Sunday, October 7, 2012

Mantel's Masterpiece

Bring Up the Bodies – Dig Up the Bones

Prologue in the Green World

Bring Up the Bodies: the title of Hilary Mantel’s novel is clearly explained in the course of the narrative. It is the order to the Tower to deliver the accused men for trial. But “Bring Up the Bodies” also echoes a phrase that appears in Chapter 1 of the novel: “dig up the bones.” The bones are giants’ bones, and they lie beneath the earth. The giants are the forefathers of “every Englishman and woman,” and though the giants are dead, we are invited to imagine their great limbs stirring beneath the soil.

As Henry and his men ride across England’s western counties vagabonding, hunting, sleeping in old houses and fantasy castles, the giants’ earthworks provide scaffolding, a reminder of a heroic past. King Henry, on a circuit that includes Wolf Hall, home of Lady Jane Seymour, who will become his third bride, rides through signs of a more ancient history: the West Country’s “barrows and standing stones.”

The idyllic description of the camaraderie of which King Henry VIII and Secretary Cromwell partake as Henry and his entourage pass through English forests and farms; the evocation of a green world, and of the ancestral myth that shapes England’s past – a myth which fades as soon as the royal party returns to London – provide the grimy tale of the judicial murder of Anne Boleyn, that morbid fairytale of the ravages of Bluebeard, with a prologue that identifies the English in the time of Henry VIII as potential Defenders of the Realm. For, the narrator tells us, “We still have, every Englishman and woman, some drops of giant blood in our veins.” Thus does the confiding narrator of the prologue invoke Henry’s people. But primarily it is the king’s servant and right hand man, Thomas Cromwell, who must be England’s defender if the Emperor or the King of France should “step across the Narrow Sea or the Scots Border.”

The prologue embedded in Chapter I suggests that, while Wolf Hall told how Thomas Cromwell came to serve Henry VIII, Bring Up the Bodies will tell of Cromwell’s service to England, this green and rolling land where giants’ bones and weapons are buried. Indeed, Cromwell knows his duty to the ancestral knights of England (they are not his ancestors), quietly entombed by history, albeit in neglected monuments – for it is the land of the medieval knights he would defend. This is the idyll and the seed of a heroic tale. If there is to be an “armed incursion,” if the nation is under threat, then Henry’s people may ‘dig up the bones’ and use them to defend the realm.

But what a slippery prologue it is. As history would have it, no defense of the Island Kingdom was necessary in 1535. In spite of the disorder Henry invited by breaking with the Church of Rome, there would be no armed incursion. The Tudor peace would hold. There would be no sustained threat of invasion, no need to dig up the bones, for another four hundred years. There would be no need to call upon the people’s latent heroism, until the day another servant of the people would speak of blood, toil, tears and sweat.

Instead of a War, history would stage a Wedding, the third marriage of Henry VIII.

Instead of an epic, a travesty: the tale of a restless monarch and his courtship of another queen, as English history centers, once more, on the king’s hope for a male heir. And the story of how the king deposes the present queen, is it tragedy or farce? Perhaps Hillary Mantel’s version of the story is neither, or a little of both. In any case, it is a masterpiece.

Instead of a kingdom mobilized by War, we see a nation galvanized by Spectacle. This is the great show of kingly power and the violent means suborned to it. Here it is that Cromwell will prove useful, in putting into play the judicial machinery that will dispose of the present queen. Queen Anne is to be accused, tried, and executed with the help of Cromwell, just as, a few years earlier, Katherine was ousted, and Anne installed on the throne, with the help of Cromwell.

Is this business of the giants, then, simply a springboard to the main tale? Perhaps not, for the author has mentioned them before. In the midst of the narrative of Wolf Hall, Chapter II , Part Two, entitled “An Occult History of Britain, 1521–1529,” offers an account of a king of Ancient Greece. That king punished his thirty-three daughters for slaying their husbands by exiling them to the island they called Albina. There the thirty-three princesses mated with demons and gave birth to a race of giants: “These giants spread over the whole landmass of Britain.” According to the narrator of Wolf Hall, eight centuries of lawlessness ensued before the giants were overthrown by Trojan Brutus. The narrator concludes, “Whichever way you look at it, it all begins in slaughter.”

Why this talk of giants? What is their relation to Tudor England? The narrator of Bring Up the Bodies says of the giants, “War was their nature, and war is always keen to come again.” There is to be no invasion in 1535, we now know, but the threat of one must have seemed very real. As for civil war: “The Wars of the Roses are over but they didn’t know that.” (Hilary Mantel, the Wolf Hall Daunt Debate) The narrator of Bring Up the Bodies, then, is keen to remind us of the connection between Tudor England and this warrior race. The narrator of Wolf Hall, however, tells the story of the giants only to dissociate the Tudors from such brute origins: “Some say the Tudors transcend this history, bloody and demonic as it is: that they descend from Brutus through the line of Constantine, son of Saint Helena, who was a Briton.” This noble line of Tudor descent, we are reminded, led to Arthur, High King of Britain, who “married up to three women, all of them called Guinevere” and was Constantine’s grandson. Arthur’s tomb is at Glastonbury, “but you must understand that he is not really dead, only waiting his time to come again.” That time will not come in the reign of the Tudors, just as the giants will not be awakened in the reign of Henry VIII. For though King Arthur’s namesake, Prince Arthur of England, was the eldest son of the first Tudor king, Prince Arthur died at the age of fifteen.

This recap of Tudor origins in “An Occult History of Britain” ends with: “Beneath every history, another history.” Indeed. But are these deep layers of ancient lore, like the tale of buried giants, like the story of King Arthur, entombed at Glastonbury, precursors of future events? Do past histories contain the promise of a resurgence of past ideals? Or do these myths mock the England of written history with the latent irony of juxtaposition, casting opprobrium upon her all-too-human leaders and on the people of later times?  

Narrowing our focus, we might ask what layers of history lie beneath the central story of Bring Up the Bodies, the story of Thomas Cromwell and the precipitous downfall of Anne Boleyn.

And what of Cromwell’s ultimate fate? We know from hindsight that Cromwell, like Katherine, fell from favor; that Cromwell, like Anne, was extinguished. Are the seeds of Cromwell’s fate planted in Bring Up the Bodies?

Cromwell’s History, Cromwell’s Fate

American men in the 1950s and after who worked in the corporate world often had a wife at home and an office wife: their devoted secretary. Just so, Secretary Cromwell was Henry’s office wife. Perhaps, indeed, he was the seventh wife of Henry VIII. Thus it fell to Cromwell to discover that, like “divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived,” the king’s chief adviser was dispensable. Cromwell’s place in the sequence of advisers, after Cardinal Wolsey: ‘divorced,’ and excluding the deceased Sir Thomas More, granted him an invitation to a beheading.

In a scene in Wolf Hall, Cromwell explains to his son Gregory the requirements and constraints of his role as adviser to the king: “You choose him and you know what he is. And then, when you have chosen, you say yes to him.” Cromwell as Yes Man? Yet in this, the first novel of the trilogy, Cromwell denies that he has therefore become the King’s henchman, admonishing Gregory: “It is impossible that Henry or any other person should require me to harm the queen. What is he, a monster?”

In the exposition of Bring Up the Bodies, it is implied that Cromwell has begun to morph into a more sinister figure than the Cromwell of Wolf Hall. Back home at Austin Friars, he notes that his portrait by painter Hans Holbein makes him look like a murderer.

Thomas Cromwell of Wolf Hall pulls himself up by his bootstraps and rises to power through the patronage of Cardinal Wolsey, and later, of King Henry himself. Along the way, he treats members of his household – women, children, servants, with kindliness and affection. In Chapter 1 of Bring Up the Bodies, called “Falcons,” Cromwell is no longer ensconced at home, surrounded by a circle of family and friends. This is the Cromwell whom the narrator fleetingly represents as England’s defender. Back in London, Cromwell’s role narrows: he is Henry’s defender, he is the king’s enabler.

A Story About Women

Why is the story of Henry VIII and his six wives told and re-told, why regularly rediscovered by each generation?  It is a versatile tale, suggests Abigail Nussbaum, comprehending politics and religion, animated by the makers of history, “But to me the story is, at its heart, about women.” No matter what rules each of the six wives played by, Nussbaum points out, they were ensnared by the patriarchy. There is no denying the monstrousness of Henry VIII, who “caused the deaths of four out of his six wives.” (Review of Bring Up the Bodies by Abigail Nussbaum,

Women of the supporting cast in Bring Up the Bodies, such as the queen’s attendants, remain in the background for long stretches of the story, only to burst forth explosively for their moment in the spotlight. Such are the appearances of the gluttonous Lady Worcester, the morally sluggish Mary Shelton, and envious Lady Rochford in the scenes of their interrogation by Cromwell. Yet even when these minor characters appear to be at the periphery of the action, Mantel shows just how crucial they are in driving the story.

The operative by-word for the collective power of these minor players – ladies of the queen’s privy chamber, ladies of the royal court, even women of London – to influence the fate of Anne Boleyn is Rumor. Anne’s life at court, her position as queen, and finally her trial and execution, are all mediated by rumor, scandal and women’s gossip.

The women’s influence begins with Anne’s arrival at the royal court. In Wolf Hall, it is Anne, not Henry, whom the women of England revile. The women blame the younger Boleyn girl for Katherine’s fall from grace; they spread rumors about Anne Boleyn and call her a whore. In Bring Up the Bodies, it is the women of Anne’s household who provide Cromwell with enough evidence, through their testimony, to charge the queen with adultery. Up to the moment when she is taken to the Tower, Anne remains clueless about the role of the women of her household in bringing about her downfall. When she is arrested, she demurs, saying, “I have no necessities, not a change of shift, and I should have my women with me.” Asking again for the ladies of her privy chamber, “She seems not to know it is these women who have given evidence against her.”

In happier times, Anne makes her début at the royal court apparently without the guidance of the English ladies who surround her. Suggestive of Anne Boleyn’s isolation at court is the fact that she dances in a yellow silk dress. The yellow fabric is so far from the height of fashion in England that, once rare, it is now being worn by prostitutes. Thus do the ladies of the court subtly tarnish the reputation of the girl from France.

Is Hilary Mantel’s portrait of this coven of rumor-mongering women psychologically and historically accurate? And where do the author’s sympathies lie? For practically every woman in the novel berates and reviles Anne, with the ultimate exception of a few of Anne’s intimates, who betray her more quietly. During Anne’s rise to power, as during her fall, the women around her refuse to speak ill of Henry, perhaps not only out of fear.

In an article entitled, “Our Own Worst Enemies: Unconscious Factors in Female Disadvantage” (Free Associations, Pilot Issue, 1984), psychoanalyst Jane Temperley explores the dynamics of female bias against women. Temperley’s discussion of unconscious elements at work in women’s behavior is not a denial of the reality of female disadvantage in patriarchal society. Rather, she argues that this reality is accompanied, and facilitated by, the existence of unconscious dynamics. Temperley describes two groups of women she has encountered in her practice, who merit the designation of ‘their own worst enemies.’

The first group consists of successful women who encounter difficulties with female life passages. Typically close to their fathers, these women, like the virginal Athena or Brunhilda, are the agents of their fathers’ minds. Their closeness to their fathers was brought about by disillusionment with their mothers in infancy and childhood. Disappointment turned to anger, and a positive mother imago was ‘lost’ to them without being mourned.

The mother imago, however, was not completely absent from the child’s mind. As Temperley puts it, “In the internal world we do not so absolutely rid ourselves of one another.” Our selves are made up of “the precipitates of abandoned objects,” (an object, in psychoanalytic terms, is the representation of an important person as an internal image). Loss and parting, Temperley explains, are dealt with by identification. The positive mother imago is obscured by doubt: “In Freud’s phrase, ‘the shadow of the object fell upon the ego.’” (Temperley, Free Associations, p. 29)

Early ambivalence towards one’s mother can thus result in scornful feelings towards women, and in “unconscious identification with mothers whose best qualities we split off and attribute to men.” (FA, pp. 28-29) According to this process, the scorn heaped on Anne Boleyn – to the extent that the invective against her is attested historically – and the rumors about her, especially those concerning her sexual behavior, were likely not only socially determined, but represented an ambivalent identification with femaleness on the part of the women who were obsessed by Queen Anne.

The second group of Temperley’s patients who were affected by unconscious factors consisted of women who cultivated the advantages of being the victim: “They manoeuvre to monopolize virtue.” (FA, p. 33) In Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies we see such women from the outside: shrews and schemers, gossips and moral cowards. Cromwell knew how to manipulate them all. Bring Up the Bodies is a bleak book for many reasons, including the absence in the novel of women characters with highly developed, positive qualities of heart and mind. Cromwell and Anne Boleyn have this in common: both are deprived of female friendship, guidance, and intimacy, and in Anne’s case, solidarity. Negative projections of femaleness – rumor- and gossip-fueled – are in the ascendant throughout most of the novel.

Falcons, Crows, and Angels

Let us return to the green world at the beginning of Bring Up the Bodies, where Cromwell is hunting with falcons whom he has named for his dead wife, daughters, and sisters. The falcons are veritable ghosts, haunting the landscape with their silent swoops and plunges; like furies they descend upon their prey, exacting blood vengeance.

By Cromwell’s own design, the falcons stand for female relatives, two daughters, two sisters and a wife taken by illness and plague, perhaps never adequately mourned, now become half-remembered malformations of their living selves. The motif of falcons named for dead women serves as a harbinger of Cromwell’s psychic turmoil in the course of the novel. Cut off from the warmth and intimacy provided by the females of his little clan, the Cromwell of Bring Up the Bodies becomes a caricature if his utilitarian self. Indeed, Cromwell’s relation to women has substantially changed. Not only will he become the nemesis of Anne Boleyn, the newly relentless Cromwell will set about using lower-ranking women in his persecution of the queen; manipulating them under interrogation with treats and threats, while pandering to their worst natures.

In the green world of the West Country, newly arrived with Henry at Wolf Hall, Cromwell, accompanied by the bizarre ghosts of his falcon-women, is still able to dream a transparent dream. Cromwell is just beginning to be consciously aware that the king has come here to court Jane Seymour; he remains unaware of the consequences of Henry’s actions to the present queen and her courtiers. Careful to disavow his earlier interest in Jane Seymour, Cromwell has unconscious thoughts of marrying. Concerned that Cromwell may become disheartened by “all these falcons named for dead women,” Sir John Seymour, notorious for his affair with his son’s wife, recommends marriage to Cromwell, adding, “In the forest of Savernake there are many fresh young women.” In the following passage we see Cromwell’s sleepy imaginings being woven into a dream.

“You may find a bride in the forest,” Old Seymour had said.
            When he closes his eyelids she slides behind them, veiled with cobwebs
            and splashed with dew. Her feet are bare, entwined with roots, her feather
            hat flies into the branches; her finger, beckoning, is a curled leaf. She
            points to him, as sleep overtakes him. . .
            At the edge of his inner vision, behind his closed eyes, he senses something in the
            act of becoming. It will arrive with morning light, something shifting and
            breathing, its form disguised in a copse or grove.

The bride in the forest, the bride made of root fiber, has an archetypal aura not unlike J. R. R. Tolkien’s Goldberry in the magical description of England’s natural world in a section of The Hobbit entitled “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil.” But we are a long way from the world of The Hobbit. Next morning, a potential bride appears – not for him, but for Henry – and not in the forest, but in the garden: Lady Jane, walking with the king. This is the match between the illusion created by Cromwell’s unconscious wishes and the reality of the desires of a powerful king. Mediated by Cromwell’s intuition, the dream of the bride made of root fiber becomes a kind of prediction, of Jane, small and puppet-like, accompanied by the massive figure of the king, amidst ornamental flowers and bushes.

The idyll is nearly over. The further adventures of King Henry VIII will take place in London, at the royal court. The king had left London for Windsor the week of Thomas More’s death by execution, then carried on to Wolf Hall. There, at supper, Sir Francis Weston tells a story against “Master Secretary here,” about how Cromwell informed the jury at More’s trial that they would not have their dinner until they found More guilty. Back at Austin Friars, Gregory asks his father if the story is true.

During Cromwell’s visit the countryside is haunted by ghosts of dead women: falcons. Other creatures haunt the city. The ghost of Thomas Wyatt, elusive in his suspected adultery with the queen, haunts the anxious king. Defending Wyatt to the king, Cromwell is haunted too: “Wyatt’s well-dressed shade, silken, slides across the window, blocks the cold starlight. On your way, phantom: his mind brushes it before him; who can understand Wyatt, who absolve him?” The city itself is haunted by winged creatures – not falcons, but crows: “London lawyers, flapping their black gowns like crows, settle to their winter term.” Queen Anne, pregnant again, is temporarily safe from the incursions of the Seymours. Yet even in the time between the two trials, that of Thomas More and that of Anne Boleyn, the threat of legal process in the service of the king is never far away.

Falcons, crows, and angels haunt the pages of Bring Up the Bodies, and “Falcons,” “Crows,” and “Angels” are the chapter titles of Part One of the novel. One of the angels is Cromwell’s deceased daughter Grace, who wore peacocks’ wings when she dressed as an angel at Christmas. Falcons, crows and angels are winged creatures, capable of flight. But in Hilary Mantel’s novel, the usual symbolic association of birds with freedom is absent. As the story progresses, the green world, where discovery and freedom seemed possible, becomes more and more unreachable, subsumed by duty, by legal process.

Cromwell, closer than ever to the king, and increasingly successful despite his humble background, is becoming a man of property. Yet the beauties of the English landscape, the walled gardens, watercourses, and ponds with gilded fish “remain to him flat, each one a paper construct, a set of figures on a page of accounts…His acres are notional acres.” The forest has receded. So have the giants’ earthworks. Even agrarian England, viewed from the perspective of the city, has been reduced to the legality of ownership.

If nature and her archeological treasures no longer provide a scaffolding for the storyline of Bring Up the Bodies, what of the wings of liberty?

Anne Boleyn would be tried and executed, as would five men accused of adultery with her. Thomas Wyatt, the poet, though a suspected paramour of the queen, would be spared. Are we to see a touch of grace in the sparing of the poet? Are we to commend the privileging of his communion with beauty, with Art? The sober narrator of the pages towards the end of the novel suggests as much:

 When Wyatt writes, his lines fledge feathers, and unfolding this plumage they dive below their meaning and skim above it. . .  A quill, sharpened, can stir and rustle like pinions of angels. Angels are messengers. They are creatures with a mind and a will. We do not know for a fact that their plumage is like the plumage of falcons, crows, peacocks. They hardly visit men nowadays. Though in Rome he knew a man…who had come face to face with an angel…He said the angel’s substance was heavy and smooth as marble, its expression distant and pitiless; its wings were carved from glass.

Writing in the Gap between History and Fiction


There is a gap, sometimes a large one, between fact-based historical knowledge of figures like Thomas Cromwell and Anne Boleyn, and their realization as fictional characters. Hilary Mantel has said of Thomas More, that “He was a wonderful apologist for himself.” (Wolf Hall Daunt Debate) By contrast, Cromwell left scant personal records. In writing the genre of historical fiction, the author’s particular solution to the problem of how to deal with the gap between history and fiction informs the writing of the entire book.

To her very great credit, Hilary Mantel fills the gap between the historical and the fictional Thomas Cromwell by creating a realistic character whose behavior and motivations are clearly traceable to his social background and personal psychology. Moreover, Cromwell is fully realized as an exceptional man; Mantel uses her intelligence to convey his, in this, the portrait of a statesman. The apparent naturalness of the depiction is no doubt due to Hilary Mantel’s affinity for her subject. Mantel has stated that she did not choose to write about the Tudors; rather, she chose Thomas Cromwell “for his fascinating career” and as “an individual who would stand out in any era.” (Wolf Hall Daunt Debate)  The fictional Thomas Cromwell of the first two books of Mantel’s trilogy has been called “one of the most fascinating characters in contemporary fiction,” a tribute to Mantel’s imagining of the character. (James Wood, “Invitation to a Beheading,” The New Yorker, May, 2012) Mantel’s Cromwell is a multi-faceted individual as believable as he is difficult simply to like or dislike. The author’s disclosure of Cromwell through different viewpoints, ranging from omniscient author to free indirect style, allows the reader to participate in the rich inner life of the character. Cromwell’s actions, largely conveyed through dialogue, are portrayed in a direct, vivid way.

The case of Anne Boleyn is different. Hilary Mantel is not drawn to the figure of Anne Boleyn by the same kind of fascination that has drawn her to Cromwell. Mantel’s lack of affinity for the character is notable by way of contrast with the enthusiasm of another author who has recently written about Anne Boleyn: “And yet it’s hard to get beyond this brave and tragic figure on the scaffold to this woman who’s the scandal of Christendom and the catalyst for the English Reformation. She’s a fascinating figure.” (Alison Weir, author of The Lady in the Tower: the Fall of Anne Boleyn (2010), Interview with NPR). What brave and tragic figure? one might well ask on reading the account of Anne Boleyn’s execution in Bring Up the Bodies.

Anne Boleyn is hardly the most fascinating character in contemporary fiction, but Mantel’s oblique approach to this important figure may make Anne Boleyn the most mediated character in contemporary fiction. In Wolf Hall, Anne Boleyn’s portrait is largely refracted through the lens of Cromwell’s experience of her. When she is not represented from Cromwell’s point of view, she is most often depicted through the eyes of some other character. It is almost as though the author is afraid to approach the Anne Boleyn character directly.  To some extent, Anne Boleyn’s indirect portrayal is a subset of the representation of royal women and ladies in Wolf Hall. The royals and ladies: Queen Katherine, Princess Mary, Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour, are represented more indirectly than their male counterparts. The ladies appear in scenes with Cromwell and other courtiers, but also become known to us as subjects of rumor and speculation. We see Anne Boleyn take the stage, but we rarely hear her speak her own lines. Indeed, she is more spoken of than speaking.

While there are more scenes in which Anne Boleyn is represented directly in Bring Up the Bodies than there are in Wolf Hall, these scenes only disclose Anne’s character to a certain extent. For the most part, the author fills the gap between historical fact and fiction with speculation about Anne: with rumors, gossip and hearsay provided by other characters. Even in the trilogy’s second book, in which Anne Boleyn is a central character, our view of her is partly obscured.

Not to be known clearly, not to be known directly, not to be known truly, is ever the fate of Anne. From the time she arrives at court in 1521, at the age of twenty, Anne is seen by her contemporaries through a haze of innuendo. As she is known by her contemporaries in the novel, so is she known by the reader. As a reader committed to being objective in evaluating Anne Boleyn’s character, carefully weighing the prejudices and confirmation biases of characters who speak ill of her, it is nevertheless difficult to discount particularly scurrilous rumors about this character. In the same way, it is hard not to be  swayed by the quantity of rumors directed against her.

Cromwell pays attention to all of these rumors. At times, he even chastises rumor-mongers for impugning the queen’s honor. At some point, Cromwell moves over from listening to rumors about Anne, and begins listening to the speculation and hearsay on which he can base charges against her.

Just as the stories told against Anne Boleyn from the time she appears at court are primarily gossip, so the testimony Cromwell elicits from ladies and courtiers is primarily hearsay. Cromwell knows how to play on the weakness of each of his witnesses. He begins his interrogation of the ladies of the queen’s privy chamber with Lady Worcester, plying her with cakes. “I am greedy,” she remarks, as she begins to divulge information that will be damaging to the queen. “You think I will confess, just for cakes?” she protests. Cromwell is sure of it.

Mary Shelton, morally weak and spiritually lazy, only has to be encouraged a little to give away the store. Diffident at first, she becomes more talkative in response to just a few of Cromwell’s well-timed questions, and her testimony gathers speed until, like an avalanche, there is no stopping her. Suddenly, Mary has recounted a love scene between the queen and Mark Smeaton, and implicated the man who spurned her, Henry Norris. Sensing that she has gone too far, Mary struggles with her conscience: “It could not tend to bad, could it?” she asks. Mary then confesses to Lady Rochford that her testimony was all speculation and hearsay: “He may suppose it is all light words? No harm? It is all conjecture…I could not swear it.”

Nor does Cromwell have to exert himself to elicit testimony from Anne Boleyn’s sister-in-law, Lady Rochford. An inveterate gossip, Lady Rochford easily divulges the story of Anne and the king sitting in the great window. Since no one could hear the words exchanged by the royal couple, Lady Rochford’s account of their conversation is pure guesswork. Lady Rochford is an easy touch because of her unhappy marriage to Anne’s brother, and her envy of Anne’s success with men. A modicum of chilly courtesy is all it takes to get her to Name Names. “You know it has come out about Norris and Weston,” she tells Cromwell. On a roll, she confirms the incestuous relation between her husband, George Rochford, and his sister Anne. Shrewder than Mary Shelton and a deeper shade of evil, Lady Rochford is fully aware of the consequences of her speech: she has just sent four people to their deaths.

Cromwell as prosecuting attorney is completely alive and believable as a character. Whether or not Hilary Mantel was helped in constructing the interrogation scenes by her training for the legal profession (which she could then not afford to practice), the question-and-answer sessions are showpieces for the scheming, mind reading, and verbal acuity that make Cromwell such a compelling character. And so Cromwell remains, to the end of the story. As servant to the king, as the avenger of Cardinal Wolsey, as a father telling his son what happens to the dead when the living are forbade from praying them out of Purgatory, Cromwell retains the mix of intelligence and loyalty, class hatred and paternal devotion that make him human and whole.

The author, however, loses interest in Anne Boleyn from the time of her arrest. There is a corresponding diminution of Anne’s character from this point on. That diminution is confirmed in the novel by Mantel’s portrayal of Anne Boleyn’s loss of spirit. “Anne is dead to herself,” the narrator tells us. She no longer looks squarely at the world, as she did when Henry courted her. As Henry’s bride in the forest, Anne misused her archetypal power to dominate and disorient the king: “She led him into the forest…She drew him on…he could not go back, he had lost his path.” Is this inversion of the actual power relationship between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn meant to exonerate him? In any case, the historical Henry withdrew from the queen completely; his only sign of favor from the time of her arrest was to commute her sentence from burning to beheading.

We know little enough from history of Anne’s conduct at her trial. But we do know that she stood before a jury of her peers – all of them men – and defended her chastity. What little we do know from history indicates that Anne had more spirit and tenacity than she is shown as having in the novel. And what of the ‘brave and tragic figure on the scaffold’ referred to by historian Alison Weir? For all of the historical accounts are consistent on this point. Curiously, Hilary Mantel describes Anne at the scene of the execution as fussing with her hair, then as literally flattened: turned to a pool of blood by the blade. Anne’s speech is dismissed as trite. Her words are not repeated in full.

What did Anne Boleyn say on the scaffold? Here are her words:

Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, for according to the law, and by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I am come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak anything of that, whereof I am accused and condemned to die, but I pray God save the king and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never: and to me he was ever a good, a gentle and sovereign lord. And if any person will meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best. And thus I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me. O Lord have mercy on me, to God I commend my soul.

Hardly lacking in spirit, the historical Anne Boleyn showed courage and composure at the end.  She dressed for the part, wearing a red petticoat under a dark grey gown trimmed in fur. Historians believe that she refrained from criticizing Henry to protect her daughter Elizabeth. Unlike the many who gave evidence against the accused at trial, she never cracked under pressure. She never confessed her guilt. Indeed, she seemed to look forward to a more favorable judgment by history when she said: “And if any person will meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best.”

Hilary Mantel may not have given us a brave and tragic Anne Boleyn, but to compensate, she gives us a deranged, self-pitying Henry VIII to ponder. This is a Henry without conscience, a Henry who could make himself believe anything. “I believe she has committed adultery with a hundred men,” he tells Cromwell.  Henry had found his bride in the forest, but, having found her, he stripped away her goodness, attributing it elsewhere, and made her a demon.

Anne took him by the hand, these ten years ago and more. She led him into the forest, and at the sylvan edge, where the broad light of day splinters and filters into green, he lost his good judgment, his innocence. She drew him on…he could not go back, he had lost his path. All day he chased her, until the light faded…and then she turned on him…and left him alone in the dark.

It seemed not to matter at the time, in the case of the historical Anne Boleyn, what were the true facts of her conduct. Her trial was a travesty of justice. The forces arrayed against her were the more powerful. Even her memory in history became defined, for the first few generations after her death, by the unattested negative imagery of a powerful female archetype.

It seems not to have mattered in the world of the novel that if Anne was not innocent, neither was she guilty of the offenses with which she was charged. In the mind of the king, she had the power to enchant and disorient him. She was the bride who became a witch. The latent force of the green world, where princesses give birth to giants, where heroism still exists, does not lend itself well to the world of social rivalry, possessions, crows.  Misapprehended, twisted, the magic of the green world turns to blame. As Hilary Mantel puts it, “A sacrifice has been made of Anne, but there is a price to pay” both by King Henry and by Thomas Cromwell. “The terms of that sacrifice take us to the third book.” (Hilary Mantel Talks About Anne Boleyn, YouTube)

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