Historical fiction isn’t my first choice of reading material. It’s so hard to tell where fact leaves off and fiction begins that I fear my weak grasp of the past will become even more confused. So it was rather reluctantly that I picked up Wolf Hall a couple of years ago. It was much talked-about, having won the Man Booker prize in 2009. And you know how it goes: you pick up a book quite prepared to dismiss it, but something draws you in and before long you’re hooked. It’s easy to see why it has become, apparently, the best-selling Booker prize-winner of all time.
What first draws one in to Wolf Hall, and continues on in Bring Up The Bodies–also a Man Booker winner–is Mantel’s masterful writing. The descriptions are vivid and a story-line develops immediately. Also, a quirk of style that is at first confusing and slightly annoying quickly becomes intriguing: regardless of the subject of the sentence, the use of “he” or “him” always refers to Thomas Cromwell, a sixteenth-century statesman so renowned that even I know something about him. A privileged pronoun for a privileged character, just not the typical “royal we.” Henry VIII and his queens, step aside.
Like the Saint by Charteris, Bond by Fleming, and Robin Hood—all English, interestingly enough—Cromwell by Mantel is a captivating hero. So much so that I have recalibrated my assessment of historical fiction. After the intrigue of Wolf Hall, I looked forward to Bring Up The Bodies and found it even more of a page-turner. In fact, I wondered all through Wolf Hall why that location—the estate of John Seymour, notorious for having “tupped” his daughter-in-law—had been chosen as the title. Other than a few mentions of Old John’s nefarious activity, the estate does not figure in the book. Again, Mantel is highly skilled, keeping up the intrigue and revealing the reason on the final page. Those who know their history will consider it a promise of things to come. Bring Up The Bodies fulfills that promise.
Through both books our hero Cromwell steadily gains in wealth and influence, having made his way independently from very humble beginnings. He can speak many languages, each revealed in an intriguing way as he thwarts opponents who think they can safely communicate their secret plots or insults simply by speaking Latin, Greek, French, or Italian. He is an exceptional player at chess, able to set up a board as it was months previously, and at every physical contest he attempts. He can tell the weight of a sheep by sight and knows his textiles, glass, and anything else considered a luxury item. He is widely travelled for the times, having served in the Italian army and spent time in London, other European cities, and the Netherlands. Oh, and he robs from the rich and gives to the poor. At least the nobility think he robs them as he reforms legal, financial, and political systems in ways that are not in keeping with their accustomed sense of privilege. And many of the down-trodden find shelter in Cromwell’s household or receive benefits that lift them out of penury. Hoards wait outside his gates and are seldom disappointed.
Cromwell’s intelligence, his attention to detail, and his oratorical skills make him a formidable opponent—just what Henry VIII needs on his side as he attempts to fulfill his whims. In both books, life at court is revealed in all its complexity and extravagance. Life outside the court is revealed in all its complexity and hardship.
Wolf Hall alludes to Cromwell’s childhood through memories and rumours while covering his life around age forty, when his beloved mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, falls from favour and Henry ends his marriage to Katherine of Aragon and marries Anne Boleyn. Bring Up The Bodies resumes the narrative with hardly a pause and takes us to the end of Anne’s reign, which comes about with surprising rapidity. It’s a gripping read as Mantel powerfully evokes the inner life of so many characters, Anne included. And as the title indicates, there are quite a few characters who don’t make it to book three of the promised trilogy.
Cromwell wields incredible power, in spite of the resentment and hatred of the nobility who surround Henry and attempt to thwart him (always Cromwell, remember)—when they are not plotting how to take advantage of the spoils he amasses around him. In fact, Cromwell’s power is hard for others to oppose. His rational, strategic thinking, backed up with knowledge on how to leverage money and balance books, is rare for the times. It struck me time and again throughout the novel how often money and strategy were linked.
How accurate is Mantel on these economic matters? Although it will make the hair rise on some of my colleagues who don’t like Niall Ferguson’s politics with its “money is the root of all progress” thinking, I turned to his new book, The Ascent of Money, for some clues and was not disappointed. Not surprisingly, I guess, Mantel is an excellent researcher, building a fine base of facts for her exceptionally colourful creativity.
Ferguson asserts that behind every historical phenomenon there is a financial secret. The Dutch Republic prevailed over the Hapsburg Empire by creating the first modern stock exchange, which turns out to have been more important than having the world’s biggest silver mine. The Renaissance boom in art and architecture relied on Italian bankers making fortunes by applying Oriental mathematics to money. Over 150 years the Medici transformed themselves from gangsters (five of whom were sentenced to death for their crimes) to being synonymous with the Florentine state. They understood leveraging and diversification, all lessons Cromwell learns as a student of commerce, banking, and human affairs during his time, less than one hundred years later, in Italy and the Netherlands.
Cromwell brings these skills to the newly developing role of middle man in his efforts to wield power for Henry. A vivid example unfolds as Henry breaks with the Pope and installs himself as head of a new Church of England. In Wolf Hall, the purpose is to annul his marriage with Katherine and pave the way for Anne to become queen. But in Bring Up The Bodies, Cromwell is eyeing the assets of the church. In thinking about how to pay for England, he is sure of his answer: “Monks, that parasite class of men, are going to provide.” He instructs his merry band on how to value the rents and holdings of the church so that the “king as head of the church” can take back what he owns if it pleases him to do so.
Has Robin Hood gone over to the dark side? Incredibly interesting—to me at least—is the struggle that comes through as Mantel tries to decide what to make of Cromwell. As early as page seven of Bring Up The Bodies, while describing a portrait of Cromwell being painted by the famous Hans Holbein, the narrator says he (Cromwell, remember) “comes into his hall to find versions of himself in various stages of becoming: a tentative outline, partly inked in. Where to begin with Cromwell?”
I suppose some ambivalence is understandable when a character is as powerful and adroit at strategy as Cromwell is seen to be. Imagine working for the King, anticipating his needs but waiting to fulfill them until he expresses them, having to help him with those expressions perhaps, so that the royal motives are seen in a favourable light. Like when Henry’s dreams turn to Jane Seymour: Cromwell decides there is no harm if he helps “ease the king’s way to her,” but he will also advise the Seymour family. He has “better business sense” and it’s important that he “not let Jane sell herself cheap.” After all, the king can’t have a cheap woman, and Cromwell needs her family as allies. So he instructs Jane on what gifts she can receive: “jewellery yes, money no.” And “until the deal is done,” she is not to take off so much as her gloves in Henry’s presence. Cromwell is no special confidante of the Seymours; but none of them doubt his expertise at strategy. Cromwell muses on a book he could write, “The Book Called Henry: how to read him, how to serve him, how best to preserve him.”
At another time Cromwell reflects on Machiavelli’s new book and decides he could do better. Given some of the drama of the story, one doesn’t doubt it. A story is told of Cromwell berating the jury at the trial of Thomas More and threatening to lock them up without dinner until they unanimously convict More. Following which he stood outside the door with a hatchet. When asked about this rumour, Cromwell denies ever having a hatchet. Most chilling of all is the revenge he exacts on the people who showed their scorn for the dead Cardinal Wolsey in a play by creating an effigy of him as a wounded bear and dragging it out, one person on each paw, chanting derisive epithets. Now as the bodies are brought up, Cromwell thinks, George Boleyn, right forepaw. And so on, one by one, until all are dealt with.
Mantel actually confirms her ambivalence about her hero in yet another colourful and promising final line, this time in her Author’s Note. She says Cromwell “remains sleek, plump and densely inaccessible, like a choice plum in a Christmas pie; but I hope to continue my efforts to dig him out.”
Perhaps I will watch for the promised third volume of the trilogy, called The Mirror and the Light, although I know enough history to regret the ending of the story for such an attractive hero. Maybe Mantel’s fiction is not such a bad way to learn history.
- Reg Sauvages
Reginald Sauvages, PhD, is the nom de plume of a local bibliophile (read: bookworm) who goes on building bookshelves and buying paperbacks for the beach so sand doesn’t ruin favourite clothbound books, even while owning an e-reader.