Bring Up The Bodies

After a long wait to read it, I've just finished Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies. It took just a few days to read, the narration is dense but runs giddyingly along, spinning you into the confusion of the time it describes: the end of Henry VIII's marriage to Anne Boleyn.

As in Wolf Hall, everything is told from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, essentially the king’s Prime Minister. This device still works, even if it doesn't quite have the thrill of the new any more. Mantel describes him in her Author’s Note as “densely inaccessible”, so she has created a character of fascinating contradictions. He is a closed book whose every thought is explained to us. He is sympathetically cold-hearted, admirably devious, keen to bring relief to the poor and the gospel to all, but able to set up a show trial and executions if his master wills it. I found myself cheering for him and simultaneously recoiling in horror at his - understandable - realpolitik. The writing style captures how alert Cromwell must be to survive and thrive, bringing you into the claustrophobic, mad, and bloody intrigue of Tudor courtly politics.

As any work about this time must acknowledge, religion is near the heart of much of what happens, a vital impulse. There is sometimes Christianity as well. Mantel doesn't make her point against it with the blunt clubbing of CJ Sansom in his contemporary Shardlake series but Pascal’s dictum that “men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction” is displayed here. Christians like me may be given pause by this, and we still live in a time where the accusation holds. I've found Timothy Keller’s response to this helpful:

“Think of people you consider fanatical. They’re overbearing, self-righteous, insensitive, harsh. Why? It’s not because they are too Christian but because they are not Christian enough. They are fanatically zealous and courageous, but they are not fanatically humble, sensitive, loving, empathetic, forgiving or understanding – as Christ was… What strikes us as overly fanatical is actually a failure to be fully committed to Christ and to His gospel.” (The Reason for God)

Cromwell might smile at a such a sentiment and the presence of Archbishop Cranmer highlights this yearning for idealism. Cromwell’s heart, as Mantel describes it, seems to desire to live that way whilst knowing that he will not. Observing this battle for equipoise when he is moving at the quicksilver speed of politics, swirling with the high winds of a volatile king, is thrilling.