The story of Henry VIII, his six wives, his quest for a male heir, and his break with Rome is a much-retold one, and Mantel's twist on it is not only that she is telling it from the perspective of Cromwell but that she's taken a character who is usually cast as a conniving, power-hungry villain and made him a hero and a standard-bearer for compassionate humanism, who is aiding Henry not only in order to stabilize the Tudor dynasty and prevent another War of the Roses, but in order to strengthen Protestantism in England and bring an end to the corruption and brutality of the Catholic establishment. I was intrigued by this portrait in Wolf Hall, but also worried that Mantel was erring too far on the side of hagiography. In particular, the decision to end the novel shortly before Cromwell is called upon by Henry's increasing indifference to Anne to get rid of her by any means necessary, and chooses to do so via judicial murder and the criminalization of speech and thought, felt manipulative, and I wondered whether in the next volume in the trilogy Mantel would face up to the full ugliness of what Cromwell had done, or whether she would whitewash or excuse it (an interim reading of Mantel's previous novel, A Place of Greater Safety, in which she passes up the opportunity to ask some searching questions about the architects of the Terror in favor of focusing on their tangled family lives, didn't leave me feeling very hopeful on this front).
Bring Up the Bodies allays many of these fears. In fact what it put me most in mind of was the middle seasons of Breaking Bad, in which Walter White's allegedly virtuous justifications for cooking and dealing drugs melt away, allowing the megalomania and thirst for power that are his true motivations to shine through. Cromwell isn't quite as much of a villain, but the insouciance with which he cooks up the trial, twisting the letter of the law to allow Anne and her alleged lovers to be convicted and executed on the basis of no evidence at all without ever seeming to lose a moment's peace, shines a new light on his similarly even temper in Wolf Hall. All of a sudden, that portrait of a compassionate, principled courtier who pursued power in order to do good, and sent the king's enemies (who also happened to be his own enemies) to their deaths not out of bloodlust but simply to protect the realm, starts to seem more than a little self-serving. Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are both told from a tight third person that allegedly gives us full access to Cromwell's thoughts and feelings, but the voices of the two novels are different. In Wolf Hall Cromwell responds with sorrowful equanimity to the death of Wolsey and the humiliations he suffers at the hands of aristocratic courtiers who still think like feudal lords (and is equally sorrowful as the drives Thomas More to his death), but Bring Up the Bodies puts the lie to this claim of even temper:
He remembers last year, Brereton swaggering through Whitehall, whistling like a stable boy; breaking off to say to him, "I hear the king, when he does not like the papers you bring in to him, knocks you well about the pate."It's hard to recognize this petty, seething Cromwell from Wolf Hall, and it's as if in that book he was unwilling to own his feelings and desires even to himself. But now, in Bring Up the Bodies, that he is the king's right hand and the most powerful man in the country, he can drop the pretense that he has simply been disinterestedly doing what needs to be done, and tell us what he wants: power, and revenge for the death of Wolsey. As Mantel has it, the four gentlemen accused of committing adultery with Anne (who include Brereton from the passage above) are selected out of the dozens named by the tortured musician Mark Smeaton because they participated in a skit mocking the cardinal after his death ("It is not so much, who is guilty, as whose guilt is of service to you"), while a fifth man, Thomas Wyatt, generally rumored to be Anne's lover but also a friend of Cromwell's, is protected from suspicion.
You'll be knocked, he had said to himself. Something in this man makes him feel he is a boy again, a sullen belligerent little ruffian fighting on the riverbank in Putney. He has heard it before, this rumor put about to demean him. Anyone who knows Henry knows it is impossible. He is the first gentleman of Europe, his courtesy unflawed. If he wants someone stricken, he employs a subject to do it; he would not sully his own hand. It is true they sometimes disagree. But if Henry were to touch him, he would walk away. There are princes in Europe who want him. They make him offers; he could have castles.
This is not to say that Bring Up the Bodies casts Cromwell as a pure villain, or even that there is a sense that this is, Breaking Bad-like, Mantel's ultimate goal for him. Cromwell the tireless and efficient civil servant, the reformer, the philanthropist, the mentor of industrious, intelligent young men who take up positions in court and help to spread his reform, is still present in this novel. A major subplot involves his audit of the monasteries, his discovery of corruption and depravity within their walls and his project to turn over their wealth to the country and set the monks to useful pastoral work, which surely sets the readers on his side. In a blatant contemporary reference, Mantel has Cromwell propose an infrastructure law:
England needs better roads, and bridges that don't collapse. He is preparing a bill for Parliament to give employment to men without work, to get them waged and out mending the roads, making the harbours, building walls against the Emperor or any other opportunist. We could pay them, he calculated, if we levied an income tax on the rich; we could provide shelter, doctors if they needed them, their subsistence; we would have all the fruits of their work, and their employment would keep them from becoming bawds or pickpockets or highway robbers, all of which men will do if they see no other way to eat.This is Cromwell as Barack Obama, and when the law fails, the reasons given are pure 1% dogma: "It is an outrage to the rich and enterprising, to suggest that they should pay an income tax, only to put bread in the mouths of the workshy." Less anachronistically, the novel's preoccupation with class--which is to say, Cromwell's own preoccupation with it--is used for more than just exposing Cromwell's own ambition. The higher Cromwell climbs, the more blatantly the resentment felt towards him by high-born courtiers is expressed--the novel begins with Francis Weston, another of the gentlemen who will be accused of adultery with Anne, mercilessly peppering Cromwell with cruel jibes in front of both the king and Cromwell's son Gregory, and in a later scene, Henry's brother-in-law Charles Brandon hisses that Cromwell is "only for fetching in money, when it comes to the affairs of nations you cannot deal, you are a common man of no status, and the king himself says so, you are not fit to talk to princes." This is, again, the sort of thing guaranteed to put us on Cromwell's side (especially in the latter scene, in which it is Charles, despite his harsh words, who has just committed a horrible faux pas with the emissary from the Emperor Charles V), but Mantel manages to balance the two halves of his personality, the underdog and the judicial murderer. You can see how his anger over these repeated insults, especially as he rises in Henry's esteem, feeds Cromwell's desire to cement and increase his power, which leads him not only to revenge on people like Weston, Brereton and the Boleyns, but to a general willingness to do whatever it takes to get to the top.
Of course, to an extent what Cromwell is doing is playing the same game as everyone around him, except better and with less of a starting advantage, and he is far from the only one to contemplate adding murder to his list of available plays--rumors abound that Catherine was murdered in order to free Henry to dispose of Anne without having to go back to his first wife, and Anne not-quite-jokingly talks about poisoning Catherine's daughter Mary in order to rid herself of a troublesome influence on Henry. But Cromwell is the only one who actually puts this idea into practice (not to mention doing so under the auspices of the law) and what's missing from Bring Up the Bodies, despite its delicate balancing of Cromwell's humanity and monstrousness, is the moment in which that decision is made. It is an emptiness at the core of the novel that points, I think, towards Mantel's final purpose with this trilogy. More importantly, it points towards Henry, who is, if not quite an absence in the story, then certainly less present in these two novels than feels justified given that it's his whims and desires that drive Cromwell, and all of the other characters, to such extreme actions. In Wolf Hall, Cromwell explains to his son Gregory his willingness to work against Catherine as the result of having picked his prince: "you choose him, and you know what he is. And then, when you have chosen, you say yes to him"
"But you swore," Gregory says, "that you respected the queen."It's a scene that almost demands a callback in Bring Up the Bodies, some scene in which Cromwell grasps that Henry does want him to kill Anne, and that he is--as nearly every iteration of this story ultimately concludes--a monster (it also demands some payoff for Gregory, who is one of the books' more intriguing peripheral characters; though devoted to his father, Gregory lacks the intelligence and killer instinct that make Cromwell such a successful courtier, and seems destined to the life of an idle gentleman. Cromwell seems to regard him with a mixture of love and disdain, alternating between the desire to protect him and rub his face in what's been done in order to give him the cushy life he's grown accustomed to). Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies both point out Henry's selfishness, his childishness, his need to always see himself as the good guy and the wronged party, but Cromwell himself seems to elide these--he recognizes them, but he doesn't acknowledge them or the fact that he has linked his fortunes to a sociopath, even as that connection determines his own actions. Bring Up the Bodies being the middle part of a trilogy, it seems likely that the final volume will turn its gaze to Henry and the consequences of Cromwell's choosing him as his prince, that just as Bring Up the Bodies opens up Cromwell's voice and lets us see his ambition, the next volume will open it further and let us see his feelings towards Henry (in fact the ending of Bring Up the Bodies seems to promise this: after Anne's death, one of Cromwell's associates asks "if this is what Cromwell does to the cardinal's lesser enemies, what will he do by and by to the king himself?", an obvious question that has nevertheless gone completely unacknowledged by Cromwell's internal narrative in the previous two books). But until the tone of Mantel's conclusion on this point is known, it's hard to know what her project for Cromwell, and with these books, is, and therefore hard to know how to take either Wolf Hall or Bring Up the Bodies.
"So I do. And I would respect her corpse."
"You would not work her death, would you?"
He halts. He takes his son's arm, turns him to look into his face. "Retrace our steps through this conversation." Gregory pulls away. "No, listen, Gregory. I said, you give way to the king's requests. You open the way to his desires. That is what a courtier does. Now, understand this: it is impossible that Henry should require me or any other person to harm the queen. What is he, a monster?"
One of the reasons that the story of Henry VIII is retold so often is how versatile it is. It encompasses family, politics and religion, and has so many interesting movers and shakers, that you could tell it from almost any perspective and in almost any way--tragedy, romance, soap opera, political intrigue, farce--and end up with a good story. But to me, the story is, at its heart, about women. It would be hard to come up with a better illustration of how patriarchy screws women over, of the zero-sum game they're made to play with other women, of the chutes and ladders a woman must traverse when she sets out to parlay her biology into power, of the inescapable trap that is the virgin-whore dichotomy, than the six wives of Henry VIII. You can play by Catherine's rules, tolerating disrespect and infidelity so long as you get to keep the titles of wife and queen, only to be told that you have to relinquish them, discovering that the protection you thought they offered you has disappeared. You can play by Anne's rules (or rather The Rules), playing the harlot but refusing to give up the goods except for a ring and a crown, but these won't make you any safer than your predecessor, and the power you amassed when your demands for respect were enticing and sexy will melt away as soon as these become grating. If you're unfaithful, you die; if you're faithful, you still die. If you can't bear a male heir, you die; if you do bear a male heir, you still die. And best of all, at no point during this decades-long process will anyone around you stop to consider that maybe the problem here isn't with the women, but with the man who, directly or indirectly, caused the deaths of four out of his six wives. (Actually, the real best part is the surprise twist ending, the fact that all that desperate, bloody scrambling after a male heir results only in the brief, inconsequential reign of Edward VI, while the seemingly unimportant daughter of the ignominiously dispatched Anne Boleyn becomes one of England's most famous monarchs, but most of the characters in Mantel's books will never have the historical perspective necessary to get that joke.)
For all her emphasis on Cromwell, it's pretty clear that Mantel realizes this. She uses the unequal relationship between men and women in several interesting ways, most obviously in the way that the erosion of his empathy towards women signals Cromwell's moral devolution. In Wolf Hall, Cromwell is surrounded by women, and not just the ones familiar from history. He has close relationships with his wife, his daughters, his sisters and sisters-in-law, his nieces, the wives of his friends, and even a poor widow who comes to him looking for work. He develops a a rapport, and a quiet flirtation, with Mary Boleyn, and falls half in love with Jane Seymour. In Bring Up the Bodies those women are absent--dead or married off or simply not mentioned--while the important historical figures are viewed with incomprehension and disdain. Cromwell clearly dislikes Anne, deriding her not simply for her unsavory methods--asking him to arrange for someone to compromise Mary's honor, for example, to which he sniffily replies that "That is not my aim and those are not my methods," even though we know that he has done and will do worse--but for losing her looks and the king's favor. He frequently comments that she uses "women's weapons," and it's clear that this is a further cause of his disdain for her. Mary Boleyn is absent, and Jane Seymour is treated in purely utilitarian terms, as a future conquest of the king for whom Cromwell is determined to secure a good price (Jane is another one of the novel's better peripheral characters, though she's less consistently written than Gregory; where in Wolf Hall she comes off as matter of fact and plain-spoken, in Bring Up the Bodies it is never clear whether she's simple-minded or has such an unromantic understanding of her situation and what it requires of her that she has no patience for the pretty words bandied about by everyone around her, a disconnect that can't entirely be explained by Cromwell's loss of empathy towards her). The deaths of Cromwell's wife and daughters in Wolf Hall are his defining tragedy, but over the course of that novel their memory fades, and in Bring Up the Bodies what is left of that memory is defiled. The novel opens with Cromwell flying hawks whom he has, bewilderingly, named for his dead wife, daughters, and sisters, enjoying the sight of them slaughtering their prey. Later, Mark Smeaton is locked in a storage room in Cromwell's house, where he's terrified into giving a false confession by something brushing his face in the dark. This turns out to be a pair of angel wings worn by Cromwell's youngest daughter on her last Christmas, a symbol of her beauty and innocence, which Cromwell then has destroyed. In the novel's final scene, Cromwell is so corrupted by the pageant of false accusations he's put on that he starts to wonder whether his own wife was unfaithful to him, and whether his beloved daughter was really his.
But Mantel is also concerned with the way that women determine the course of the story. When Cromwell's wife Elizabeth first hears about Henry's plan to divorce Catherine in Wolf Hall, she says that it will set all women against him: "All women everywhere in England. All women who have a daughter but no son. All women who have lost a child. All women who are forty." And yet it's Anne, not Henry, against whom the women of England set themselves. She becomes a figure of both fascination and revulsion to the women around Cromwell (when he sees her he always makes a note of what she's wearing because the women will want to know), and it is they who refuse to forgive her for Catherine's fall from grace, and who spread vicious rumors about her (and, of course, it is the women of Anne's household who first point Cromwell in the direction of adultery as a way of getting rid of her). When Jane is asked, near the end of the novel, whether she feels sorry for Anne, she replies, with her typical obliqueness, that "You cannot do what Anne Boleyn did, and live to be old." Since the accusations of adultery haven't been made public yet it seems that what Jane means by "what Anne Boleyn did" is what Cromwell's wife and the other women of England mean by it--stealing another woman's husband, playing games of power and sex with powerful men. But of course, as we know and the characters don't yet, Jane won't live to be old either. Being meek and obedient (the motto Cromwell invents for her as queen is "Bound to Obey and Serve") and producing a male heir will do for her just as surely as being intransigent and failing to produce that heir did for Catherine and Anne. There is no winning in the game of patriarchy, except for the person at the top, and yet every woman in the novel directs her scorn towards Anne and women like her, while even his injured wives refuse to think ill of Henry--Catherine's last letter to Henry ends with the affirmation that "mine eyes desire you above all things," and even in the Tower Anne insists, as Catherine did before her, that Henry has been misled by false advisers, and that in any minute he will remember his love for her and restore her to her place as queen.
Which is where the connection is made back to Cromwell, and which is Bring Up the Bodies's most brilliant touch. For all his disdain towards Anne and her weakness and her "women's weapons," Cromwell is doing exactly the same thing as she, and Catherine, and Jane, are doing--hitching his star to Henry's wagon and refusing to see that he might be discarded as easily as his predecessors were. After Anne's arrest, the Boleyns and their circle repeatedly warn Cromwell that once he's gotten rid of Anne, Henry will have no more use for him, and will allow the enemies Cromwell has made common cause with to destroy him. Inasmuch as Bring Up the Bodies allows Cromwell to react to this, it is to insist, as Anne does, on Henry's love and devotion, and on Cromwell's being irreplaceable to him. Like the wives, and despite the fate of Wolsey before him, Cromwell refuses to see that he can be replaced, and that it is in Henry's nature to tire of people, or force them to shoulder the guilt he won't recognize in himself. Patriarchy victimizes women, but it also chews up low status men, and by choosing his prince Cromwell has set himself up for the same fate as the women whose deaths he orchestrated. As I said, it's not clear to me what Mantel's ultimate project is, and there is certainly space in the story she's written so far to make Henry the trilogy's ultimate villain and Cromwell his victim--something that could be done well, even if it would cement my sense that Mantel has a tendency to like her characters more than they deserve. But there's also space to talk about the way that patriarchy corrupts its participants without absolving them of responsibility for their choices--as Anne is not absolved in Bring Up the Bodies--and that is what I hope Mantel produces.