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Posts Tagged ‘Anne Boleyn

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, Picador, 2012, 406 pp.

Bring up the bodiesAfter finishing Wolf Hall, I couldn’t wait to dive in to Bring Up the Bodies. The story picks up right where Wolf Hall leaves off, with the death of Sir Thomas More. King Henry VII is becoming disenchanted with Anne Boleyn, as she loses her second child. Bring Up the Bodies follows the story forward to the accusations, trial and death of Anne Boleyn, as the King’s infatuation with Jane Seymour grows.

As in Wolf Hall, the focus of the story is Thomas Cromwell, and the novel unfolds from his perspective. Mantel’s storytelling makes Cromwell a sympathetic and humane character, a shrewd businessman with a growing fold of young men in his household. However, Bring Up the Bodies shows Cromwell as the legal architect of the trumped-up case against Anne Boleyn and her supposed lovers. Mantel’s Cromwell is patient and calculating, the perfect embodiment of the proverb, “revenge is a dish best served cold.” The story places the four men accused of cavorting with the queen in a play, years before, mocking Cromwell’s mentor Cardinal Wolsey. Cromwell’s case is his silent, unacknowledged payback.

One of the interesting aspects of Mantel’s story is Cromwell’s religious and spiritual life. His intellectual curiosity makes him a Protestant sympathizer, because he believes in access to the Bible, to thought and new ideas. However, he seems distant from God or faith, uncertain of the reality of God, or more importantly, whether God matters at all. If God is real and God matters, he is convinced, it is a God unbound by human limits and human imagination. This interaction with the dying Queen Katherine is an example.

She looks up. ‘I have wondered, master, in what language do you confess? Or do you not confess?’
‘God knows our hearts, madam. There is no need for an idle formula, for an intermediary.’ No need for language, either, he things: God is beyond translation. (91)

Mantel’s writing is just superb. Her style is subtle and direct, just like Cromwell himself. Initially, it appears like it could be dense or dry, especially since the major plot developments are already known by history. However, I find myself turning page after page. Mantel is already at work on the third volume of the trilogy, and I can only hope it will be published soon.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2009, 532 pp.

Wolf HallI stumbled into this by impulse and accident, buying Bringing Up the Bodies from the discount bin only to set it aside when I realized it was part two of a series. When my eyes caught Wolf Hall on the library shelf, I decided to give it a try. I’m so glad I did.

Wolf Hall is the story of Thomas Cromwell. Set against the backdrop of Henry VIII’s romance with Anne Boleyn, the book covers the subtle machinations of Cromwell’s service to Cardinal Wolsey, then Henry and Anne. Cromwell is usually a side plot in most books on this place and time. Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn have had countless novels imagining their relationship, personalities and political maneuverings. Likewise with Sir Thomas More, Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cranmer (Archbishop of Canterbury), who get feature roles. Cromwell, however, is generally portrayed as the aide or antagonist to these main characters. Wolf Hall finally gives him the spotlight in our imaginations.

The book begins with a brief account of a working class, violent childhood, followed by disclosure of youthful wanderings and military service on the continent that remain shrouded in mystery. He emerges from time on the continent as a wealthy, well-connected, senior advisor to Cardinal Wolsey. Wolf Hall imagines how the most trusted advisor to Wolsey could somehow maneuver to become the most trusted advisor to Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, which is an unlikely assimilation but true to history.

Mantel’s storytelling is wonderful, and even after 532 rich pages, I still wanted more. She portrays Cromwell as the smartest man in every room, a scholar with a kindly heart and a desire for grace. He is willing to do what is necessary to accomplish the goals of his master (or his own, which are never quite explicit); however, in spite of about his bloody past as a soldier, Cromwell avoids violence as his tactic, unlike More and the King. In every other portrayal I’ve seen, he is mean-spirited, cold, calculating and harsh. In Wolf Hall, I liked him immediately. He is still calculating, but aloof instead of cold, and winsome in his humor and intellect. His Reformation tendencies emerge as a desire for knowledge, of the scriptures especially.

I can’t wait to dive into Bringing Up the Bodies, and I am already enjoying the miniseries version of Wolf Hall currently airing on Masterpiece Classic on PBS. Wolf Hall is a great read.

About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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