If I had one quibble with the spectacular Wolf Hall, it was that Thomas Cromwell seemed a little too good to be true: tolerant (as opposed to Thomas More’s fanaticism), erudite, loyal, completely sympathetic. Well, Bring Up the Bodies, which is, if possible, even better written and more gripping than Wolf Hall, also addresses my quibble about whether Cromwell was too good be true by showing his far darker side via his role in the downfall of Anne Boleyn.
Cromwell is still the urbane and clever man we met in Wolf Hall (and he’s still loyal to the long-dead Wolsey, as he shows with spectacular effect) but if one part of him destroys Anne and her “lovers” as revenge for Wolsey, another much greater part of him does what he thinks he must to appease the monster he serves. (A colleague tells him “it is not so much, who is guilty, as whose guilt is of service to you” and that is, indeed, the case.)
Because Henry really is a monster – a giant overgrown toddler, whose destructive whims are backed by the power of his absolutism, and because Cromwell knows that he owes all that he is – his wealth and power – to Henry, a large part of his job consists of discerning what Henry wants before Henry even knows he wants it, and in absolving Henry of all the nasty parts of the exercise of power, such as the deaths of innocents and the betrayals of friends. And for all Cromwell’s love of individualism against the massed power of the Church, he also introduces the idea of criminal thoughts, which we, or I, at any rate, associate so strongly with 20th century dictators; under Cromwell, it’s now a crime in England to even think of the King’s death, because thought is father to the deed (but then one has to ask what all the people who so anxiously fret over the King’s lack of an heir doing BUT thinking of the aftermath of the King’s death?)
The chapter on Anne Boleyn’s arrest, culminating in her rigged trial and execution, is chilling and extraordinarily powerful – her trial (and that of her purported lovers) is a Stalinist show-trial centuries before Stalin; you may have read countless accounts of what transpired, but Mantel does it better. It’s even more chilling (and tragically ironic) to think that we know, though Cromwell does not, that Henry will turn on him as he turned on Anne.
(Read from January 4-January 12, 2013)