The level of detail in both books is so excessive that with a charmless narrator a reader would feel lectured. But Cromwell is exceptionally entertaining. Along with his grief, professionalism, and toughness is his sense of humor, Mantel’s sense of humor. Everything in the book is very funny, never more so than when Cromwell’s mind is turning a polite formal meeting into something so much darker.
Gruesomeness is blinked at with macabre glee. At a polite formal interview Cromwell notes of Anne’s doomed brother George: “Today he wears white velvet over red silk, scarlet rippling from each gash. He is reminded of a picture he saw once in the Low Countries, of a saint being flayed alive.” Mantel isn’t done yet: “The skin of the man’s calves was folded neatly over his ankles, like soft boots.”
As the noose tightens, and Cromwell focuses on the Queen, so does Mantel's verve and wit, the courtliness giving way to ribald vulgarity, the queen's womb a point of conjecture. Cromwell holds interviews with Anne’s ladies in waiting. “Who would not pass time with a man who has cakes?” he asks innocently of one pregnant lady. “You think I will confess just for cakes?” she asks. A few lines later: “That white one, is that almond cream?” Just as she spills the beans on her queen’s behavior. Cromwell is impassive, deadpan.
This is the greatest trick in the series and in this book, conveying the deep nonsense at the heart of courtly life, the upheaval of a nation over one man’s inability to produce a surviving male heir, or, for that matter, to deal with females like a man. Cromwell himself, less histrionic, has a one-night stand with an innkeeper’s wife.
Cromwell is still startled by his own survival. “He once thought it himself, that he might die of grief: for his wife, his daughters, his sisters, his father and master the cardinal. But the pulse, obdurate, keeps its rhythm.” That pulse is the careful, patient rage of the consummate professional in a world of highborn twits who never see him coming. At an interview with one of his victims, it dawns on the man that he is paying for his humiliation of Cromwell’s mentor. “Not one year’s grudge or two, but a fat extract from the book of grief, kept since the cardinal came down.”
You get the sense that he is grimly laughing at everyone, all the time, even as events become increasingly serious. His greatness is as inimitable as it is unfathomable to his contemporaries. Part of the story’s glory is surely its autobiographical nature, the notion that Mantel has here sublimated herself to Cromwell—the lowborn genius awash in grief rising above his contemporaries, astonished at the hypocrisy in society. One of the great satisfactions in watching Mantel win the Booker for Wolf Hall was her reaction to all the “oozing” of her contemporaries, who once reviled her, now congratulating her, much as Henry’s couriers compliment Cromwell.
This is a woman who said she “accumulated an anger that would rip a roof off.” Who endured decades of professional misogyny and medical misdiagnoses that altered her, body and mind. The clarity with which she finds Cromwell’s voice—halting in Wolf Hall—is here ragingly steady, a volcanic presage of what is to come. It is vindicating to see Mantel come into her own after 27 years and 10 novels, just as it is to see Cromwell in his element, still quiet and dark in the shadows, moving his betters around like pawns on a chessboard. The convincing revisionist history on display, that Cromwell executed four men on trumped-up charges for mocking Cardinal Wolsey after his death, is both tidy and chilling, making fierce sense of his resolute nature in the face of grief: “God takes out your heart of flesh,” he thinks, “and gives you a heart of stone.”
And yet for all the dazzle and momentum—the last hundred pages sail by—its sharply drawn vignettes, moments of beauty and hilarious vulgarities, there is the faintest comparative lack in Bring Up the Bodies. Set against Mantel’s singular achievement in Wolf Hall, this book feels not so much slight as a bridge to her next, a necessary and highly entertaining throat-clearing. Only a writer of Mantel’s abilities could be criticized for writing a merely brilliant novel, rather than another outright masterpiece. It is the scope that feels limited, the weeks in the novel as opposed to the years in the first. And perhaps that gnawing sense of consumerist pique that comes from knowing that even now, Mantel is writing about Cromwell’s fall from grace in the third part of this trilogy, The Mirror and the Light. That is the worst that can be said about Mantel—her latest book makes you angry, because you want more.
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