On Wednesday, Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies landed on my doorstep. This is (as you probably know) the second book in Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell and features the fascinating Anne Boleyn as a major character. I’d been awaiting this book as eagerly as I anticipated A Dance with Dragons last year, which is to say I could hardly wait until it got here. I have managed to restrain myself this time around, so I haven’t yet finished it (I read 1000 or so pages of A Dance with Dragons in roughly 48 hours last year, which was–let’s face it–a tiny bit excessive). But so far Bring Up the Bodies is every bit as good as its predecessor, Wolf Hall, and maybe even a bit better.
Bring Up the Bodies has many virtues–the writing is exquisite–but what I like most about it is reading about Anne Boleyn. Where Mantel excels is in depicting historical figures as real products of their time rather than projecting onto them twenty-first-century mindsets and beliefs. (A cast of liberal, enlightened, downright feminist medieval nobles has ruined many a historical novel for me. People just didn’t think that way then.) On Friday, the Guardian ran an essay penned by Mantel that provides the outlines of Boleyn’s story and explains some of her thinking about the doomed young queen.
What comes across most forcefully in Mantel’s account–which bears the irresistible title “Anne Boleyn: witch, bitch, temptress, feminist”–is how much about Anne Boleyn remains unknown. Her essay argues that most of what we think we know about Anne–the sixth finger, the “wen” at her throat, the monstrous stillbirth–probably never existed. These things were all invented by political and religious enemies of her daughter, Queen Elizabeth I. In fact, we know little about her; we don’t know the date of her birth, and apparently there is no portrait that we can confidently accept as a good likeness. Was she guilty of the crimes for which she was executed? Did she have affairs? Maybe yes, maybe no. And so, Mantel writes,
…[W]e reinvent her in every generation. She takes on the colour of our fantasies and is shaped by our preoccupations: witch, bitch, feminist, sexual temptress, cold opportunist. She is a real woman who has acquired an archetypal status and force, and one who patrols the nightmares of good wives; she is the guilt-free predator, the man-stealer, the woman who sets out her sexual wares and extorts a fantastic price. She is also the mistress who, by marrying her lover, creates a job vacancy.
It should not be surprising, I suppose, that a woman who lived five hundred years ago would be unknowable today. And yet it is somehow discouraging. If we know so little about an infamous queen, how much else has been lost to the mists of time? One begins to understand why people are still debating whether the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays.