The reader is immediately eased into this 2013 successor to Mantel’s earlier novel, Wolf Hall, this world of Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell, and the new queen Anne Boleyn. As they discuss the complicated era in which they live, we enter a world of politics, personal rivalries, religious issues, and international relations. And it involves up to 70 historical figures, which are, fortunately, listed in five pages at the beginning of the novel—to which one must refer constantly.
First, we meet the King and Thomas Cromwell on a visit to Wolf Hall, the family home of the Seymour family. They toy with and debate each other over the ordinary issues confronting both themselves and the kingdom, and we listen like a fly on the wall. Then we get closer to Cromwell on a trip into the heart of England that gives us another feel of the era. During all of this, we observe Henry’s concern for succession and the future of his reign. This involves Lady Katherine, the king’s ex-wife who is dying, her daughter Mary (Queen of Scots), Anne’s daughter Elizabeth, almost a baby, and Henry’s desire to have a son as a successor.
We also witness the waning influence of Anne, her denial of it, the King’s early interest in Jane Seymour, and Cromwell’s trying to balance his own interests with those of the King. Should the possible future queen, Mary, be allowed to visit her ill mother? Should Katherine be comforted by visits from friendly emissaries from Europe? Can Cromwell display human sympathy for her and also be loyal to his King’s political needs? And how can he serve the king while acknowledging Queen Anne’s determined use of her waning power—a queen Cromwell himself detests.
But after this absorbing beginning, the book slows down, and is filled with maneuvering. This is when Cromwell agrees to help Henry replace Anne with Jane Seymour. Anne is determine to hang onto her power, and particularly warns Cromwell not to oppose her. Meanwhile, the Seymour family, aware of Henry’s fascination with Jane, joins forces with a former regime, which includes Catholics, to regain power. Henry himself is concerned mainly with having a son, which he determines Anne cannot give him. And Cromwell, who depends on Henry for his power and who despises Anne, must maneuver carefully if he is to betray Anne but not betray Henry.
As a result, there is considerable talk, as the various plotters seek out each other’s positions, each other’s goals, and plan their own strategy. But there is little forward movement, little action that prompts a reaction. The talk itself is interesting, and the revelations about each character are interesting, but it is mainly Cromwell trying to out maneuver others, and meeting little resistance. In the end, there is only occasional drama.
There is a moment of drama when Anne is arrested—her denials, her acceptance of her fate—and taken to the Tower of London. There is another when Henry is frustrated that the case has not been made about Anne’s adultery, and he rails against Cromwell, threatening him if he fails to make the case. There are also brief references to Cromwell working too much with those of the former regime in order to please Henry and take down Anne—and the suggestion that they will betray him when they no longer need him.
But the main concern of Cromwell as the book moves toward the end is to make the case against Anne, that she committed adultery with various men, and that this is treason—for which she can be executed. And so Cromwell conducts a series of interviews with her suspected lovers. One interview with an innocent musician, Mark, has a moment of drama, as Cromwell browbeats him psychologically until he breaks down. (One review says the scene recalls the McCarthy era and its red-hunting.) The other interviews are fascinating in themselves, as Cromwell tries to get each man (McCarthy-like?) to confess to adultery with Anne. But conversation is conversation; it is not action, as intellectually interesting as it may be. So while Cromwell believes he is successfully building his case, there are no substantial confrontations between equals that cause a new effect. It is more intellectual dueling.
One might note, in passing, that Mantel in this novel has recognized one criticism of her earlier novel. And so here she identifies her hero, when it is not clear that the “he” she is referring to is Cromwell. Another stylistic note is that again she writes this novel in the present tense. And, again, it does not concern me, even helping to achieve an immediacy for a content that, as I said, is often more an intellectual debate than a dramatic confrontation. Note, in fact, that the word “bodies” in the title refers to the prisoners, for, as they are about to be brought before the authorities, they are already being considered as guilty and executed.
If I am less taken by this novel than by Wolf Hall, I think it may be because that novel was about Henry separating himself from the Catholic Church, whereas this novel is about him separating himself from Anne, his wife. The former has far broader political, philosophical, and religious implications, while this separation is purely a personal one. Henry was once fascinated by, but now cannot stand, Anne. And his new emotional whim for a non-descript Jane Seymour has for me far less impact than duels with cardinals, popes, and a future saint. Whereas with Wolf Hall, I was interested in Henry, in his supposedly desperate motivation, why he was doing what he was doing, he has now turned into a typical shallow husband, claiming he wants to have a son but perhaps simply seeking a fresh woman for his bed. And the interest here moves primarily to Thomas Cromwell.
For her ending, Mantel makes the interesting decision of omitting any account of the trial of the four condemned men or of Anne herself. Perhaps because she sensed that after Cromwell’s individual confrontations with these men, nothing new remained about their situation or their denials that could be introduced at their trial. For her dramatic ending, she chose, instead, to describe in detail the execution of Anne, and it is, indeed, a powerful scene. And what she leaves us with, on the final pages, is a public suspicion of Cromwell in some quarters—that “if this is what Cromwell does to the cardinal’s lesser enemies, what will he do by and by to the king himself?” Presumably, it is a foreshadowing of the novel to come.
The major creation of this novel is, of course, Cromwell. It is Cromwell, not Henry, who drives this book, who creates guilt for men who may or may not be guilty. But who overpowers them with his wit and his intelligence. Just as he understands and anticipates Henry’s every wish, so does he the reactions of these possibly innocent men, an innocence of history’s merely rumored trysts with Anne. James Wood in the New Yorker sums up Cromwell concisely: “brutal, worldly, reticent, practical, unsentimental but not without tenderness of a kind, Biblically literate but theologically uncommitted, freakishly self-confident but perilously low on friends.”
And Mantel, who is in full command of this novel, has herself chosen to draw a remarkable portrait of a man whom historians have often presented as a cruel, heartless, and selfish villain. Whereas, she sums up one description of him almost poetically; indeed, as one would an interesting hero: “His speech is low and rapid, his manner assured; he is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed.”
From now on, Henry’s story will likely become repetitive, as he seeks out new queens. Nor will his monumental ego any longer shake the world. It is Cromwell who will interest us now. We know from history that he will meet his fate in 1640, but we do not know how he will lose the power he has here. There are foreshadowings, yes; but how will it happen, since he is so intelligent, so clever, and so loyal to Henry? The third volume that Mantel has promised us reportedly will be called The Mirror and the Light. May its era be as richly presented as here, but may this new novel also probe the interior of a Cromwell now so sure of himself. May it probe his weaknesses, his second-guessing, and his doubts. And may it probe, above all, his conscience. (November, 2014)