Something in the Act of Becoming: On Hilary Mantel's "Bring Up the Bodies"

By Jane HuAugust 11, 2012

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

THE TITLE OF HILARY MANTEL'S latest novel Bring Up the Bodies comes from a line spoken in its final pages. Only after this declaration are “the bodies” given names: “Deliver, that is, the accused men, by name Weston, Brereton, Smeaton and Norris, to Westminster Hall for trial.” Anne Boleyn’s illicit lovers seem more meat than men while herded to the scaffold. Like Mantel’s title, they act as a warning — a prelude — to the queen’s own execution. It all happens very quickly. “Bring up the bodies,” as though these men were already and only that — bodies. The line is as efficient as an ax to the head. Actions are abrupt in this novel; where Mantel takes her time is in cultivating the long spaces between.

Bring Up the Bodies is the second volume of Mantel’s trilogy that tracks the rise, decline, and ultimate fall of Thomas Cromwell. Where the first installment, Wolf Hall, chronicles the undoing of Thomas More, Bring Up the Bodies charts the demise of Anne Boleyn. Both novels end in swift scenes of execution. Wolf Hall sprawls from 1500 to 1535, teasing out the historical and psychological conditions that could produce the impenetrable force that was Thomas Cromwell. Bring Up the Bodies is more urgent, turning a close lens on Boleyn’s final days.

When Wolf Hall was being considered for the Booker Prize in 2009 (which it won), the Times noted that its shortlist (which included A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger, and Adam Foulds’s The Quickening Maze) was “dominated by a form once taboo,” but historical fiction is less a taboo than a literary challenge. The problem facing its writers seems to be this: How does one maintain the novelistic properties of suspense, ambivalence, and most importantly, the illusion of choice when readers already know how the tale ends? The final installation of Mantel’s trilogy (titled The Mirror and the Light) is in progress, but readers already know the story will end with Cromwell’s death. And how.

Instead of trying to thwart readers’ expectations, however, Mantel engages them. In the first pages of Bring Up the Bodies, she playfully alludes to Hans Holbein’s portrait of Cromwell (currently hanging in New York’s Frick Collection). Though the painting is a familiar one now, Mantel’s description is fresh, casting it, once more, with life:

His portrait broods on the wall; he is wrapped in wool and fur, his hand clenched around a document as if he were throttling it. Hans had pushed a table back to trap him and said, Thomas, you mustn’t laugh; and they proceeded on that basis, Hans humming as he worked and he staring ferociously into the middle distance. When he saw the portrait finished he said, ‘Christ, I look like a murderer’; and his son Gregory said, didn’t you know?

In expressing Cromwell’s shock at his own brutal gaze, Mantel invokes the mythology surrounding King Henry VIII’s chief minister. History will not be compassionate to him; time will flatten Cromwell, leaving him to be remembered as the man in Holbein’s painting, a murderer, remorseless in his pursuit of power.

Holbein has Cromwell “staring ferociously into the middle distance,” and Mantel positions readers from within that gaze — they experience Bring Up the Bodies (like Wolf Hall before it) from Cromwell’s own perspective. This is how Mantel cultivates suspense: her readers know the ending, but her protagonist does not. The view from inside Cromwell’s head is sometimes oppressive, but it’s also what holds readers close to him, driving their sympathies as they move alongside him.

In Mimesis, Erich Auerbach tells us:

Legend arranges its material in a simple and straightforward way; it detaches it from its contemporary historical context, so that the latter will not confuse it; it knows only clearly outlined men who act from few and simple motives and the continuity of whose feelings and actions remains uninterrupted.

Auberbach contrasts the isolated and continuous quality of legend with literary realism. While legend is all “externalized description, uniform illustration, uninterrupted connection, free expression, all events in the foreground, displaying unmistakable meanings,” literary realism sees only

certain parts brought into high relief, others left obscure, abruptness, suggestive influence of the unexpressed, “background” quality, multiplicity of meanings and the need for interpretation, universal-historical claims, development of the concept of the historically becoming, and preoccupation with the problematic.

Such equivocating makes Mantel’s fiction both historical and contemporary. In Mantel’s narrative, history is still burdened with the weight of its own unraveling. Midway through the novel, Cromwell dreams “he senses something in the act of becoming.” The future might be inevitable according to Mantel’s readers, but Cromwell can hardly fathom its outline.
When Mantel discusses her creative process, one gets the sense that writing, too, is a process of becoming. What was originally to be one book on Thomas Cromwell quickly became two, then three. As the author says: “I did not know what I would find when I began. That is the only reason I could do it, because I was surprised at every turn.” Mantel expresses this surprise in the very form of her sentences, which constantly disorient the reader as subjects and objects swirl in restless interchangeability:

It can’t be a first person narrative, but it’s not as detached as third person. And I felt that since I’m behind his eyes, I can’t really start calling him Thomas Cromwell, as if I’m across the room and able to point at him. So I evolved this other way of doing it, which has now become a kind of trademark of the book. I’m very conscious that some readers found it hard to get used to. Once you work out that “he” is Thomas Cromwell, unless you’re told different, from then on it should work for you. It’s a risk, I know, but it seemed a worthwhile risk to me.

The effect is a dizzying reminder that even when we think we know where we are, one pronoun can shift the terms of our experience entirely. This relay between Mantel, her narrators, and readers also critiques the assumption that the past exists in a static universality. History can only be told by somebody and for somebody.

James Wood’s review of Bring Up the Bodies describes Mantel’s deft art of historical fiction, in making stories we thought we already knew interesting again:

By the same token, when a historical fact is central to a novelistic detail, Mantel uses it in a way so novelistically intelligent that the historical fact seems to have been secretly transposed into a fictional one.

But is there a difference between “historical fact” and “novelistic detail”? For Mantel, details are always threaded with facts. Wood’s term “novelistic intelligence” suggests contrivance and contemplation behind Mantel’s writing, whereas the author has said: “I don’t really make a distinction between research and writing.” Nearly all her novels swirl around the collapse between history and fiction.

Mantel condemns her readers to live in the mind (and witness the psychological acrobatics) of Henry VIII’s most notorious hit man. Seeing history through Cromwell’s eyes gives the reader privileged access to certain secrets, to the conflict behind his silence, behind his famously reticent and impassive mien. Like Robert Browning’s dramatic monologists and Joseph Conrad’s anti-heroes, we’re not meant to judge Cromwell, but to empathize with him.

When the executions occur in Mantel’s text, she complicates — if not eases — the blow. In a moment of wordless communication between Cromwell and Boleyn, Mantel shows that murder in the royal court implicates everyone: “Silent, she steadies herself against his shoulder, leans into him: intent, complicit, ready for the next thing they will do together, which is kill her.” Speaking to those who will help him build a case against Boleyn, Cromwell is asked “Who is to be tried?” and he answers “That is what I am hoping to determine.” We see these moments of conspiracy, and others of mutual understanding and sympathy, as with Henry and his first wife, Katherine: “You are in pain, he starts to say, but she waves him to silence, it’s nothing, nothing.” In telling us such conversations behind closed doors and moments of private contemplation, Cromwell conspires with the reader:

The marks on paper do not tell you about the pain of a broken ankle or the efforts of a suffocating man not to vomit inside his helmet. As the combatants will always tell you, you really needed to see it, you had to be there.

In Mantel’s novel, Cromwell’s omniscience is ours.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Mantel explained Cromwell’s task:

I’m very anxious to show the reader that the engine of this plot is rumor, and no one at any time is in possession of the full truth. So really, to discuss that with the reader, Cromwell says he wants the useable truth, just enough truth to take it into court and get the thing done.

Mantel’s “useable truth” might approach what Wood calls “historical fact” — the items of gossip that form a story as compelling as it is believable. Following Cromwell as he mines rumors for useable truths is an always riveting, if sometimes painful experience. At every turn and with each ruined life, we’re reminded that our investment in Cromwell’s fate means our indifference to someone else’s.

What makes rumor so liberating is the novel’s dependence on unknowability. The novel follows the same logic as gossip — the possibility of leaks must always be present. Narratives — both grand and parochial — flourish when no one knows anything absolutely. It makes sense then that so many have placed Bring Up the Bodies in the lineage of spy fiction; Mantel’s narrative pacing begs the comparison, as does her experimentation with textual secrets and lapses. Wendy Smith in The Washington Post compares Tudor absolutism to 20th-century totalitarianism, where authority manages a line between imagination and reality, thoughts and actions. Pondering the Vatican, Cromwell has thoughts not unlike those of a Graham Greene character: “Intrigue feeds on itself; conspiracies have neither mother nor father, and yet they thrive: the only thing to know is that no one knows anything.” More than one reviewer has compared Bring Up the Bodies to Arthur Koestler’s political allegory Darkness At Noon (itself the second volume in a trilogy).

In Imagined Communities (1983), Benedict Anderson links nationalism to the growth of print capitalism in the late 18th century. As the circulation of newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, and the novel allowed rapidly expanding populations to communicate across distances, new stories about the nation began to be told. These textual — often literary — forms of communication bound people together in politically charged formations: nationalism flourished when rapid, global rumor became a possibility. Mantel’s novel shows how gossip — the novelistic detail — drove the fictions of an entire country. Rumor starts somewhere, and Mantel’s trilogy is, at heart, about how an entire empire can flourish via the stories dictated by one man.

Bring Up the Bodies is a counterintuitive recuperative reading of a longstanding national archetype: Mantel’s Cromwell might not be just, but he is honorable. The many instances where he shows compassion (almost always to women) spur our compassion for him.

Like Mantel, then, Cromwell is fundamentally a storyteller: both use stories as a way of claiming control. What, and perhaps more importantly who, got left out? The final paragraph of Bring Up the Bodies:

The word ‘however’ is like an imp coiled beneath your chair. It induces ink to form words you have not yet seen, and lines to march across the page and overshoot the margin. There are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings. Here is one.

Language is a way of intercepting the passage of fate. Every story requires telling the story again.

Mantel’s use of historical fiction is also a critique of it. Bring Up the Bodies gets at the idea that our faith in a country’s history — in a kingdom’s icons — are ultimately retrospective effects of national feeling. One’s idea of the nation, like one’s portrait of the past, is just a story, and likely punctured with gaps, scattered with half-truths, if not full-out lies. As such, Mantel’s mode of storytelling is itself a method of resistance — a way of rewriting the plot. Holbein’s painting is stopped in the middle of becoming.


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Jane Hu is a critic who lives in Los Angeles.


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