There’s a feeling of power in reserve, a power that drives right through the bone, like the shiver you sense in the shaft of an axe when you take it into your hand. You can strike, or you can not strike, and if you choose to hold back the blow, you can still feel inside you the resonance of the omitted thing. (Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall)
“Did Anne,” Cromwell wonders towards the end of Bring Up the Bodies, “understand what was coming?” Even as the confessions are gathered that condemn her–even as her own uncle carries the warrant for her arrest, she goes “blindly through her last morning, doing what she always used to do.” What should she be doing, though? What could she be doing that would make any difference? We know, after all, how the story ends–but the fleeting poignancy is that she can’t be sure, can’t even altogether understand how she has lost the game she played with such brilliance. “Ready to go?” asks her uncle Norfolk; “I do not know how to be ready,” she replies.
It’s telling that Anne’s defeat manifests itself as disorientation: in the intricately plotted and plotting world Mantel has created across the first two books of her Cromwell trilogy, awareness is everything. Cromwell relies for his own power on his literal network of informants as well as on the relentless acuity of his inward eye, arranging and rearranging players and pieces in his mind until he is as sure of success in his political life as he is in the game of chess he portentously plays with Edward Seymour, brother of meek Jane, object of King Henry’s latest obsession. “A world where Anne can be queen is a world where Cromwell can be Cromwell,” it occurs to him in Wolf Hall. In Bring Up the Bodies he must discover how Cromwell can survive as Cromwell in a world where Queen Anne must be replaced. Anne’s rise enabled his, but her fall must not bring him down, and so with clinical precision he rearranges his alliances and once again commits himself to getting Henry what he wants. That this time his duty to his king coincides with his own longstanding grudges–against those who destroyed and then mocked his fallen mentor, Cardinal Wolsey–makes his job just that much sweeter.
Cromwell’s cold vengefulness, originating as it does in his love for Wolsey, paradoxically humanizes him: though instrumental in the suffering and death of many men (and one woman) whose guilt is at most ambiguous, nonetheless he is hardly a monstrous figure. Yet who could read his interviews with these victims of Henry’s caprice and not recoil? Wily, sophistical, manipulative, relentless, he twists both their words and their silences into the shapes that serve his single-minded purpose. “Did you think the king would die, so you could marry Anne?” he demands of Henry Norris. “Or did you expect her to dishonour her marriage vows during the king’s life, and become your concubine? It is one or the other.” “If I say either,” protests Norris, “you will damn me. You will damn me if I say nothing at all, taking my silence for agreement.” That is, exactly, Cromwell’s method. “And what do you think of brother George?” Cromwell asks him:
“You may have been surprised to encounter rivalry from that quarter. I hope you were surprised. Though the morals of you gentlemen astonish me.”
“You do not trap me that way. Any man you name, I will say nothing against him and nothing for him. I have no opinion on George Boleyn.”
“What, no opinion on incest? If you take it so quietly and without objection, I am forced to conjecture there may be truth in it.”
“And if I were to say, I think there might be guilt in that case, you would say to me, ‘Why, Norris! Incest! How can you believe such an abomination? Is it a ploy to lead me away from your own guilt?'”
He looks at Norris with admiration. “Not for nothing have you known me twenty years, Harry.”
What takes Norris longer to realize is that though he will die for his alleged guilt with the queen, his death settles a different debt, “a fat extract from the book of grief”: he and the other accused men once “turned the cardinal into a beast” in a play for the court, depicting him as “a howling animal, grovelling on the boards and scrabbling with his paws.” In the audience was Cromwell, “leaning against the panelling, silent, wrapped in a robe of mourning black.” “Would Norris understand it if he spelt it out?” wonders Cromwell;
He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged.
On its own terms, it’s a faultless logic–perhaps even a faultless justice. Anne must go; adultery and treason will be the charges; the charges must be proven, so the men must be found guilty; once they are found guilty, Anne’s guilt too is concluded; they die, she dies, and the king is free to marry Jane Seymour and beget a son for England. The men must be found guilty of adultery and treason whatever the facts of their relations with the queen, but as they are at any rate guilty of something else, their deaths are deserved and no moral harm is done.
If that reasoning makes you squirm, then you are onto what I suspect is Mantel’s game, which seems to be to test the limits of our sympathy (our complicity, even) with a protagonist driven increasingly by calculation and self-interest, one who, despite having strong loyalties and family affections himself, is all but unmoved by the human desperation his machinations engender. The Cromwell of Bring Up the Bodies is colder and more sinister than his counterpart in Wolf Hall — or perhaps the difference is that the earlier Cromwell is an underdog, on the rise, always a compelling dynamic, whereas in Bring Up the Bodies, though he is still disdained by the court for his lowly origins, now he is Master Secretary, seemingly both omniscient and omnipotent, and holding on to power is never as attractive as winning it. Mantel plays her hand deftly, though: Cromwell himself recoils just enough from his own cruelties to keep him on the right side of unforgivable. Interrogating young Francis Weston, child of privilege (“never a moment’s doubt about his place in the world, never a moment’s anxiety”) Cromwell sees “the boy’s head sink into his hands”– “Perhaps the facts will come out now?” And then, inexplicably, he excuses himself and leaves the room. Is it the truth he fears? Why, if it will legitimize the accusations, the sentences, the deaths that are already inevitable? To save Weston, perhaps, from denouncing his friends and then living — dying — with that betrayal? To preserve Weston’s innocence, such as it is, in a world where innocence seems impossible?
Or perhaps he just needed air. Let us say you are in a chamber, the windows sealed, you are conscious of the proximity of other bodies, of the declining light. In the room you put cases, you play games, you move your personnel around each other: notional bodies, hard as ivory, black as ebony, pushed on their paths across the squares. Then you say, I can’t endure this any more, I must breathe: you burst out of the room and into a wild garden where the guilty are hanging from trees, no longer ivory, no longer ebony, but flesh; and their wild lamenting tongues proclaim their guilt as they die. In this matter, cause has been preceded by effect. What you dreamed has enacted itself. You reach for a blade but the blood is already shed. The lambs have butchered and eaten themselves. They have brought knives to the table, carved themselves, and picked their own bones clean.
The horror is manageable as long as the unreality predominates. His lawyer’s skills entrap his victims and the credit is his for maneuvering them into position; they, on the other hand, believe that if they just tell the truth somehow they can restore themselves to life. Norris “seems to think that with eloquence, with sincerity, with frankness, he can change what is happening,” but already, to Cromwell’s eyes, he is “the dying man.”
Of Anne, especially, Cromwell prefers not to know too much, not to come too close. “You know, I created you,” she says to him when he comes with the others to take her to the Tower. He shows no particular malevolence towards her; in fact, he repents having brought the Constable of the Tower, William Kingston, along on this errand, as “his office, and his appearance have struck terror into the hearts of the strongest men.” She is more his antagonist than his enemy–though again there is satisfaction for Cromwell in seeing one who brought Wolsey down brought down in her turn. When he thinks she is about to speak to him sincerely, confessionally, he is momentarily touched with both compassion and unease:
She is on her feet, detaining him, timidly touching his arm; as if it is not her release she wants, so much as his good opinion. “You do not believe these stories against me? I know in your heart you do not, Cremuel?”
It is a long moment. He feels himself on the edge of something unwelcome: superfluous knowledge, useless information. He turns, hesitates, and reaches out, tentative . . .
But then she raises her hands and clasps them at her breast, in the gesture Lady Rochford had showed him. Ah, Queen Esther, he thinks. She is not innocent; she can only mimic innocence. His hand drops to his side. He turns away.
He is relieved — not that she is guilty, for he has nothing more certain than his own belief that “she would commit any sin or crime” to tell against her — but she does not intrude upon him any inconvenient truth. All he ever wants is “the truth little by little and only those parts of it we can use.” Anne’s protestations of innocence, especially if truthful, would not be useful at all for Cromwell’s purposes, or the king’s.
And what about Mantel’s purposes? “The evidence is complex and sometimes contradictory,” she says in her author’s note about the “circumstances surrounding the fall of Anne Boleyn”; “the sources are often dubious, tainted, and after-the-fact.” So there’s one reason to leave the case against her unresolved: we can’t, historically, be sure. Besides, what is sure is the necessity of the judgment against her: it was shockingly irrelevant whether the accused men were in fact her lovers, whether she did in fact commit incest with her brother. Her trial was never really about that, and so from that perspective Mantel is right to keep our attention on the process, the political and, we might say, genealogical forces arrayed against her. This focus, in turn, keeps our attention on Cromwell, on his successes and failures, and on the moral equivocations of his ultimately triumphant plot against her, given both the difficulty and the irrelevance of making the actual case. “Was she guilty or not?” is the question Thackeray refuses to answer about Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair, and as a result our judgment is deflected from her to those around her, as well as to ourselves. A guilty Anne is a weak opponent; an innocent Anne is a martyr. Mantel’s Anne, instead, is neither guilty nor innocent but defeated:
He believes he understands Anne, as Wriothesley does not. When she said the queen’s lodgings were too good for her, she did not mean to admit her guilt, but to say this truth: I am not worthy, and I am not worthy because I have failed. One thing she has set out to do, this side of salvation: get Henry and keep him. She has lost him to Jane Seymour, and no court of law will judge her more harshly than she judges herself. . . . She knows adultery is a sin and treason a crime, but to be on the losing side is a greater fault than these. . . .
He says, “Anne is dead to herself. We shall have no trouble with her now.”
Unlike Anne, we knew all along that this was how the game would end: though most of the multitudinous details Mantel provides will probably be unfamiliar to all but the Tudor connoisseur, Anne’s execution cannot surprise any reader. Mantel knows this perfectly well and even plays with it — the very title of Wolf Hall foreshadows Anne’s failure even as the novel details her success. Historical fiction can hardly be built around suspense. Bring Up the Bodies is gripping nonetheless because, knowing what will happen, we still wonder how and why events unfolded as they did, and because also Mantel is brilliant at the other aspects of the novelist’s craft: characterization above all (Cromwell, of course, and Anne, but also Henry, who is miraculously liberated from the burden of clichés and caricatures that have accreted around his bullish figure over five centuries) and setting, too, all of the elements contributing to our understanding of the world she has created, which is permeated with implications that reach well beyond plot:
These days are perfect. The clear untroubled light picks out each berry shimmering in a hedge. Each leaf of a tree, the sun behind it, hangs like a gold pear. Riding westward in high summer, we have dipped into sylvan chases and crested the downs, emerging into that high country where, even across two counties, you can sense the shifting presence of the sea. In this part of England our forefathers the giants left their earthworks, their barrows and standing stones. We still have, every Englishman and woman, some drops of giant blood in our veins. In those ancient times, in a country undespoiled by sheep of plough, they hunted the wild boar and the elk. The forest stretched ahead for days. Sometimes antique weapons are unearthed: axes that, wielded with double fist, could cut down horse and rider. Think of the great limbs of those dead men, stirring under the soil. War was their nature, and war is always keen to come again. It’s not just the past you think of, as you ride these fields. It’s what’s latent in the soil, what’s breeding; it’s the days to come, the wars unfought, the injuries and deaths that, like seeds, the soil of England is keeping warm.
Through the vehicle of Cromwell’s own peculiar, wide-ranging, far-seeing consciousness, Mantel transports us away from the particular towards the near mythic. Her prose oscillates between the immediate and the imminent, and thus, though we follow the individual stories intently, we can’t forget their small size, the small part her men and women play in the story that began long before them and will go on long after. “One day I will be gone,” reflects Cromwell at the end of this volume, “and as this world goes it may not be long”:
I will leave behind me a great mountain of paper, and those who come after me . . . will sift through what remains and remark, here is an old deed, an old draft, an old letter from Thomas Cromwell’s time: they will turn the page over, and write on me.
“Either my enemies will do for me or my friends,” he thinks wryly, and the final volume of Mantel’s trilogy will presumably tell the story of how this comes to pass. It will be interesting to see if, as Cromwell finally plays a losing hand, Mantel is tempted to sentimentalize him, or at least to be more decisive about his guilt or innocence than she is about Anne’s. She has established the basis for his defense: if he is cruel (and how easily Anne’s French-inflected version of his name, “Cremuel,” slurs into that word when you’re reading), if he is cunning and self-interested, he is also loyal and even loving. She shows him, not as an inherently evil man, but as a man who has sought to shape his destiny in an unforgiving environment and has adapted in order to survive. “The world corrupts me,” Cromwell says to Thomas More in Wolf Hall;
Or perhaps it’s just the weather. It pulls me down and makes me think like you, that one should shrink inside, down and down to a little point of light, preserving one’s solitary soul like a flame under glass. . . . I truly believe I should be a better man if the weather were better. I should be a better man if I lived in a commonwealth where the sun shone and the citizens were rich and free.
Is that where we should rest our case, then, on the flickering light of his best self? Or does this exculpatory statement sound a little too pat from the man who stands over the fallen body of the king and “seems to body out and fill all the space,” staring down his enemies and seemingly calling Henry back from the dead? Though the argument of the novels might be that Cromwell is no more (and no less) than an exemplary man of his age, the form of the novels, which keeps us up close beside him at all times, insists on the force of the individual character. So do we blame him for his conduct or not? So far, I think we are left hovering between excuses and accusations. Perhaps here too, as with Anne, judgment is beside the point, but if we reserve judgment in the case of a man like Cromwell (at least as Mantel has shown him to us) I also think that we have to feel within ourselves “the resonance of the omitted thing.”