Having bought the book I had a deadline.
Tickets had been purchased to hear Hilary Mantel talking about her Wolf Hall sequel Bring Up the Bodies in the Great Hall at Dartington last Saturday, July 7th. I had been online at one second past the hour on box-office opening day to be sure of securing seats, which for once was a very sensible move as apparently they had sold out in the merest flash of an axe blade.
So I absolutely had to finish the book before I went in case there were any spoilers.. just supposing someone asking a question spills the beans (it always happens) lets slip that Anne Boleyn parts company with her head or something.
There were several false starts. Sixty or so pages in (for the second time) I had mistakenly transported Bring Up the Bodies to Orkney and back thinking it would be great holiday reading, except on this occasion I was wrong. Clearly my book brain does what I need it to and switches off dramatically when I am on holiday to allow my looking brain to take over for a while. 150 pages in and perhaps I could have taken the book anywhere and managed, as I had discovered with Wolf Hall (will I never learn).
The reader is the interloper here, the 'foreigner' whose initial presence raises suspicions, conversations might be a little guarded, information cloaked in secrecy, and the reader will need their wits about them if they are to immerse themselves invisibly into the day to day flow of things, which barely seem to have missed a stride to let them in the door. Then the task is to blend in seamlessly as part of Hilary Mantel's Tudor fabrics and furnishings, and with eyes in the back of the head just watch and listen and figure it all out as the conspiracy. the plotting and the intrigue and the fear gathers pace around them.
The secret of success, I have discovered, is to relax into the book, to feel and smell and hear it, something which Hilary Mantel makes incredibly easy as her brush moves effortlessly back and forth from the particular to the general. This world so familiar to its inhabitants must be made likewise for the reader, and once I spotted the little whispers of inclusion that were offered I was in...
...heard the rustle of the satin sleeves,
...noticed the way someone's status, upwardly mobile, is denoted by their clothing as it moves from canvas to worsted to damask,
...tasted the food... the lemon cakes flavoured with lavender, the elderflowers simmered in sugar syrup and poured over halved strawberries...noticed the primrose petal on the cheese cake.
...wandered through the noisy St George's Day celebrations with the cloth and paper dragons swaying through the streets.
...spectated and gasped as the jousting unseats yet another who has failed to break his instinct, because given a chance the that instinct will always be to swerve at the last minute.
...looked on as that minxy Anne Boleyn falls out of favour,
...and meek Jane Seymour waits patiently in the wings.
So I have now finished the book after reading the first sixty pages three times, but on the third occasion I had cleared the reading decks properly, only allowing interventions that offered respite, as I made my way back in time and back into the heart and mind of Thomas Cromwell, Crumb to his friends, Cremuel to those for whom English is not their first language, and me stepping nervously towards the end of the book. I could hardly bear to imagine how Hilary Mantel, no slouch when it comes to writing up a bit of eviscerating blood and gore, would deal with all this... i.e. the be-heading bit, to the point where I had to make sure I timed this right. For example I suspected it wouldn't do to read the final fifty pages last thing at night and then expect to sleep any time soon.
I was right.
Of course we all know the outcome in general terms but quite how the story of Henry and Anne happens day to day has to be up for discussion and some surmisation, something which Hilary Mantel elaborates on in an author's note at the end of the book...
'The circumstances surrounding the fall of Anne Boleyn have been controversial for centuries. The evidence is complex and sometimes contradictory; the sources are often dubious, tainted and after-the-fact. There is no official transcript of her trial, and we can reconstruct her last days only in fragments, with the ehlp of contemporaries who may be inaccuarte, biased, forgetful, elsewhere at the time, or hiding under a pseudonym...'
'Where to begin with Cromwell? Some start with his sharp little eyes, some start wih his hat...wherever they begin, the final impact is the same: if he had a grievance against you, you wouldn't like to meet him at the dark of the moon...'
And I am instantly reminded of the man so well established in my mind from Wolf Hall, and now from Bring Up the Bodies, with the most wonderful and evocative opening to a book imaginable, reminding me of those significant life events that may (just may) have made Cromwell into the man he has become. As he watches 'the girls'... the hawks soaring and swooping, birds of prey out on the hunting grounds, on a day...
'so clear you can see into Heaven and spy on what the saints are doing.'
and the birds become a transmigration of the souls of his dead wife and daughters, Cromwells grief is writ large and I imagine it like sign-writing in the sky that is going to hover over everything he thinks and does in the next 400 pages.
This is what I love about writing like this, a catalyst that allows my imagination to soar off on a frolic of its own, and I was gone a while, because though it may have been an invention of my own I then constantly envisaged Cromwell as a hawk too. A man of prey with that hawk's-eye view overseeing everything, missing nothing, pouncing and swooping on his own victims when they came within his reach and his need.... and I quickly diverted to Ted Hughes's poem from The Hawk in the Rain... Hawk Roosting..
I sit in the top of the wood, my eyes closed.
Inaction, no falsifying dream
Between my hooked head and hooked feet:
Or in sleep rehearse perfect kills and eat.
The convenience of the high trees!
The air's buoyancy and the sun's ray
Are of advantage to me;
And the earth's face upward for my inspection....
Much later in the book Hilary Mantel confirms what I think I already know...
'He once thought it himself, that he might die of grief: for his wife, his daughters, his sisters, his father and master the cardinal. But the pulse, obdurate, keeps its rhythm. You think you cannot keep breathing, but your ribcage has other ideas, rising and falling, emitting sighs. You must thrive in spite of yourself; and so that you may do it, God takes out your heart of flesh, and gives you a heart of stone.'
This, like so many points in the book, a moment when I had to close it and think about what I had just read carefully, dwell a while on the implications, though truth be told I was also procrastinating about finally finishing a book that I didn't want to end...perhaps because I knew the axe thing was coming...but also because I almost can't bear the wait for the final book of the trilogy.
The end when it does come is mercifully swift for both Anne and the reader and involves a well-concealed four-foot long sword rather an axe, whilst the plotting and machinations to achieve it all are breathtaking in the extreme. Cromwell, doing Henry's dirty work for him is quietly terrifying and if ever there was a book that ensured you feel the fear of those that come under his gaze... well this is it.
It all sent me back to Ted Hughes and the final stanza of Hawk Roosting...
The sun is behind me.
Nothing has changed since I began.
My eye has permitted no change.
I am going to keep things like this.
And, whilst Cromwell may well yearn for the day (to borrow from Ted Hughes) that his 'eye has permitted no change. I am going to keep things like this' we all know there may be trouble ahead. Cromwell may be the master at keeping one step ahead (sorry) of the game when he sits on top of the world, but has already admitted that his head feels a little wobbly on his neck. Thomas Cromwell of all people knows how precarious and potentially untenable his position may become, so I am impatiently and deliciously intrigued to see how Hilary Mantel will ultimately present his downfall.