Monday, 27 January 2014

Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

These two much acclaimed books and both winners of the Man Booker Prize in 2009 and 2012 respectively, do not disappoint you. They are masterly written in a very solemn, quiet sort of way. It is told from the part of Thomas Cromwell, the secretary to first cardinal Wolsey and then to Henry VIII. We follow Cromwell from his humble background, during his young years while travelling, fighting in wars and working in Europe before he returned to England to study law. He was acknowledged at the time as an 'administrative genius' and his able work took him to the top of the society.

The books are a work of fiction and one can only know as much as there are written evidence. Although based on historical events, Hilary Mantel herself says that for some events there are vague evidence of what really happened. For a skilled writer as Hilary Mantel this is maybe a fantastic situation. She creates out of known facts additions that are now known, but could be, and makes them believable.

The interesting thing is that in the first book - at least I - was very impressed by Cromwell. A self-made man if there ever was one. Obviously highly intelligent and totally able to grasp the complex politics of the day. Here we follow his way to the top and how he very skilfully and diplomatically moves around the fall of Wolsey which in the end attracts the attention of the king. In the second book where he is almost on the top of his power and where he is given the 'important' tasks of trying to divorce Henry from his first wife Catherine, marry him to his second wife Anne Boleyn and in the end arrange for an annulment and beheading and to arrange Henry's wedding to his third wife Jane Seymour.

What makes the books so personal is that the political events of the day is mixed with the personal life of Cromwell; his wife, children, house and servants. How he entertains at home and the friendships he makes. His own thoughts on how things progress and they are all held in a very tight rein.

In the end of the second book Cromwell's son Gregory asks him when Anne Boleyn has been sentenced: When Gregory says, 'Are they guilty?' he means, 'Did they do it?' But when he says, 'Are they guilty?' he means, 'Did the court find them so?' The lawyer's world is entire unto itself, the human pared away. It was a triumph, in a small way, to unknot the entanglement of thighs and tongues, to take that mass of heaving flesh and smooth it on to white paper:

A little bit further down when thinking of charges and sins Cromwell thinks:

Word has come from the Vatican, where they are specialists in sin, that any offers of friendship, any gesture of reconciliation from King Henry, would be viewed kindly at this difficult time; because, whoever else is surprised, they are not surprised in Rome about the turn events have taken. In Rome, of course, it would be unremarkable: adultery, incest, one merely shrugs. When he was at the Vatican, in Cardinal Bainbridge's day, he quickly saw that no one in the papa court grasped what was happening, ever; and least of all the Pope. 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. 

The National Portrait Gallery is engaging several writers to write portraits to complement pictures in the gallery. Hilary Mantel has written one for Holbein d.y. portrait of Cromwell. She writes:

"In black legend he is a greedy thug, a spymaster, a torturer. But to John Foxe, 'a valiant captain of Christ.' To Archbishop Cranmer, 'such a servant … in wisdom, diligence, faithfulness and experience, as no prince in this realm ever had.'
"He doesn't care what you think of him. No man more immune to insult. Truth is the daughter of time. Time is what we haven't got." (For more info see this article in the Guardian)

In the book where the painting of the portrait is mentioned Cromwell is slightly disappointed when he sees it. He says to his son: "I look like a murderer." Gregory responds: "Didn't you know?"

There is a third part coming but Hilary Mantel has said that it might take some time. I think we are many who eagerly are awaiting the third book.

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