Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Synopsis from the book cover:

By 1535 Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith’s son, is far from his humble origins. Chief Minister to Henry VIII, his fortunes have risen with those of Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second wife, for whose sake Henry has broken with Rome and created his own church. But Henry’s actions have forced England into dangerous isolation, and Anne has failed to do what she promised: bear a son to secure the Tudor line. When Henry visits Wolf Hall, Cromwell watches as Henry falls in love with the silent, plain Jane Seymour. The minister sees what is at stake: not just the king’s pleasure, but the safety of the nation. As he eases a way through the sexual politics of the court, its miasma of gossip, he must negotiate a ‘˜truth’ that will satisfy Henry and secure his own career. But neither minister nor king will emerge undamaged from the bloody theatre of Anne’s final days.

Some thoughts:

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel is described on the sleeve of the book cover as ‘a speaking picture, an audacious vision of Tudor England that sheds its light on the modern world.’

It is, of course, the sequel to Wolf Hall and I was too keen to read it to wait for the paperback to come out. I finished it a while ago and have been mulling over in my mind what to write about it. On balance, I didn’t enjoy it as much as Wolf Hall and I had just a little feeling of anti-climax about it, but then the novelty of Wolf Hall for me was the way Hilary Mantel not only brought the Tudor world alive but also how she overturned my ideas of both Thomas Cromwell and Sir Thomas More. As there is no denying that I knew that Anne Boleyn was not going to make a go of her marriage to Henry VIII, so there was little drama there for me. I didn’t even want her to escape her fate.

And yet, Bring Up the Bodies is still a brilliant book. It’s beautifully written, even if it is in the present tense, full of colour and detail so that there is no doubt that this is 16th century England, with vivid descriptions of the people, buildings, fabrics, and landscapes of both town and countryside.

One of the things that stood out for me in Wolf Hall was just how much of a family man Cromwell was, how much he loved and protected them. In Bring Up the Bodies, my overall impression of him is as a politician, a schemer and an implacable enemy. Right from the start he’s in the thick of the action as he and Henry are out hunting, flying their hawks. Cromwell’s are named after his dead daughters, a reminder of him as the family man, but immediately we are made aware that he is very much in the king’s service.  

He never spares himself in the king’s service, he knows his worth and his merits and makes sure of his reward: offices, perquisites and title deeds, manor houses and farms. He has a way of getting his way, he has a method; he will charm a man or bribe him, coax him or threaten him, he will explain to a man where his true interests lie, and he will introduce that same man to aspects of himself he didn’t know existed. … he is distinguished by his courtesy, his calmness and his indefatigable attention to England’s business.  (pages 6-7)

Truly, a man not a man to ignore. A man to be wary of, and even though Henry fondly and familiarly calls him ‘Crumb’, a man needing to take great care of himself. Anne Boleyn, in contrast, by the end of the book is ‘ a tiny figure, a bundle of bones’  when she is brought to the scaffold. But Cromwell is not deceived:

She does not look like a powerful enemy of England, but looks can deceive. If she could have brought Katherine to this same place, she would have. If her sway had continued, the child Mary might have stood here; and he himself of course, pulling off his coat and waiting for the coarse English axe. (page 395)

However, this is not the end of Cromwell:

Summer, 1536: he is promoted Baron Cromwell. He cannot call himself Lord Cromwell of Putney. He might laugh. However. He can call himself Baron Cromwell of Wimbledon. He ranged all over those fields, when he was a boy.

The word ‘however’ is like an imp coiled beneath your chair. It induces ink to form words you have not yet seen and lines to march across the page and overshoot the margin. There are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings. Here is one. (page 407)

And so, on to the next book …

May’s Reading & Crime Fiction Pick of the Month

I read a lot in May – well I read and listened, because three of the books were audiobooks, which was quite a novelty for me. In total I ‘read’ 11 books and 9 of them were crime fiction. So far I’ve only reviewed 4 of them.

This is what I read –  the links are to my posts on the books and * indicates crime fiction:

  1. Wycliffe and the Cycle of Death by W J Burley* 4/5
  2. The End of the Affair by Graham Greene 3/5
  3. Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie* 3.5/5
  4. The Redeemed by M R Hall* 4.5/5
  5. Blue Lightning by Ann Cleeves* 4/5
  6. The Hanging in the Hotel by Simon Brett * (library audiobook) 2/5
  7. Fatherland by Robert Harris* 5/5
  8. Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel 4/5
  9. The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle* 3/5 (library audiobook)
  10. The Coroner by M R Hall* (library book) 4/5
  11. Dandy Gilver and an Unsuitable Day for a Murder by Catriona McPherson* 3/5 (advanced reading copy)

I’m aiming to review the rest of the books, but for now here are notes on them.

Wycliffe and the Cycle of Death by W J Burley is set in Penzance in Cornwall. Matthew Glynn, a bookseller,is found bludgeoned and strangled, which sets Chief Superintendent Wycliffe a difficult mystery to solve. The answer lies in the past and in the Glynn family’s background. I enjoyed this book, which I read quickly, eager to know the outcome, but the ending was a let down.

Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie. I always like Agatha Christie’s books and although I don’t think this is one her better books, it was a satisfying read. It’s a closed room type mystery. Who killed Louise, the wife of the celebrated archaeologist leading the Hassanieh dig? Only the people at the dig could have done it, but which one – they’re all under suspicion? Poirot doesn’t appear until quite late on in the book, but, of course, works it all out.

The Hanging in the Hotel by Simon Brett (audiobook). This is the fifth of the Fethering Mysteries, in which Jude and her friend Carole investigate the death of one of the guests at the local country house hotel, following the dinner attended by the all-male members of the Pillars of Sussex the night before. It looks like suicide but Jude thinks it can’t be. I got rather tired listening to this book as Jude and Carole endlessly (or so it seemed) went over and over the events and questioned the suspects.

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel is the sequel to Wolf Hall. This book certainly deserves a post of its own. Here I’ll just comment that this chronicles the fall of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife and Cromwell’s part in satisfying Henry’s wishes. I don’t think it’s quite as captivating as Wolf Hall, but it does show just how devious Cromwell could be.

My Crime Fiction Book of the Month is a close call between  Fatherland by Robert Harris  and The Redeemed by MR Hall, both of which had me engrossed.

Fatherland is a fast paced thriller, set in a fictional Germany in 1964, a Germany that had been victorious in the Second World War. It begins with the discovery of the body of one of the former leading members of the Nazi party, who had been instrumental in devising ‘the final solution’. It’s a complex book and leads police detective Xavier March into a very dangerous situation as he discovers the truth.

The Redeemed by MR Hall is by contrast not about a police investigation but is the third book in which Jenny Cooper, a coroner investigates the death of a man discovered in a church yard, the sign of the cross carved into his abdomen. At first it looks like a horrific suicide, but as Jenny delves deeper during her inquest she finds links to yet more deaths. This is the third book in M R Hall’s Jenny Cooper series and I enjoyed it so much that I immediately borrowed the first book, The Coroner, from the library. They do stand well on their own but I think it helps to read them in sequence. In The Coroner Jenny begins her career, having been a solicitor for fifteen years. She obviously has devastating events in her personal life that she has to deal with.

May’s reading has been exclusively fiction, so I’m looking forward to reading some nonfiction in June. I’m feeling like reading a biography or two.

See the round-up post at Mysteries in Paradise for other bloggers’ choices of book of the month for May ‘“ and add your favourite May read to the collection.

A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel: a Book Review

Given a choice of reading one long book or several shorter books, in the past I’ve always gone for the long book, as I like to got lost in a book, but more recently I’ve preferred shorter books. So this is the reason that Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety has sat on my bookshelves unread for a few years. It took me over a month to read it and I did pause for a while to read other shorter books in between. And this book is certainly a book that takes you to another time and place.

It is a remarkable book about the French Revolution concentrating on three of the revolutionaries – Georges-Jacques Danton, Camille Desmoulins and Maximilian Robespierre, from their childhoods to their deaths. Along with these three main characters there is a whole host of characters and without the cast list at the beginning of the book I would have struggled to keep track of them. In fact, some of the lesser characters were just names to me and I never saw them clearly, but that didn’t surprise or deter me, given the enormity of the task of chronicling the events of the French Revolution.

But the main characters stand out and there are also vivid portraits of such people as Mirabeau (a renegade aristocrat), Lafayette (a general in the American Revolutionary War and a Commander of the French National Guard), Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. I was also fascinated to read about Jean-Paul Marat  (he who was murdered in his bath), the Marquis de Sade and Pierre de Laclos (Les Liaisons Dangereuse) – I didn’t know anything about de Sade’s and de Laclos’s involvement in the Revolution.

My European History at school stopped at 1789, so although I remembered listing the causes of the Revolution and the events that led up to it, my knowledge of the main event, as it were, is patchy and incomplete, mainly gathered from books such as Les Miserables and A Tale of Two Cities and TV programmes over the years. I found the first part of A Place of Greater Safety covered much of the ground that I was familiar with, but seen through the eyes of the three main characters as they grew up.

Despite Mantel’s insight into the personal lives and characters of the three main protagonists I never really sympathised with any of them – after all they were responsible for the deaths of many people, including their own friends and played a major part in the Reign of Terror. But at times I was drawn into hoping that they would escape their fate – they were all guillotined. They were all lawyers who grew up in the provinces, knew each from their youth and moved to Paris.

Camille Desmoulins is perhaps the star of the book. It was he who instigated the storming of the Bastille. He was by all accounts a charismatic character, despite his stutter. He and Danton lived close to each other, and Danton, a large, loud and ugly man who had the power of captivating his audiences, had a liaison with Lucille, Camille’s wife. Robespierre was a much cooler character and his involvement in the Terror (in which many people lost their heads) was chilling. But even he came over under Mantel’s pen as almost a likeable human being, revealing his weaknesses as well as his power. As long as he could he shielded Danton and Camille as opposition to them grew.

Unlike Wolf Hall, this book isn’t written in the first person, but it moves between the first and third person points of view, giving an almost panoramic view of the characters and their attitudes to the Revolution. It really is written in a most diverse style, moving between locations, characters and even tense. There are also passages written as script-style dialogue, passages from recorded speeches and pamphlets, ‘woven’ into Mantel’s own dialogue. She writes in her Author’s Note that this is not an impartial account and she has tried to see the world as her characters saw it, so where she could she used their own words.

The events of this book are complicated, so the need to dramatize and the need to explain must be set against each other. …

I am very conscious that a novel is a co-operative effort, a joint venture between writer and reader. I purvey my own version of events, but facts change according to your viewpoint. …

I have tried to write a novel that gives the reader scope to change opinions, change sympathies: a book that one can think and live inside. The reader may ask how to tell fact from fiction. A rough guide: anything that seems particularly unlikely is probably true. (pages ix-x)

I think, for me, that Hilary Mantel succeeded with this book. I have struggled reading other books written in the present tense, but either I’m getting more used to it, or Hilary Mantel’s style has won me over. Either way, reading this book and Wolf Hall has been a pleasure – ‘real journeys’ into other times and places.

  • Paperback: 880 pages
  • Publisher: Fourth Estate; (Reissue) edition (4 Mar 2010)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-10: 000725055X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007250554
  • Source: my own copy
  • My Rating: 4/5

Today I’m eagerly waiting for the follow up to Wolf Hall to be delivered to my letter box: Bring Up the Bodies is published today and I’ve had an email saying it’s on its way to me.

Teaser Tuesdays

The book I’m currently reading is A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel, a huge book of 872 pages. I’m only on page 136, so it’s early days. In fact so far it’s been setting the scene of pre-Revolutionary France as seen through the key characters of Georges-Jacques Danton, Maximilien Robespierre and Camille Desmoulins. I’m liking it and it brings back to my mind history lessons at school when we listed the causes of the French Revolution.

This extract summarises, I think, the mood of the times in 1788:

Nothing changes. Nothing new. The same old dreary crisis atmosphere. The feeling that it can’t get much worse without something giving way. but nothing does. Ruin, collapse, the sinking ship of state: the point of no return, the shifting balance, the crumbling edifice and the sands of time. Only the cliche flourishes. (page 130)

Not long afterwards everything changed!

Ink in the Blood: A Hospital Diary by Hilary Mantel

This is a short memoir which I read quickly and easily on my Kindle – it’s only available on Kindle! Quite ironic that the first ebook (ie inkless) I read should be called ‘Ink in the Blood’! I was really pleased to find this because I loved Wolf Hall and had tickets for Hilary Mantel’s talk at the Borders Book Festival at Melrose in the summer.  She had to cancel that because she wasn’t well – I didn’t know just how ill she was. Ink in the Blood reveals all – how she had surgery to remove an intestinal obstruction that ended up in a marathon operation, followed by intense pain, nightmares and hallucinations.

Illness she found knocks down our defences, revealing things we should never see, needing moment by moment concentration on breathing, on not being sick and being dependent on others for your well-being. She read Virginia Woolf’s On Being Ill, which she thought was piffle, describing decorous illnesses such as fainting, fevers and headaches. She wonders what sort of wuss Woolf was, as she obeyed her doctors when they forbade her to write, whereas writing was Hilary Mantel’s lifeline – it was the ink, as she wrote in her diary, that reassured her she was alive.

It’s amazing how much she has managed to pack into this short memoir and one that repays more than one reading.

Product Description  from Amazon

During the summer after Hilary Mantel won the Man Booker Prize for Wolf Hall, she fell very ill. Just how ill is described in her extraordinary diary, Ink in the Blood. Originally published in the London Review of Books, it is one of the most incredible and haunting essays published in a very long time. In the diary she explores in forensic detail her loss of dignity, her determination, the concentration of the senses into an animalistic struggle to get through, and the attendant hallucinations she was plagued by.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 134 KB
  • Publisher: Fourth Estate (15 Dec 2010)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • ASIN: B004GJXQ0C
  • Source: I bought it

Sunday Salon – Recent, Current and Future Reading

I keep a record of the books I read but it’s meaningless to think of them in terms of how many I read because that depends not only on their length but also on the nature and complexity of the books.  I’ve read three books so far this month:

But that is no indication at all of the amount of reading I’ve been doing. And this is mainly because one of the books I’m currently reading and have been reading for a while is the massive Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. I’m nearing the end now with just under 150 pages left to read. I read this morning that Henry has married Anne Boleyn, she has had her coronation and given birth to Elizabeth. Henry, of course, wanted a son and I wondered as I read this whether the words Mantel puts in his mouth were from a contemporary source or were her own in the light of her knowledge of future events. Henry is striding about the palace at Greenwich:

We are young enough, he says, and next time it will be a boy. One day we will make a great marriage for her. Believe me, God intends some peculiar blessing by this princess (my own emphasis). (page 485).

The other book I’m reading is The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison. I’m torn between wanting to finish it and taking it slowly just because it’s so good. It’s very easy to read (it’s not written in the present tense, which helps enormously) and I could gallop through it at top speed, so different from Wolf Hall, where I sometimes have to flip back a few pages and re-read them to make sure I know what’s going on. The characters in The Very Thought of You are clearly delineated and I don’t have to wonder ‘now who is that?’  as I do in Wolf Hall – thank goodness that book has a Cast of Characters at the front and two family trees as well.

The Very Thought of You begins in 1939 and as I’m reading I’m becoming very aware that I know very little about that time or about the Second World War as a whole. I’ve been meaning to find out more and a while ago I bought Wartime Britain 1939-1945 by Juliet Gardiner, to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge, so I keep dipping in to that as I read. It looks as though Alison has done her research well.

As for the books I have coming up next to read, I want to get back to reading more Agatha Christie – Death on the Nile for example and  also Set in Darkness, the next Rebus book in my reading of Ian Rankin’s series. But before that I have some review books to read. The vast majority of the books I read are my own or borrowed from the library or friends and family, but every now and then I receive books from publishers. At the moment I have three I haven’t read yet, although I have read the beginning of each one:

There is one more book that I’d love to read right now and that is The Border Line by Eric Robson (a library book). Robson is a broadcaster and he wrote this book about walking the modern border line between England and Scotland from the Solway Firth to Berwick-on-Tweed. It’s a mixture of history and anecdotes with descriptions of the landscape – the cairns, castles, battlefields and boundary stones along the way. This is the area we spent much time in last year when we were looking for a place to move to in the Borders and where we now live.

Sunday Salon

Today I’ve been reading more from Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel and I’m now almost at the halfway stage. At times I’m loving it and at times I’m thinking why, oh why is she writing this in the present tense? See, it’s getting to me – I’m not overly fond of books in the present tense. And why does she keep using ‘he’ and I’m not sure which ‘he’ she means? Sometimes it’s Thomas Cromwell, but it could be any number of other ‘he’s’ too. But on the whole she’s winning me over and I have to keep on reading. What a character this man Cromwell is, a man who Cardinal Wolsey describes as:

… rather like one of those square-shaped fighting dogs that low men tow about on ropes. Not that you are without a fitful charm, Tom. (page 86)

Cromwell knows that

You don’t get on by being original. You don’t get on by being bright. You don’t get on by being strong. You get on by being a subtle crook … (page 60)

I didn’t expect Wolf Hall to be relevant to the current state of affairs and yet it’s about power, who holds the purse strings, who can command. People, then as now, want change, always hoping for something better. I read this as the present election campaign was in flow with the politicians’ slogans ‘Vote for Change’ and ‘Change that Works for You’. Just see what Geroge Cavendish thought in 1529

‘But what do they get by the change? ‘ Cavendish persists. ‘One dog sated with meat is replaced by a hungier dog who bites nearer the bone. Out goes the man grown fat with honour, and in comes a hungry and a lean man.’ (page 55)

Talking about elections, Thomas Cromwell’s campaign to be ‘elected’ was rather different from today’s methods.  His constituency was Taunton which he held with the agreement of the king and the Duke of Norfolk because seats in the House of Commons were

…  largely, in the gift of the lords; of lords, bishops, the king himself. A scanty handful of electors, if pressured from above, usually do as they’re told. (page 161)

Well, at least that is different these days.

Wolf Hall engages me on different levels – it’s historical fiction of period I used to know well and as I read it all comes back to me – Henry VIII’s wives and all that. It’s also made me think about writing styles and what I’m comfortable reading. It’s a dense book, one that you have to take your time reading and it helps if you know the history because nothing happens quickly in this book, which is full of description and lots of characters. I’m not finding a page-tuner but a fascinating study in particular of Thomas Cromwell.

Wolf Hall is a long book, and I need to vary my reading. I’m also at the beginning of The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison, very different from Wolf Hall and also listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction. Moving forward 400 years from Tudor England to Britain in the 20th century on the brink of war with Germany is quite a leap, but it still feels like historical fiction. The Very Thought of You begins with Anna’s evacuation from London in September 1939 to Ashton Park, a large Yorkshire estate. This is the calm before the storm.

It’s a very different style from Wolf Hall and I’m enjoying the contrast. So far, it has a warm, family feel about it, yet connected to world events with the parallel activity in Poland as Hitler invaded. The British ambassador in Warsaw, Sir Clifford Norton, watched the city burn and abandoned the embassy as the Nazis and the Soviets invaded.

I don’t envy the Orange Prize judges their task – how do you compare such different books?