Tag Archives: Thomas Cromwell

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

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His whole career has been an education in hypocrisy. Eyes that once skewered him now kindle with simulated regard. Hands that would like to knock his hat off now reach out to take his hand, sometimes in a crushing grip. He has spun his enemies to face him, to join him: as in a dance. He means to spin them away again, so they look down the long cold vista of their years: so they feel the wind, the wind of exposed places, that cuts to the bone: so they bed down in ruins, and wake up cold.

Be careful what you wish for. Henry VIII was pining for the younger-than-his-current-wife Anne Boleyn. After getting his heart’s desire, which required him to take on the Catholic Church, one might imagine him speaking to Thomas Cromwell as Ollie might have said to Laurel, “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!” nicely demonstrating an inability to accept any responsibility for his own actions. Of course, AB had gotten her heart’s desire as well, a nifty crown, plenty of staff, and she gets to headline at the palace. But pride, and not popping out a male heir, goeth before the fall, and well, the girl should have known. I mean H8 was not exactly a model hubby to his first wife. Why would she think he’d be any more loyal to her? Time for the head of household to summon Mister Fixit.

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Rafe Sadler and Stephen Gardiner

Looking for advice on ridding yourself of unwanted household pests? Running low on funds for your comfortable lifestyle? Need the occasional hard thump to the torso to get the old ticker restarted? Need to re-direct your reproductive efforts towards a more masculine outcome? Need to fend off potential assaults by enemies foreign and domestic? Why, call Mister Fixit (Yes, yes, I know there were no phones in 16th Century England, so summon Mr. Fixit. OK? Happy now? Jeez, some people). Thomas Cromwell, a man of modest origins who had risen to the highest position in the land, that did not absolutely require aristocratic genes, had already demonstrated a penchant for getting things done, by whatever means necessary. And so continues the tale, in book 2 of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Tudor England.

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Hilary Mantel

The end of Wolf Hall (You read Wolf Hall, right? If you haven’t, stop reading this now, and go get a copy. Read that and when you are done, feel free to return. What are you waiting for? Go! Scat!) was H8’s marriage to AB. The quest had come to the desired conclusion, and now they’re gonna party like it’s 1533. Not only had H8 succeeded in flipping the bird (a falcon in this case – see the badges below) to the RC, but he was engaged in swiping their stuff as well. Pope? We doan need no steenking Pope. Cromwell was the guy who had done most of the fixing. So everything should be fine now, right? Not so fast.

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Dueling Badges – Anne Boleyn’s and Catherine of Aragon’s – in case any are needed

AB is getting very full of herself but not, unfortunately full of a male heir, and there are younger ladies-in-waiting, you know, waiting. H8 has an eye problem. It wanders uncontrollably, in this instance to young, demure Jane Seymour. Of course there is the pesky business of clearing that obstruction from the royal path, and Mister Fixit is called in (sorry, summoned) to make it go away. Luckily for him he has his fingers in many administrative pies and is not shy about using his inside knowledge to achieve his boss’s goals. Cromwell also has an excellent network of spies sprinkled throughout the realm. Combine the two, make much of what was probably idle gossip, add a dollop or three of spite and voila. For good measure, TC takes particular pleasure in focusing his skills on those who had done dirt to his mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, ticking off each one as they succumb to his devilry.

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The once and future – Catherine of Aragon and Jane Seymour

Was AB guilty of the crimes of which she was accused? Probably not. But as long as the folks in charge can get the people with weapons to do their bidding it does not much matter. There is no law, really, only power. Legal processes are often mere window dressing to the underlying exercise of big fish eating smaller fish, and sometimes spitting them out. The fiction of legality keeps the mass of smaller fish from chomping their much larger tormenters to bits. Sort of like now. See, people? It’s all perfectly legal.

Bring Up the Bodies is a masterful achievement, showing, step-by-step, how dark aims are orchestrated and achieved. In laying this out, Hilary Mantel also offers us a look at how the reins of power can be abused by the unscrupulous, and Thomas Cromwell is shown in his full unscrupulousness in this volume. He was gonna get these guys and when he saw his chance, he took it. Where Wolf Hall presented a more removed Cromwell, Bring Up the Bodies shows us Cromwell as more than a fixer, more than a technocrat. We get to see him as a monster, despite his supposed desire to make England more equitable for working people.

H8 is shown much more as a spoiled psycho-child in this volume. Whatever his intelligence, whatever his accomplishments, what we see of Henry here is primarily his boorishness, his childishness. I want what I want and I do not care who gets hurt, or even killed, so I can have it. I was reminded of the great Twilight Zone episode It’s a Good Life.

Mantel won a second Booker prize for this one, and it was well deserved. Not only do we get a very human look at a key period in Western history, but are blessed with Mantel’s amazing wit as manifested by her characters, and consideration of issues that transcend history, as well as a compelling episode of Survival: Tudor. It is an easier read than the first book, more engaging, if that is possible. If you have not seen the miniseries made from the combined volumes you really must. Hilary Mantel has brought out her best in Bring Up the Bodies, using her genius for historical fiction to make the old seem new again. You won’t lose your head if you don’t read this book, but you probably should.

Review posted – 5/22/15

Publication date – 5/8/2012

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, Google + and FB pages

Excellent radio interview with Mantel by Leonard Lopate

A marvelous New Yorker magazine article looking at Mantel’s career

Great material here in another New Yorker article, Invitation to a Beheading, by James Wood

Why isn’t Henry VIII fat and other Wolf Hall mysteries explained

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Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

book cover

The fate of peoples is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions. This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman’s sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rose water; her hand pulling close the bed curtain, the discrete sigh of flesh against flesh.

Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown…but really, crown-wearers seem to have little difficulty with fabrication. Do they mean lie, as in lying down? I mean I would take it off before going to bed. It might get pretty uncomfortable trying to sleep with that thing still on. Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say uneasy “sits the head that wears the crown,” although that creates in my tiny mind an image of Mister Potato head, with legs and feet.

Well, I could not find one with legs but you get the picture.

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His and Hers

How about uneasy stands the head… , but, oh, see Mr Potato head referred above. So I guess we will leave that one alone, as, clearly, it could be worse. In any case, as uneasy as that head might be, it is clearly more dangerous to anyone who has anything at all to do with the head that has the crown on it. Chopped tops are practically bounding down the streets like bulls in Pamplona. Of course there is the attraction of the power that emanates from the golden circlet. It seems to radiate a glow and a hum that attract the dishonest, the rapacious, seducers, flatterers, scoundrels and hypocrites in far greater numbers than the sort of person Diogenes was looking for, and many of them make moth-like crackling noises as they drift in a bit too close.

One struggles to come up with a contemporary point of reference to help us grasp who Cromwell was. I suppose one might consider Thomas Cromwell to be a royal bug-zapper. There are other ways to see him of course. He was one of the greatest political fixers of all time. Think Olivia Pope as, say, Chief of Staff to the President. But whereas the fictional Olivia occasionally manifests the odd scruple, the real-world Thomas appears to have manifested fewer. In a similar vein, I suppose we might see him a consigliere to H8’s Don Corleone, or maybe Tony Soprano. Maybe Kissinger to Nixon?

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Cromwell by Holbein and Mark Rylance as TC – from the Guardian

We meet Thomas as a lad, suffering abuse at the hands and boots, of his drunken father. Thomas is clearly a young man with an elevated spirit and he leaves his bloody home in Putney for a world of adventure and diverse experience. He reappears decades later, the person he had become. I could not help but be reminded of another famous personage who vanished from sight for a couple of decades, only to return from his journeys, possibly abroad, to flash across the pages of history, leaving a very large result. Cromwell was involved in a revolution of a religious sort as well, throwing out the money-changers, but with, perhaps not quite the personal up-side of his predecessor.

He is considered to be one of the most ruthless human beings of his time, in seeing that the king’s word was made flesh. Already married, but wifey does not pop out a male heir? What’s a king to do? Why, twist, turn, beg, borrow, steal, threaten, intimidate, and murder until you get your way. Spoiled children with their own states are fond of such behavior. Of course, to a large extent, one must engage in these forms of feces flinging and head-lopping at one remove, as kings are too proud to be seen with their hands so filled, whether with their own droppings or axe handles. Thus the presence of people like Thomas Cromwell. Thank you, your majesty, I’ll take that now.

Since the Catholic Church was all that stood in the way of Henry VIII getting what he wanted, H8 sought to remove it. Seizing the church’s real estate and other holdings would be a nice bonus. And setting up his non-ecclesiastical self as the head of his own sort-of Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, meant that, in addition to visiting horrors on the RC he would be claiming even more divine rights. Sheesh!

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H8 by Holbein – from Wikimedia — and Damian Lewis – BBC

So, you would expect that in Hilary Mantel’s rollicking tale of Tudor England, Cromwell would be painted in rather dark shades. The author offers something other. Hogwarts DA Masters notwithstanding, the darkest of the dark arts is the power of manipulation. The proper words tossed near the proper ear can wreak devastation no less awful than an armored division. Cromwell is portrayed as a practitioner of 16th century RealPolitik, someone who uses his rapier wit, his power, his capacity for manipulation, his wide knowledge of the world, and his deep intelligence to serve his king. Is he in it mostly for himself? Maybe. Probably, but he is shown in small bites, talking to this one, planting spies, chatting with that one, nuancing everyone within reach to see things his way, the king’s way, and he sees that more direct action is taken when words alone will not do.

Cromwell, both the real one and his fictitious doppelganger, is a pretty interesting guy, rising from modest (and, if Mantel does not mislead, abusive) origins, dashing off to soldier for hire, becoming expert in international trade of various sorts, making very useful friends and connections along the way, becoming a lawyer, and with his contact list and rep for discretion, rising as far as a low-born can rise in Tudor England. I am sure that, had he shown an inclination towards the culinary arts, he might have been considered a Man for All Seasonings. (sorry)

He is our window on the Tudor era. Regardless of the accuracy of the portrayal, as a literary device, Cromwell is ideally placed to allow us a look into many of the machinations of the era. Questionable prophetess, the Holy Maid of London, making life uncomfortable for a wandering king? Cromwell is there. Both to hear her speak and see her burned. Anne Boleyn plotting to get around the Church’s refusal to annul H8’s marriage? Yep, TC is right in the middle. The population being laid waste by a plague sweating disease? He loses family. Cromwell was a real-life Zelig of the era, with a hand in every historical pie.

What motivates Thomas Cromwell? He moves through the novel like an avatar of the author, a witness to the things the author wants us so know, but lacking much of a personality himself. The delightfully acerbic wit he manifests is hardly unique to him in this telling. One might point to his ambition, and there are certain decisions he makes or directions he takes that offer some guidance, but I never really got much of a feel for what really makes Thomas tick. Is Thomas Cromwell Horatio Alger, an exemplar of hard work, smarts and ambition paying off in the end? Is he a model for the notion that power corrupts? Does he really have morals, or merely goals? Is he a religious extremist or a technocrat? In the second volume of her series Mantel points us to Cromwell’s quest for vengeance on all those who had seen to the toppling of his mentor and father figure, the larger-than-life Wolsey. But that is only hinted at in Wolf Hall (I absolutely see Sidney Greenstreet in my tiny mind as Wolsey) That makes a lot of sense, lending a core of cohesion to a sequence of loose scenes, a lot of this-happens-and-then-that.

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Anne Boleyn by unknown and Claire Foy in the role

Well, Thomas is only one element here, albeit the largest. It is the era that Mantel brings to life. It was a time of big change. H8 may be established in our 21st century minds as a solidly placed monarch, but the security of his line was very much in question, thus the freaking out about producing a male heir. The Protestant Reformation was underway and the world was in flux. Plagues…um…plagued Europe and the enlightenment was far in the future.

While this look at the Tudor era is gruesome, enlightening and fun, it also shines a light, as good historical fiction does, on contemporary concerns. Torture? Check. Religious extremism? Check. TC is seen by at least one writer as a Tudor version of ISIS. Privacy concerns? Check. Government abuse of authority? Check. The one percent riding roughshod over the rest of us? Check. National wars for private purposes? Check. Issues of separation of church and state? Check. So, for those of you who have not yet taken on this large novel, and it’s younger siblings, one born, the other gestating, keep an eye out for how the Tudor era contains many of the same conflicts we endure today. Of course one might despair by doing this. Really? We have learned nothing in five hundred years? But one might also see some universality in the human condition, across time and space.

There are many, many characters in Wolf Hall. Mantel has included a nice list of them at the front of the book. I found I needed to refer to it frequently. It can be a bit daunting to keep track of what is going on, or to discern who is talking to whom, particularly when so many of the names are used by multiple characters. Most particularly, there are more Toms here than at a convention of male cats held in a turkey farm, enough Johns to construct a considerable public lavatory, as well as herds of Harries and Henries, Annes, Katherines and Marys, and probably a few more household names that repeat uncomfortably often. You will be needing that chart. That said, realizing that TC is the author’s and thus the readers’ eyes on pretty much everything helps.

There is a very different take here on Thomas More than the one we are accustomed to. A Man For All Seasons presented More as a moralist, one who stuck by his principles in opposing H8’s desire to be rid of wife #1 in favor of wife #2. In this version we are shown a Thomas More who is much more an Ayatollah than a serene wise man, as much a political player as a man of the cloth. He happily sends to the torturer and the executioner those who oppose his views. Mantel shows a bit of sympathy for H8 trying to dismantle an organization that includes such dark prigs.

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Thomas More by Holbein and Anton Lesser in the role

The novel does not tie up neatly. There are two more volumes after all, and those who remember their history, or who, like me, are memory-challenged and need to look such things up, know how it ends, anyway. It is the journey through this often dark age that is the treat. The wit alone would have been enough for me. The feel for the time adds depth.

The novel and it’s younger sib have become the source material for both a BBC miniseries and stage productions in Britain and the USA, and seems to be gathering cultural strength and presence as more branches extend from the Wolf Hall tree. Can the graphic novel and the Barbie Anne Boleyn be far behind? The series from the Beeb has already aired on the east side of the pond, and is scheduled to begin on Easter, April 5, here in the states.

In short, for book with a considerable page count, and covering thirty five years of English and European history, the results of most of which we already know, Wolf Hall is an engrossing read, rich with all-world-large personalities, bristling with sharply barbed wit and intelligence, richly appointed with intrigue and betrayal, red with blood, and great fun to read. There are sections that sag a bit, but keep on, there will be another scene just around the bend that will make you smile and sometimes even laugh out loud. And there are passages that will transport you with their beauty and insight.

BTW, the title, Wolf Hall refers to the residence of the Seymours (the family serving up one of theirs to be counted among the many wives) and is a takeoff on a Latin saying, homo homini lupus est, or ‘man is a wolf to man.’ He is indeed, and what big teeth he has.

Review posted – 4/3/15

Publication date – 4/30/2009

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, Google + and FB pages

A nice article from the Telegraph about the historical TC

Another

Fab item by Mantel in the NY Review of Books on how her characters should be played

Interview with Mark Rylance , who plays TC in the BBC production.

He has no doubt there are parallels between Cromwell’s time and our own. “Although we’re not ruled by a sociopathic 14-year-old king, we seem to be ruled by a group of people who are completely in the service of corporations as much as the kings were in the service of the pope before Cromwell and Henry VIII changed the times.”

I included a link in the body of the review, but in case you missed it Dominic Selwood of the Telegraph has a dark view of TC – Thomas Cromwell was the Islamic State of his day

Martin Kettle of the Guardian has a more positive take – Cromwell, the fixers’ fixer: a role model for our times

An article from the NY Times about the upcoming mini-series

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