Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Bring Up the Bodies

Hilary Mantel upped her game from the already high level of Wolf Hall in this sequel chronicling the further career of Thomas Cromwell and the sad fate of Anne Boleyn. As she did with Thomas More, Mantel is at pains to demythologize "Anne of the Thousand Days" and portray her as a scheming, vindictive harridan while not actually pronouncing a verdict on her alleged adultery and incest.

But if Anne Boleyn is the object of the action in this new book, Cromwell is still the subject and Mantel continues to probe every nuance of this complex character -- who may or may not have anything to do with the historical figure -- in her mellifluous prose. It is tempting to quote passages where she veers so effortlessly from lyrical description to hard-nosed dialogue; the sly, witty asides; the breathtaking insights into mixed motives. Instead, I would just say: Read this book; it repays you on every page.

Mantel portrays Cromwell's relentless campaign against Anne Boleyn as a calculated if belated revenge for Wolsey's downfall. He implicates various court figures in the charges of treason and adultery on the basis of their role in cheering the fall from grace of his mentor. The workings of Cromwell's mind are described so gracefully you scarcely realize how genuinely vindictive he is. But the author also intimates how Cromwell's machinations bear the seeds of his own destruction. Harry Percy, hounded into perjury and disgrace by Cromwell, acutely observes that he must know what lies in store for him from a king who toppled Wolsey, beheaded More, and condemned the erstwhile love of his life to death.

Mantel also manages to maintain the reader's sympathy for the monstrous Henry VIII, even while portraying him as a narcissistic, psychopathic tyrant. His charm, his charisma beckon across the centuries in a re-creation that remains fresh despite all the books and movies that have already portrayed this historical giant.

The brief glimpses of a convulsed Europe, divided by religion and dynastic rivalries provide a colorful backdrop the drama in England. But doctrines and foreign dynasties both remain subordinated to the central issue of maintaining the Tudor succession -- the end that justifies all of Cromwell's and Henry's actions.

Not to be overlooked is the elemental barbarity of the age that produced Shakespeare and the King James Bible. Torture and beheading are bad enough, but the intimations of being hanged, drawn and quartered are unspeakably gross to modern sensibilities. The subjugation to tyranny in a land proud of the rule of law is another historical theme that offends our sense of democracy. But the hypocrisy of the case built against Anne Boleyn -- based on innuendo rather than evidence and hiding the real political motives behind fabricated conspiracies -- holds lessons for our own time and country, where one political party fueled by corporate funds works to create an alternative reality to dupe the public.

There is to be a third book and a third trip to the gallows to finish the Cromwell saga. Can't wait.

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