Here is the genius of Hilary Mantel: she can take a story about the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn, a subject that I have been reading about since I was twelve, and make it new and fascinating to me. She does this mainly by focusing her story through the eyes of, not Anne or Mary Boleyn (as so many authors choose to do) but through the eyes of a relatively unknown and certainly mysterious person: Thomas Cromwell, Master Secretary and grand puppetmaster of all Tudor drama. Cromwell is, to this day, an enigmatic character, and most of his motivations and machinations remain a mystery to us. Which is what makes Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy so great: she’s showing us this common, well-known story and making it fresh by writing about it through a new perspective while also providing her own solutions to questions about Cromwell.
Do I make it sound dull? Because it is the opposite of dull. Mantel’s writing is funny (“If someone said to Lady Rochford, ‘It’s raining,’ she would turn it into a conspiracy; as she passed the news on, she would make it sound somehow indecent, unlikely, but sadly true.”) and smart: she doesn’t spoon-feed you anything, and expects you to keep up with her characters’ insinuations and hinted-at secrets, without explicitly spelling them out for you. And there’s the story itself, which is full of fantastic characters and intrigue and gossip and beautiful, evocative, near-poetic lines like this: “You can be merry with the king, you can share a joke with him. But as Thomas More used to say, it’s like sporting with a tamed lion. You tousle its mane and pull its ears, but all the time you’re thinking, those claws, those claws, those claws.” (a line which is, incidentally, one of the most spot-on and perfect descriptions of Henry VIII’s character I’ve ever read)
And the man at the center of it all, Thomas Cromwell, is endlessly fascinating. When he investigates Anne Boleyn’s suspected infidelities and arranges her trial, does he think she’s actually guilty? No. Or, more accurately, Cromwell knows that Anne is dangerous and plotting his downfall, and makes a move to eliminate her before she can move against him. The trial is just a handy way for Cromwell to get rid of his enemies in one fell swoop – in Mantel’s version of events, the men put on trial for having an affair with Anne Boleyn are the same men who celebrated when Cromwell’s mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, was executed in the previous novel. It’s a cruel move, but a shrewd one. As Cromwell says in his narration: “He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged.”
It would be easy for an author to portray Cromwell as the villain, but Mantel reminds us that he is only acting on Henry’s orders. It’s Henry who wants to get rid of Anne Boleyn, Henry who suggests that she might have used witchcraft against him, and Henry who is the engineer of all this injustice. In Wolf Hall, Wolsey’s death taught Cromwell what happens when you don’t do what the king wants; in Bring Up the Bodies, we see him put that lesson into practice (making the third book in the series, which I assume will be about Cromwell’s death after the Anne of Cleves disaster, all the more fascinating).
Mantel’s entire take on the Anne Boleyn trial is fantastic and, even if it’s not all true, utterly believable (especially after reading The Lady in the Tower, Alison Weir’s awesome nonfiction book about the fall of Anne Boleyn) – because the court documents from Anne’s trial have been lost, Mantel skips over the trial scenes very quickly, which makes them all the more heartbreaking, because it only emphasizes how the trial was only for show anyway. Her version of Anne’s execution (spoiler alert?) is heartwrenching and horrifying and made me short of breath, and I loved her take on some of Anne’s strange behavior post-arrest. When Anne Boleyn was brought to the Tower, she asked if she would be put in a dungeon, and was told that she would be staying in her own royal rooms at the Tower. On hearing this, Anne Boleyn reportedly replied, “It is too good for me. Jesus have mercy on me.” Historians are confounded by this: was Anne admitting her guilt, or did it have another meaning? Here’s Mantel’s (speaking as Cromwell) take on it:
“He believes he understands Anne, as Wriothesley does not. When she said the queen’s lodgings were too good for her, she did not mean to admit her guilt, but to say this truth: I am not worthy, and I am not worthy because I have failed. One thing she set out to do, this side of salvation: get Henry and keep him. She has lost him to Jane Seymour, and no court of law will judge her more harshly than she has judged herself. Since Henry rode away from her yesterday, she has been an imposter, like a child or a court fool, dressed in the costumes of a queen and now ordered to live in the queen’s rooms. She knows that adultery is a sin and treason is a crime, but to be on the losing side is a greater fault that these.”
I can’t wait for the third book in this series. If the first two are any indication, it’s going to be incredible. Well done, Ms. Mantel. Well done indeed.
Verdict: five out of five stars