Books - Exmouth 1
This group meets on the Second Tuesday of the month.
Bring up the Bodies is the second novel of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. It is written in a similar style to Wolf Hall, the first novel, in which the reader is almost sitting on Cromwell’s shoulder as he moves between the royal court and home. It is a style that some of the group found difficult to read while others settled into it and found it flowed easily. Although there was relatively little action, there was appreciation of the attention to detail.
Bring up the Bodies deals with a short period in history, from when Henry VIII begins to tire of Anne Boleyn to her trial and execution. At the start of the book, Henry is at the Seymour’s property, Wolf Hall, where he pays court to Jane Seymour. He sees her as fresh and untouched and capable of bearing a son. Anne is portrayed as being arrogant and irascible, which Henry was finding increasingly difficult to cope with. She had produced a daughter, Elizabeth, and was pregnant again. Henry desperately wanted a son to inherit the throne, but was fearful that Anne’s baby might again be a girl. The main reason for his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, was that she had only produced a daughter, Mary, as well as having several miscarriages, before becoming too old to bear more children. Consequently, Henry was considering parting from Anne.
Shortly afterwards, Anne had a miscarriage, which set in motion the events that led to her execution. Henry had set most of Europe against him when he divorced Catherine, as well as the Catholic nobility of England. Anything further would have led to a resumption of the Wars of the Roses, if not full scale invasion. Although Anne was not a royal princess, it would still have been hard to explain why he was divorcing the woman over whom he had bent the law and broken with Rome only a few years earlier. She would also have become a focus for powerful opposition from the Boleyns and their supporters. The only answer was her permanent removal, but a convincing reason had to be found for this to appear legal. She had to be found guilty of treason.
Cromwell was no fan of the Boleyns, nor of Anne herself. Interestingly, he seems to have had more concern for Catherine and the safety of Mary, than any qualms about Anne’s execution. Anne was the key to the Boleyn family’s hold on influence at court and Cromwell’s feelings about them were reciprocated, since they regarded him as a low-born upstart who could be a threat to them through his favour with Henry. Cromwell could see that his position was dependent on Henry’s favour continuing; a situation that was brought home to him when Henry had a serious jousting accident. His death could have opened the way for the Boleyns to consolidate their position, ousting Cromwell in the process.
Suspicions about Anne’s fidelity abounded, with court gossip about Anne having affairs after her marriage to Henry; probably unsurprising since most of her ladies-in-waiting seem to have been generous with their favours. Cromwell could see that gaining ‘proof’ of this would please Henry and made it his business to interview and intimidate various members of the court, starting with Mark Smeaton, the young musician. Initially, Smeaton foolishly boasts of having slept with Anne. Cromwell can barely believe his luck and, on coercion, Smeaton becomes so terrified of torture that he seems to have implicated most of the male members of the court. This was enough for Cromwell to prove Anne’s adultery. He then takes the opportunity for revenge on those courtiers who had taken part in a masque mocking Thomas Wolsey, Cromwell’s mentor and friend, that was described in Wolf Hall. They are arrested on the basis of ‘evidence’ from Lady Rochford, who also manages to accuse her husband, George Boleyn, of incest. Anne’s fate is sealed when she supposedly becomes distracted when in the Tower and fails to deny that she had discussed Henry’s death with one of her ‘lovers’.
There are a number of asides in Bring up the Bodies that appear to be something of a comment on Tudor England. English art is described more as graffiti while Continental art, particularly Italian, is refined paintings. Torture is freely practised on the Continent, though is illegal in England, but no one really believes that. The Continentals are supposed to use assassination as a means of disposing of political enemies, while England uses legal means – except that means finding a legal way to do Henry’s will, with a trial expected to come to the correct decision. Yet even Cromwell is surprised to learn that Anne’s executioner had been brought over from France before her trial. This French swordsman is shown to be highly competent and even displays a degree of humanity. The five condemned courtiers are dispatched with a clumsy axeman who seems to have had less ability than the average woodsman.
By discrediting the Boleyns and making the Seymours and, to a lesser extent, Henry, indebted to him, Cromwell is now in a position of unrivalled influence. Yet the end of the book hints at a degree of hubris.
October – Small Island by Andrea Levy
November – Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo
December - The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot