Saturday, April 06, 2013

Bring Up the Bodies

Hilary Mantel's Cromwell trilogy continues to amaze with Bring Up the Bodies, which chronicles the dissolution (to put it gently) of Henry VIII's second marriage to Anne Boleyn.  I read Wolf Hall, despite my general rule, that I break all the time, not to consume culture about capital punishment, which makes me feel queasy inside.  Bring Up the Bodies is all about Henry giving Anne the boot, which leads to her eventual (spoiler?) decapitation.  Boy, did that make me feel queasy.  Both books have won the Booker Prize. This entire trilogy trajectory is going to end with (mini-spoiler) Thomas Cromwell's decapitation.  Eek!  But I can't. Stop! Reading!

Mantel got in a teensy bit of hot water recently when it was perceived that she was denigrating the duchess Kate in her talk on Royal Bodies.   Even David Cameron jumped into the fray.  I found the whole thing very amusing - and an especially inept reading of what she actually said, which was a feminist examination of the "royal body", from Marie Antoinette to Anne Boleyn to Kate to Queen Elizabeth, who Mantel shamefully admits:
I passed my eyes over her as a cannibal views his dinner, my gaze sharp enough to pick the meat off her bones. I felt that such was the force of my devouring curiosity that the party had dematerialised and the walls melted and there were only two of us in the vast room, and such was the hard power of my stare that Her Majesty turned and looked back at me, as if she had been jabbed in the shoulder; and for a split second her face expressed not anger but hurt bewilderment.
Yowza.  I mean.  The way this woman writes!  Bring up the Bodies was largely a thrilling experience for me - like a joyride of gorgeous unravelling language from a master of the craft.  By now I've noticed that critics seem to enjoy sharing what they consider the Most Beautiful Sentence Mantel has written.  For me, it's this one:
The susurration, tapestry-muffled, of polyglot conversation.
Sure, it's an incomplete clause but uh, in context it's really great.  Also I had to remind myself what "susurration" means.  Suddenly studying for the GRE came flooding back.  Actually, I am not ashamed to list the following words whose meanings I had to look up (see below if you want to quiz yourself):

  • Tonsured
  • parvenu
  • opprobrious
  • suborn
  • oubliette
  • sauve qui peut
  • sprezzatura
  • subfusc
  • fulminating

Also "phlegmatic" doesn't mean what I thought.  All this time I thought it was a person with a lot of phlegm.  Thank you, Reader-dictionary-tool!

An interesting aspect of this trilogy so far is that Henry VIII actually comes off as a fairly likeable character despite almost all evidence to the contrary.  Makes sense - almost everything's gone right for him his entire life, surrounded by yes-men with his every whim fulfilled. Why shouldn't be be a jovial character?  But, it's wise to be careful around him:

You can be merry with the king, you can share a joke with him. But as Thomas More used to say, it's like sporting with a tamed lion. You tousle its mane and pull its ears, but all the time you're thinking, those claws, those claws, those claws.  

That's the rub, of course. Out of the mannered civility of the court come the absolutely barbaric actions of the crown, and by the end, (spoiler?) everyone's literally slipping around in the blood of Anne Boleyn and five men on trumped-up charges of treason.  Whew!  What a book!  Read it!


  • the bald part of a monk's head
  • a person of obscure origin who has gained wealth
  • disgraceful, shameful. Not to be confused with approbation, of course
  • bribe
  • a secret dungeon accessed by a trapdoor at the top.  
  • a general stampede, panic. Literally: "save who can"
  • studied nonchalance 
  • drab
  • hurling denunciations or menaces.  Underused, isn't it?  I mean, I fulminate almost daily.  

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