memory of Cromwell’s beloved Cardinal Wolsey. Cromwell bides his time but eventually finds a way to unseat Norris.
The title, Bring Up the Bodies, refers to the trial of five court regulars who were thought to be intimates of Anne Boleyn: Harry Norris, George Boleyn, Mark Smeaton, Francis Weston, and William Brereton. There is still an open question as to whether the queen slept with them while she reigned. Hard as it is to believe, it may not be out of place today, which is why we even entertain the notion. Anne Boleyn was married to King Henry only three years. It seemed to have been a trial for both of them.
Mantel did meticulous research so we can assume the portrait of a petulant monarch who does not deal well with failure or challenges has basis in fact. Certainly looking at his decisions alone might lead one to think in that direction. But it is Cromwell that is the central character in this drama, and Mantel does not let our eyes or thoughts stray far from the man. Mantel's chapter headings toll the years, and if the reader already knows Cromwell lived only four years beyond the death of Anne Boleyn, each chapter heading rings sonorous, ominous.
At the end of this novel we are treated to how his contemporaries view him, and it is not a flattering portrait. They wonder Cromwell won’t go after the King next. We’d like to be able to defend him, but know he is simply doing what is necessary for himself—he has an unquenchable appetite for the hand to hand combat that is his life.
I look forward to how Mantel deals with the end of Cromwell and the story she has made her own.
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