What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Art of the Sequel: "Bring Up the Bodies" by Hilary Mantel

Following a fabulous novel like Wolf Hall is a tough order -- but I found Hilary Mantel managed to deliver just as a sequel that is just as compelling as the first in a proposed trilogy of novels devoted to Thomas Cromwell. Now I'm going to have a very tough time waiting for the third...

The historical Cromwell comes away from most books about him (even the one biography I've been able to lay hands on, by Robert Hutchinson) as a rather nasty piece of work -- the ultimate henchman, the kind of guy that Henry VIII had to have on his team to take on the dirty jobs that the king couldn't be seen to be undertaking, such as the dissolution of the monasteries. Mantel, in her afterword to Bring Up the Bodies, describes Thomas Cromwell as "sleek, plump and densely inaccessible" -- and yet she manages to take us, her readers, inside his mind to understand what makes him tick -- at least, just enough to make him and his world comprehensible.

I've been reading novels set in the Tudor era since I picked up Murder Most Royal by Jean Plaidy more than 40 years ago (the focus of that being on Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard). After the deluge of novels set around Anne Boleyn's rise and fall -- many of them pedestrian or thinly-disguised romances in fancy medieval garb -- I had given up on any hope of finding a really good novel in the midst of all the pages written about Henry and his wives. But here it is, at last -- indeed, I now have two of these rare gems. Mantel has crafted a novel that is not only about Henry and Anne, but about their era; about the unease that prevails in a kingdom with no legitimate male heir to a dynasty only two generations old and whose reigning monarch has turned his realm upside town by rejecting the pope's rule. She writes about the transformation of Tudor England, as men of ability, knowledge and focus, ranging from Cardinal Wolsey (whose fall from grace is chronicled in the first volume) to Cromwell and his apprentices (some of whom will outlive Henry) displace the nobility as the king's top advisors, to the disgruntlement of the dukes and earls and their scions. At the same time, Mantel never allows the substance to detract from the fact that she is telling the story of one man; of Cromwell, who rises to power because his elders and betters recognize the unique combination of ability and tenacity.

When Bring Up the Bodies opens, Cromwell is already well on the way to becoming one of the men who will prove most instrumental in transforming Henry VIII and his reign; a man who has dedicated his life to the study of the king and how to fulfill the latter's wishes and desires. After surviving the Cardinal's fall, he has risen in the king's service but still must battle with the old guard, the nobles and gentlemen -- "flattering them, cajoling them, seeking always an easy way of working, a compromise" But Cromwell is now indispensable to Henry. He also is one of the first to realize, within the first 50 pages of the book, that the king's despair at his lack of an heir nearly three years after his marriage to Anne Boleyn, and Cromwell's own frustration with these nobles, can be neatly resolved at the same time. "I have probably, he thinks, gone as far as I can to accommodate them. Now they must accommodate me, or be removed."

Wolf Hall was a lengthy novel, covering the best part of a decade in its pages. In contrast, the sequel is a tighter and more compressed narrative, focusing on the nine months or so leading up to the fall and execution of Anne Boleyn. When it opens, there is speculation that Anne may provide the kingdom with an heir. When it ends -- well, if you know English history, you know how it ends (and you'll still find the tension and suspense Mantel creates to be compelling), and if you don't, well, this is the book you want to learn it from. Once again Mantel recounts the events through the eyes of the consummate politician, Cromwell, who has learned well from Machiavelli and who yet still earns the understanding of readers, if not always our sympathy. Cromwell's motivations and goals may be laudable -- he seeks to run the kingdom well, to find a way to school and support male orphans who are abandoned (and who thus will support the female orphans), to mentor educated young men -- although sometimes what it takes to do that makes us squirm with unease. Even when those ends justify the means of getting rid of a queen who has not done her duty. "If she will not go, she must be pushed, and I must push her, who else?" To that end, justice becomes utilitarian: it is not who is guilty, so much as what they may be guilty of, and what guilt is of use to Cromwell, acting on the king's behalf.

One of the criticisms of Mantel's first book in this trilogy was her frequent use of "he" in place of Cromwell, which some readers found awkward. In this case, she has taken pains in some points to address that, replacing a simple "he" with "he, Cromwell" and although there were a few points in the early pages where I was occasionally unclear as to who was thinking or speaking, I quickly found this retreated to the background. Indeed, I began to get a glimpse of what Mantel may be trying to accomplish with this. If Cromwell is as "densely inaccessible" as she suggests, then a first person narrative would be too intimate; would give the reader too much insight too early into his actions and motivations. Mantel's style strikes the perfect compromise. Cromwell is the narrator; we are clearly seeing the Tudor court and England through his eyes, and we don't see the thoughts or views of other characters, except through the latters' actions; we are clearly following Cromwell throughout. And yet Cromwell is always "he"; an opaque and guarded individual. Even while we get a glimpse inside his thoughts and actions as if he were addressing a diary, we can never pretend we understand him -- and it becomes all too clear why, as some of his household remind him, his mere presence can terrify people. So his final confrontations with those who stand in the way of the king and his wishes are all the more revelatory. I hadn't thought there was much more to say about the downfall of Anne Boleyn, or much to say about Cromwell: I was very wrong on both counts.

I can't wait to see how Hilary Mantel deals with what comes next, in the volume that will see Cromwell reach the peak of his power but must also chronicle his own fall.  As Wolf Hall  ended with an execution, and with a new beginning, so does this novel. Now Cromwell must once again find a way to deal not only with his monarch (as he refines his imagined "Book of Henry", a guide on how to deal with the king and his moods and whims) but with an enigmatic new queen and her family. After all, as he muses, "Henry's women come trailing families, he does not find his brides in the forest hiding under a leaf."

Read it already? Well, seek out The Autobiography of Henry VIII by Margaret George, the author's debut and, in my opinion, by far her best book. Or, if you're looking for something about the next generation of Tudors and other monarchs with marital woes, try Reay Tannahill's Fatal Majesty, about Mary Queen of Scots. OK, she only had half as many husbands as Henry VIII did wives, but in Tannahill's hands, she and her entourage make for good reading.


  1. Thanks for your great review. I also enjoyed very much this 2nd volume, that was my best audiobook in June. here is my review: http://wordsandpeace.com/2012/06/13/2012-27-review-bring-up-the-bodies/

  2. Ms. Mantel's writing reminds me of a combination of Sharon Kaye Penman's historical fiction and Alison Weir's history...a tremendous compliment to this author. Highly recommended!

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