Tutoring young people for the SAT and ACT gives me the opportunity to come across a random assortment of strange literary excerpts. They come from classic novels, obscure essays, dry textbooks, etc. and can range in period from the early 19th century to the last ten years. As an instinctive lover of order and structure, my heart often aches when forced to look at this scattered selection of writings good, bad, and indifferent. I also have an intrinsic distaste for the utilitarian nature of the questions connected to these passages. Often, when I am forcing some bright student not to think about the meaning of what s/he is reading but focus on the tests’ mundane questions, I am haunted by the thought the they could be learning so much more of value by approaching the passages the “wrong” way. Alas, I wish to keep my job. Still, I must confess that the very randomness of the selections can lead to some enjoyable discoveries. One of the more recent ones helped me figure out the way to approach this extraordinary novel.
The passage in question turned out to be the opening of a 1903 children’s book by British author Ernest Thompson Seton, with the (appallingly racist) title Two Little Savages. The book concerns the adventures of a young boy who loves animals and the wilderness. Seton describes the boy’s father as a man “easy with the world and stern with his family.” The father forbids his son’s passions for reasons having little justification beyond the sense that fathers are supposed to antagonize their children. The picture of a man who shows kindness to strangers and cruelty to the ones he (supposedly) loves is, sadly, intimately familiar to me. I know I am far from alone in that regard. Even people who have been spared this are probably at least acquainted with some of these revolting individuals. It might be a person, fired with indignant passion for the meek and the helpless, who cannot stop ranting about the unjust cruelties of the world, but then turns to a partner of decades and, with a cold smile on the face, declares indifference to everything but how much money the partner can bring in. It might be another, who is known to friends and coworkers as gentle and kind but, alone with their child, openly wishes they could replace their offspring with someone else, then sharply asks why the child is crying. Or it could be yet another, a person who leads boycotts of tyrants, who fiercely commands everyone to make a difference in the world, then, with their friends, mocks and mimics people with medical conditions, making sport of their anxieties and handicaps. These, obviously, are only examples I have seen among private citizens. In public life, there have been numerous scandals involving those who see no reason to follow their moral dictates in their own homes. This kind of hypocrisy is familiar and despicable. However, there is another kind, one that understandably seems to get much less attention. It is the reverse of the first and, I believe, it is the major theme of Bring Up The Bodies.
In my review of Mantel’s Wolf Hall, to which this book is a sequel, I argued that the author used a familiar historical event to catch readers out of the lazy acceptance of victors’ versions of history. In this book, Mantel subtly turns against Thomas Cromwell, her protagonist and the prime beneficiary of her thematic strategy in the first book. This is a remarkable literary strategy and it succeeds because Cromwell perfectly illustrates the theme Mantel is pursuing here. Put simply, that theme is the uselessness of being only privately good. In Cromwell, we have a man who is almost the perfect flip of the people I described earlier. He is a loving father, even when exasperated by his son. He treats his servants like human beings, occasionally even deferring to them when he feels they know better. He looks after his extended family, a “family” which he generously allows to constantly expand. When it comes to political rivals, he is usually eager to look past differences and make a personal connection. His affectionate friendship with his official enemy, Eustache Chapuys, ambassador from the Holy Roman Empire (an absorbing figure and one who has rarely gotten the attention Mantel justly gives him), provides this very dark novel with some of its lightest and most charming moments. In short, Cromwell is what most people would describe as a good person.
Unfortunately, he is a “good” man whose day job is amorally and ruthlessly manipulating others. Mantel already depicted some of this in Wolf Hall. In that novel however, Cromwell was an engaging anti-hero, no worse than any of the snakes around him and considerably better than most. In this novel, Cromwell remains great fun to spend time with. He also continues to feel like someone we in the modern world might be able to communicate with, unlike many of his contemporaries.
Something drastic has changed in the sequel, however. In the earlier novel, we watched Cromwell rise to the top, dislodging the powers that be to try and create a new world. Here, he is at the top and, to stay there, he undertakes a project that has no greater good as its goal. King Henry VIII has tired of Anne Boleyn. He wants to get rid of her and it’s Cromwell’s job to come up with justification. He does this without much hesitation, calmly constructing an adultery charge he knows full well is false. While it may be hard (albeit not impossible) to dredge up much sympathy for the calculating and vindictive Anne Boleyn herself, watching Cromwell brutally destroy innocent lives, some caught up just because they are conveniently placed, is sickening. I used the word “amoral” earlier. There were times in Bring Up The Bodies when I felt that Cromwell was outright immoral.
That should hardly be surprising considering the master he serves. Mantel’s depiction of Henry VIII darkens considerably in this book. My imagination might have been getting the better of me but I felt he almost came off as a kind of serial killer. Even if that’s going overboard, any remaining traces of the colorful figure from various historical pageants are harshly wiped away. The real thing Mantel places before us is not pretty. Twisted and sadistic, Henry draws everyone around him into his bloody fantasies, forcing his favored servants like Cromwell to turn them into realities.
That last point could easily lead to a rebuttal of my thesis that Mantel turns on Cromwell. If Cromwell is in the service of a monster like Henry, how can he be expected to do anything other than carry out the king’s terrible wishes if he wants to stay alive? There is much to be said for this point of view and I probably subscribed to it for much of the time I spent reading this book. It was only the Seton quote that broke open my mind and illuminated that unease I was feeling. Even if we accept that serving Henry meant complicity in evil, there’s still the matter of serving Henry in the first place. Cromwell might have wanted to do good things with his power, but his power came through Henry. In the end, that tainted the power and everything it might have been able to do by tying them inextricably to untenable actions. While a figure like Cromwell might be more personally appealing than someone who is kind in public but cruel in private, in the end he is just as hypocritical, just as useless. Mantel seems to be telling us that, if we truly believe in attempting to walk a moral path, we can’t quarantine that path in public or in private. If we are callous and cruel to those in our own lives, we hardly have a right to preach to the world about its sins. If we care for those we love and tell the world to go burn, turning our backs on the agony of strangers, we cannot expect the world to show us, or those few we cherish, any mercy. We have to try to walk the moral path everywhere. That will of course involve all the inconsistencies, all the lapses, and all the outright failures that being human means. But we must try if we want any hope.
In a mysterious way, Mantel’s theme gives some measure of vindication to Sir Thomas More, Cromwell’s enemy, and ultimately victim, in Wolf Hall. “Vindication” is probably too strong a word for an intolerant fanatic like More. Still, his cruelty came from genuine belief. That doesn’t excuse it but it makes him somewhat pathetic. What are we to make of Cromwell, who did what he did with his eyes wide open? In my review of the earlier novel, I worried a little that the portrait of More was somewhat unbalanced in its attack. That quibble melted away as I read how Mantel handled More in this book. He does not appear, being dead, but he remains on Cromwell’s mind. His attempts to explain to himself why what happened to More was More’s own fault have some truth to them. However, Cromwell’s convenient removal of himself from the story of his rival’s downfall (he describes feeling like More simply vanished one day) is chilling. Cromwell knows what he has become. To endure however, he needs to create more forgiving narratives. More’s reputation certainly deserved every knock Mantel gave it but, in Bring Up The Bodies, she masterfully re-muddies the waters of this fascinating and disturbing historical figure.
The back cover of this book gives the impression that it is thrilling, a kind of titanic struggle. That is an acceptable marketing strategy but it sells Mantel’s artistry short. Throughout much of the narrative, I felt more of a sense of grim inevitability. The alliance of Cromwell, the political upstart and religious reformer, with the conservative and Catholic faction at Henry’s court, while masterful on Cromwell’s part, was bound to happen if he wanted to bring down the Boleyns. It was also, as Cromwell probably knew, lethal to him in the long run. That is one of the saddest aspects of this novel. Cromwell is aware, every day, that he will likely end up where everyone else does, that his achievements are doomed, that he is damned. He could walk away but he has decided that choice is beyond him. His love for his friend, the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt, is shown to be motivated by more than their relationship. Wyatt is one of the few people Cromwell sees as unsullied by the horrors of Henry’s court. This makes him almost frantic to protect Wyatt, lest the last trace of Cromwell’s own humanity fall with the poet. It is telling however, that it doesn’t occur to Cromwell to follow Wyatt. Despite his knowledge of his path’s likely consequences, Cromwell sticks to it. This makes Bring Up The Bodies into something far more than a historical novel. It is a genuine tragedy and a frightening moral parable, as ruthless in its jolting clarity as Cromwell’s checkmating schemes. As good a summing up as any is the last line of Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit (translated from the French by Stuart Gilbert), the only depiction of hell I’ve ever found at all convincing: “Well, well, let’s get on with it…”