Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “Anne Boleyn”

Karo’s #CBR 4 Review #11: Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Eagerly awaited, this sequel to 2009’s Wolf Hall starts with a bang. Not literally, but it has one of the very best first pages I have ever come across:

His children are falling from the sky. He watches from horseback, acres of England stretching behind him; they drop, gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze. Grace Cromwell hovers in thin air. She is silent when she takes her prey, silent as she glides to his fist. But the sounds she makes then, the rustle of feathers and the creak, the sigh and riffle of pinion, the small cluck-cluck from her throat, these are sounds of recognition, intimate, daughterly, almost disapproving. Her breat is gore-streaked and flesh clings to her claws. Later, Henry will say, ‘Your girls flew well today.’ The hawk Anne Cromwell bounces on the glove of Rafe Sadler, who rides by the king in easy conversation. They are tired; the sun is declining, and they ride back to Wolf Hall with the reins slack on the necks of their mounts. Tomorrow his wife and two sisters will go out. These dead women, their bones long sunk in London clay, are now transmigrated. Weightless, they glide on the upper currents of the air. They pity no one. They answer to no one. Their lives are simple. When they look down they see nothing but their prey, and the borrowed plumes of the hunters: they see a flittering, flinching universe, a universe filled with their dinner.

Thomas Cromwell, whose rise to power in Henry VIII’s court was described in Wolf Hall, is now an authority, the right hand of the king. Having instrumented the king’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, he is now dealing with the aftermath: England is shunned by most of Europe, the people don’t accept Anne as their queen, and Katherine, the first wife, refuses to die. And now the king is getting tired of Anne, who won’t deliver on her promise to bear him a son and heir. He has settled on a third wife: innocent, quiet Jane Seymour, and relies on Cromwell to get rid of Anne Boleyn. Cromwell, unshakeable, hard-working and with his mind fixed on business, has to search for new alliances from within the nobility and clergy, while keeping his olf friends close and his enemies even closer. All in a day’s work. But while his career seems solid, he is still reeling from the loss of his wife, daughters and friends.

Hilary Mantel manages to grip the reader within the first few pages. Where Cromwell’s hawks have simple lives, the daily grind at court is nothing like it. Every look, grimace or half sentence has a meaning and far-reaching consequences, all of which need to be assessed and dealt with by Cromwell. The king seems ever more dependent on him, while reminding him that he, and he alone, has the power to destroy lives with a simple nod of the head. While Bring Up The Bodies sweeps the reader along with its beautiful prose, and the modern feel of politics and human tragedy, there are constant reminders of the balance of power that is unique to the times. Henry is the overlord, and absolutely everything must be done to keep him safe and, most importantly, happy. Cromwell is accused by his enemies of wanting to ursurp the monarch, but while he is always trying to secure a comfortable life for himself and the many people he supports, he never loses sight of this goal. History shows us that he, too, must fall victim to the king’s whims, but we refuse to believe someone of his intelligence and humanity could ever fail. Mantel again portrays Cromwell as a modern man with a conscience and vision for a better England. Much of it must be artistic license, but it makes for a great novel.

There are too many interesting thoughts to list here. What struck me in particular was the suffering that women had to go through at the time. Babies are miscarried, children die, husbands rape and betray, witches burn, queens are beheaded for not bearing sons. In order for a historical novel to work, explicit pity and criticism are not allowed, which makes for harrowing reading. But a good novelist can still deal with those thoughts between the lines, and Hilary Mantel is a very good one.

I don’t know if a third novel is planned. Cromwell has yet to fall, and although I dread it, having become quite attached to the man, I would be the first to buy a copy of that book.

ElCicco#CBR4Review#21: Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Bring up the Bodies is the sequel to Wolf Hall and the 2nd book in what is going to be a trilogy on Thomas Cromwell, Chief Minister/Master Secretary to Henry VIII.  While you could read  Bring up the Bodies without reading Wolf Hall, I wouldn’t recommend it. Wolf Hall won both the Man Booker Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award and was absolutely riveting and brilliant. It was the sort of book that I looked forward to reading every day and was sorry when it ended. Certainly, the life and times of Henry VIII provide rich fodder for novelists, but Mantel’s work focuses on Thomas Cromwell about whom little is known despite his great influence and power. It’s a new perspective on an era that has been covered so often in literature.

Cromwell was a commoner, the son of a blacksmith, who found work as a mercenary soldier and as a banker/moneylender in Europe before returning to England and working in the law for his patron Cardinal Wolsey. Wolf Hall focuses on this first period of his life, which involves Henry’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon, the execution of Thomas More, Wolsey’s falling into disfavor with Henry and his death, and Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn.

Cromwell is a rich and powerful man, close to the king, but given his common status, he is not welcomed into the King’s circle of noblemen. Feared, revered, hated and sought out by turns, Cromwell uses his intelligence (both his intellect and the information that his spies pick up on others) to serve the king and to protect his own family and retainers. In Bring Up the Bodies, the king is dealing with the aftermath of his divorce from Katherine of Aragon, his deteriorating marriage to Anne Boleyn and his attraction to Jane Seymour. Mantel is skillful at drawing the political rivalries at court and managing a large caste of characters, remaining faithful to the historical record but also using a vivid imagination to fill in critical gaps.

I am surprised at how much I find myself liking Cromwell. Mantel makes him a tough, self-made man who is intelligent, practical and often charitable. This is a man who has loved, been married, had children and seen them die of plague. His household includes young men learning law and politics alongside him and servants who are loyal and who esteem him. Cromwell is not driven by ideology or religious zeal so much as the desire to enrich the king and England and to ensure political stability in the realm. One of his ideas for Parliament was a sort of works project program — tax the rich to create jobs for the poor building and fixing roads, bridges, walls and harbors. By improving the country’s infrastructure, revenue from trade would increase and by keeping the poor working, fed and sheltered, crime would decrease and prosperity would result.

On the other hand, Cromwell was not the sort of man you would want as an enemy, and he was driven by what we might call reasons of state or realpolitik — the ends justified the means when it came to the king’s desires. The case of Anne Boleyn illustrates the point. The facts surrounding the case of Anne Boleyn and her supposed infidelities (including the charge of incest with her brother) are few. She and four others were put on trial and found guilty of treason and were executed shortly thereafter. Mantel doesn’t make it clear to the reader whether Anne and her “lovers” actually committed the acts for which they were charged, and the point is that for Cromwell, it really didn’t matter. What mattered was that the king was done with Anne and wanted to be rid of her. As Mantel describes it: “He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged.”  Anne had many enemies at court (including Cromwell, who remembered her role in the downfall of Wolsey), and those enemies were powerful nobles who had supported Katherine and her daughter Mary’s rights. Anne’s enemies also detest Cromwell, but they see that he is the man who can bring her down and so they form an alliance with him. But Cromwell, the savvy politician, understands that, “They want him as deep in the matter as they can contrive, and their own hands hidden, so that if later the king expresses any regret or questions the haste with which things were done, it is Cromwell and not they who will suffer.”

Even if you don’t know your Tudor history, you can guess that ultimately Cromwell will meet the same fate as those he helped send to the executioner’s block. I look forward to reading Mantel’s third book to see how she imagines the details of Cromwell’s downfall. Both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are great novels for lovers of historical fiction, particularly anything to do with the Tudor period.

[Edit: This book is also available as an an audiobook from Macmillan Audio, narrated by Simon Vance (MP3 clip) --mswas]

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