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Tale of bride and block

23 November 2012

Peter Anthony reads novel set in the ourt of Henry VIII


Bring up the Bodies
Hilary Mantel
Fourth Estate £20
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT517 )

"THERE are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to heir nature. They are all begin­nings."

With Bring up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel takes up the threads she aid down at the end of her last novel, Wolf Hall, and makes of them the beginning of a complex and thrill­ing new book that well deserves the lavish accolades it has received.

We enter, in this new novel, into the story of the inexorable downfall of Anne Boleyn. Mantel's great genius is to present the narrative through the eyes of Thomas Crom­well, a figure it is easy both to ad­mire and loathe in equal measure.

We see a certain nobility in his talent, tenacity, and political in-sight, all of which precipitate Cromwell to the highest offices. Yet those very same instincts are also the root of the harsh Realpolitik he adopts, in which the truth is mal­leable, and those around him are expendable.

At the heart of this novel lies the notion that history is written and rewritten by those with power. Cromwell admits that the only truth he is interested in is the sort that is useful to him. As accusations of treason and adultery are brought against Anne, speculation, fiction, and hearsay are woven together to become the new truth, the new historical narrative of Anne the temptress, which everyone must ac­cept. Even Anne's marriage is annul­led before her execution, as if all memory of her having ever been married to Henry must be oblitera­ted before her death.

Mantel's surest skill lies in the way in which she reveals the psychological motivation that haunts her characters and prompts their actions. Centre-stage is the monstrous figure of Henry himself. Mantel dissects the combination of neurotic insecurity and rapacious egomania within him. She also lays bare the past pains that have con­tributed to Cromwell's emotional carapace. The deaths of his wife and children and the trauma of seeing his benefactor and hero, Wolsey, fall so grotesquely from power create in him a steely determination to survive.

This novel is a powerful indict­ment of the danger of unfettered power, and yet, at the same time, it shows all power to be ultimately fleeting. It reveals both the heart­less­ness of ambition untempered by principle, and the frequency with which we callously employ violence and exploit jealousy to achieve it. But we also develop a strange sympathy for the figure of Crom­well, who, although contra­dictory and equivocal, has survived the jealousies and violence of others.

If, as Mantel asserts, endings are all, in fact, beginnings, let us hope that there is scope for a third novel to recount the downfall of Crom­well himself, and see this gripping story come full circle.

The Revd Peter Anthony is Junior Dean of St Stephen's House, Oxford, and Junior Chaplain of Merton College, Oxford.

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