Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Bring Up The Bodies - Hilary Mantel

I just finished Bring Up The Bodies last night, and I really don’t know what I should think of it. I did not feel the unalloyed pleasure in reading it that I did with Wolf Hall. Maybe it suffers from the middle child syndrome, and fails to have the novelty of the first part or the finality of the last. This is no reflection on Hilary Mantel’s writing, which is just as compelling in this volume.

Most of my discomfort was with the changing or emerging character of the protagonist, Thomas Cromwell. In Wolf Hall, I didn’t expect to like him, but I found myself drawn to his character. In Thomas Cromwell, Hilary Mantel made efficiency sexy. His tenderness for his family, his camaraderie with the boys at Austin Friars, his adeptness at handling disparate personalities, and his sense of humour were endearing. There was integrity in everything he did, that made you believe that history had Cromwell’s measure wrong.

In Bring Up The Bodies however, I find Cromwell slipping from my grasp. If I was puzzled as to his motivations in Wolf Hall, I am more so now. What compels him to bring down Anne and her so-called lovers? Does he really believe they are guilty? If not, is he driven solely by vengeance over Wolsey’s death? An instinct for self-preservation brought on by Anne’s growing power? Or a desire to do the King’s will at all costs? The book suggests all three, but it is hard to reconcile this Cromwell with the one of Wolf Hall. I don’t want to believe that he was an opportunist, but perhaps it is a measure of his good sense and ability that he is one. It is easy to forget that times were different, and survival required sharper wits and less reliance on law.

All the same, these inconsistencies make Cromwell’s personality that much more complex. He is nearly as inscrutable to us, as he was to his contemporaries. Henry emerges as peevish and silly, Anne self destructive and arrogant. Yet in her final days, she arouses our sympathy. I had to remind myself of the number of lives she herself destroyed, and would no doubt have continued to, had she lived.

Reading of Anne’s destruction also fills me with foreboding, because I do know what is coming at the end of the last volume. There are times, fleeting moments, when the usually surefooted Cromwell seems hesitant, even fearful.

Is Cromwell, in some recess of his mind, beginning to know it too?

No comments: