Hilary Mantel brings up the bodies

Hilary Mantel, Bring up the Bodies (Fourth Estate 2112)

20120704-175516.jpg I’m probably the only person of my generation whose grasp of what it was like to live in the courts of the Tudors comes mainly from an article written for The School Magazine by award winning children’s novelist and occasional commenter on this blog, Cassandra Golds. ‘The Princess in the Tower’ focused on Elizabeth, imprisoned during the reign of her half sister Mary, but there’s a memorable paragraph . It likens the court to a jungle where elegant people circled each other like wild beasts, seeking the advantage. Sadly, I’m writing this far from home, so can’t give you a quote. (Cassandra, if you read this, maybe you could add one in the comments section?) [Added later: Cassandra has commented with the passage which is even more apposite than I had remembered. Thanks, Cassandra.]

Even more than Wolf Hall, to which it’s a sequel, Bring up the Bodies validates that image in its portrayal of the court of Henry VIII. But at its heart there’s Thomas Cromwell, no wild beast but a methodical tactician, serving the king and good of the kingdom, receiving insults with apparent stolidity but forgetting nothing, keeping his own counsel, taming some beasts and destroying others.

I was reading this in a cafe in Goreme in Cappadocia, when an Australian woman (the cafe offered a decent flat white, much sought after by Australian coffee drinkers) called from several tables away.

Australian flat-white-drinking woman: ‘How are you finding that? I loved Wolf Hall but I found that one a bit hard to get into.’
Me: I’m loving it. I think it’s miraculous the way she gets right inside the minds of people from that time.
Australian flat-white-drinking woman’s grey-haired male companion: it’s all in the mind.
Me: Um, yes.
AFWDWGHMC: It’s past lives.
Me: Oh, you think Hilary Mantel was there in a past life.
AFWDWGHMC: Not just her, everybody.
Me: Well, that’s a conversation stopper if ever I heard one. (I didn’t say that, I just wish I had.)
AFWDWGH: She’s written another book, you know, a nonfiction book called Anne Boleyn, Witch.

So there you are. If anything was going to make me believe in past lives, it might well be this book. And if Hilary Mantel has written that nonfiction book, I wish she had spent the time on the next novel about Cromwell. It’s not that I want to see him get his comeuppance, as of course he will. I just want more of him. And I worry about his sweet, naive son Gregory.

PS: I read this in Turkey, among relics of rulers at least as much at the mercy of their whims as Henry Tudor. I wonder how English history might have gone if Henry could have had a harem. Surely if he had four wives at a time the need to have a son might have been less desperate. Mostly I didn’t take the book on outings, preferring to take thinner volumes. But here I am, reading it in the queue to see the treasures in Topkapi Palace.


10 responses to “Hilary Mantel brings up the bodies

  1. Either you must be leaving a trail of read and abandoned books behind you, Jonathan, or you’re not leaving much room in the luggage for Turkish souvenirs.


  2. PS The Kindle is a friend to travellers.


    • That’s how I expected it to go, Richard, but I only read one book on the iPad kindle, and only discarded one of my dead-tree books. The advantage of poetry books is that they’re light to carry but take a while to read. The AS got through about 4 ebooks in the book.ish format from Readings and Gleebooks, and though she won’t be giving up paper books any time soon, the format seemed to work fine. I bought the Lonely Planet Guide to Turkey from Borders on the Kobo app, and regret it, as Kobo keeps sending cute messages about my reading habits, but didn’t allow a search of the contents, which made the book next to,useless.


  3. I’ll tell you another book that is almost enough to make you believe in past lives: Colm Toibin’s The Master.


    • I must have started The Master at a bad time, Cassandra. I just couldn’t read it. I hope you will post that paragraph here.


  4. P.S. I’ll look for the article!


  5. hmm, I doubt that all seven billion people alive today could’ve been at Henry VIII’s court – maybe the AFWDW just meant everybody of Anglo or Welsh descent (and probably a few Spanish, Flemish, etc) was once at the Tudor court. still quite a good conversation stopper, though.

    Have you read Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black? it’s quite fun, and harrowing, and interesting. And her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, is marvellous (if you like Hilary Mantel, and seeing the world through the eyes of a young child, and reading about horrendous medical conditions & misdiagnoses).

    whatever the Anne Boleyn book was, I’m sure it contributed to the writing of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Mantel seems to be that kind of author – everything she writes relates to everything else, whatever the country and era it’s set in.


  6. Fibber McGourlick

    Am I mistaken or didn’t Robert Graves feel he was informed by a past life while writing I, Claudius? I think it’s all ridiculous crap, but a friend who’s a lot smarter than me believes in it, as does half of Asia. Millions of people believe in Scientology, and it’s even lower in the mystic scale. Harmless, I guess, but disheartening… As for me, I’m entirely on the side of science– except that I believe in ghosts, having encouintered a two of them when I was in my late 30s.


  7. “But when we look back across the centuries, sometimes it seems as if, beneath the beautiful clothes and the music and the poetry, the men and women of these strange times were really animals circling one another, some of them predators, others prey.

    “Henry was King Lion — splendid and dangerous. He decided to do as Anne asked. To divorce Catharine, he needed special permission from the Pope — a grand affair indeed. But when the Pope did not agree, Henry refused to accept his decision. If he left no heir, Henry reasoned, the country would be plunged into turmoil; there might even be war. And, he thought, a girl wasn’t good enough — the people might not accept her as their queen. No, Henry had to have a son. So he made himself the head of the church in England and turned his back on the Pope altogether. In so doing, he changed the course of history.

    “Suddenly, the people of his kingdom were forced to accept Henry as the head of the church when their religion had always taught them that this could only be the Pope in Rome. And when some of the most devout of his Catholic subjects refused, Henry had them tortured and put to death.

    “But what of Anne Boleyn, the strange young woman at the centre of this troubled time?

    “It had taken her six long years to persuade and argue and beg and challenge and torment and love the King into making her Queen. For six long years, she had been a predator, circling the crown like a lioness. But everything depended on her having a son, as she’d promised.

    “When she gave birth to Elizabeth instead, she became the prey.”


  8. Deborah: Maybe when people come back for second or subsequent lives, they split, so that there are more of each one each time. Seven thousand returned Henry VIIIs might be the cause of the rising divorce rate. I haven’t read any other of Hilary Mantel’s books, though I saw her interviewed by Inga Clendinnen at a Writers Festival about the memoir and wouldn’t toss it away on a desert island.

    Fibber: I don’t know how harmless all that stuff is. The tides of irrationalism and anti-science are becoming more dangerous every day.

    Cassandra: Thank you so much. That’s every bit as evocative as I remembered


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