Category Archives: Hilary Mantel

Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

bodiesBring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2012

Winner of  Hilary Mantel’s second Man Booker Prize.  Wolf Hall, the first book in Mantel’s proposed trilogy, won the Booker in 2009. My first Long-Awaited Reads novel and the first book for the 2013 Historical Fiction Challenge.  If you were to ask me right now I would say that Hilary Mantel is my favorite author.

Katherine of Aragon is shuttled off to the country.  Anne Boleyn is Queen.  King Henry grows distant from his second wife and, when Anne fails to give him a son, the King’s minister, Thomas Cromwell, senses change.  It is Cromwell’s knowledge of the past that brings the future into focus.

Bring Up The Bodies is not as densely written as Wolf Hall , but that doesn’t take away from the power of Hilary Mantel’s writing.  This is the second book in the planned trilogy  about Thomas Cromwell’s life and the interweaving of dialogue and description bring all of her characters vibrantly to  life, almost as if I were watching them on stage and not curled up reading with a cup of coffee.  There is drama, action and an almost physical sensation of movement.

Duke Charles Brandon approaching King Henry in front of  Eustache Chapuys, ambassador of Emperor Charles V:

He, Cromwell, follows on the duke’s heels.  If he had a net, he would drop it over him. ‘Leave what you’re doing, Majesty.  You want to hear this, by God.  You’re quit of the old lady.  She is on her deathbed.  You will soon be a widower.  Then you can get rid of the other one, and marry into France, by God, and lay your hands on Normandy as dowry…’ He notices Chapuys.  ‘Oh, Ambassador.  Well, you can take yourself off.  No use you staying for scraps.  Go home and make your own Christmas, we don’t want you here.’

Henry has turned white.  ‘Think what you are saying.’  He approached Brandon as if he might knock him down; which, if he had a poleaxe, he could.  ‘My wife is carrying a child.  I am lawfully married.’  from page 128.

I can hear the bumbling Brandon and feel King Henry’s fury.  Many biographic and fictional accounts of this time period, including A Man For All Seasons and The Tudors (which I have not seen), Thomas Cromwell is portrayed as an evil figure.  Mantel has given him swift intelligence and a conscience, even if he does not hesitate to destroy those the King finds standing in his way.  He had traveled widely in his youth and learned much from what he’d seen and heard.  He constantly applies this knowledge to the changing political environment around him.

He had met an old knight once, in Venice, one of those men who made a career of riding to tournaments all over Europe.  The man described his life to him, crossing frontiers with his band of esquires and his string of horses, always on the move from one prize to the next, til age and the accumulation of injuries put him out of the game.  On his own now, he tried to pick up a living  teaching young lords, enduring mockery and time-wasting; in my day, he had said, the young were taught manners, but now I find myself fettling horses and polishing breastplates for some little tosspot I wouldn’t have let clean my boots in the old days;  for look at me now, reduced to drinking with, what are you, an Englishman?

…How shall I improve, he said to the old knight, how shall I succeed?  These were his instructions: you must sit easy in your saddle, as if you were riding out to take the air.  Hold your reins loosely, but have your horse collected.  In the combat à plaisance, with its fluttering flags,, its garlands, its rebated swords and lances tipped with buffering coronals, ride as if you were out to kill.  In the combat à l’outrance, kill as if it were sport.  Now look, the knight said, and slapped the table, here’s what I’ve seen, more times than I care to count: your man braces himself for the atteint, and at the final moment, the urgency of desire undoes him:  he tightens him muscles, he pulls his lance-arm against his body, the tip tilts up, and he’s off his mark;  if you avoid one fault, avoid that.  Carry your lance a little loose, so when you tense your frame and draw in your arm your point comes exactly on target.  But remember this above all else: defeat your instinct.  Your love of glory must conquer your will to survive; or why fight at all?  Why not be s smith, a brewer, a wool merchant?  Why are you in the contest, if not to win, and if not to win, then to die? from pages 165/167.

A  perfect lesson to take into the court of King Henry the Eight.

Bring Up The Bodies follows Cromwell through the death of Katherine of Aragon, the King’s developing fascination with Jane Seymour and the trial and execution of Anne Boleyn, on of the most chilling scenes I have ever read.  Chilling and beautiful, if that is possible.  I can not wait for the third novel in this trilogy, and anything else Mantel writes in the future.

There is a wonderful column about Mantel’s process of writing Wolf Hall in the Guardian and a fascinating profile of the author in The New Yorker.

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Filed under 2013 Historical Fiction Challenge, 2013 TBR Double Dog Dare, Booker, Hilary Mantel, Historical Fiction, Long Awaited Reads Month

A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel

A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel

Picador, New York, 2006 (First published in 1992)

Borrowed from the library.

If I were an author, I would want to write like Hilary Mantel.  After reading Wolf Hall I forced myself to hold off on reading her earlier novel,  A Place of Greater Safety, because I have many other books to read and the book is 700 plus pages long.  Then it showed up at the library and I couldn’t stop myself.

Not being a history major,  I don’t know how much of this novel is fact and how much is fiction.   Mantel has taken one of the most tumultuous times in French and European history and brought it to life through her characters.  No small task, her  cast of characters runs to over one hundred individuals.

The novel’s main focus is on three historic figures, Georges-Jacques Danton, Camille Desmoulins and Maximilian Robespierre, lawyers, journalists and revolutionaries.  Robespierre is the familiar to me because of  the Reign of Terror. I know a bit about Danton  because of the Gerard Depardieu film.  These historic figures, and their families, form the core of the novel and the other characters move among them in a dance both graceful and chaotic.  But the main force behind this time of violent change is the people of France and their need to survive.

Bread is the main thing to understand: the staple of speculation, the food for all theories about what happens next.  Fifteen years from now, on the day the Bastille falls, the price of bread in Paris will be at its highest in sixty years.  Twenty years from now (when it is all over), a women of the capital will say: “Under Robespierre, blood flowed, but the people had bread.  Perhaps in order to have bread, it is necessary to spill a little blood.  From page 27.

I love the way the big scenes play out, as if Mantel were standing in the crowd reporting the events.   Then, suddenly, I am in a character’s head, thinking their thoughts, feeling their fear.

Camille’s precipitate entry into history came about in this fashion.  He was standing in the doorway of the Cafe du Foy, hot, elated, slightly frightened by the pres of people.  Someone behind him said that he might try to address the crouds and so a table had been pushed into the cafe doorway.  For a moment he felt faint.  He leaned against this table, bodies hemming him in…
…He was now at a dizzying height above the crowd.  A fetid breeze drifted across the gardens.  Another fifteen seconds had passed.  He was able to identify certain faces, and suprise at this made him blink: ONE WORD, he thought.  There were the police, and there were their spies and informers, men who had been watching him for weeks, the colleagues and accomplices of the men who only a few days before had been cornered and beaten by the crowds and half-drowned in the fountains.  But now it is the killing time; there were armed men behind him.  In sheer fright, he began.  From pages 188/190.

There are also the women, wives, mothers, lovers,  strong in their thoughts and perceptions.  They know the men.

I thought, he talks like a man who has circumstances by the throat, but really he is making his calculations, he is carefully weighing the odds.  He has only once made a mistake — last summer, when we had to run away.  You will say, what was it, after all?  A few weeks skulking out of Paris, and then an amnesty, and things go on as before.  But picture me, that summer night at Fortenay, trying to keep my self control and put a good face on things, knowing that he is going to ngland and fearing he might never come back.  And it shows, doesn’t it, how much worse things can get when you think you’ve hit rock bottom?  Life has more complications in store than you can ever formulate or imagine.  There are many ways of losing a husband.  You can do it on several levels, the figurative and the actual.  I operate on all of them, it seems.  From pages 368/369.

I could go on quoting pages and pages. The novel is long, but moves rapidly.  The language is dense, astute, brilliant.  Filled with intrigues, petty grievances, terror and the politics of betrayal,  it covers events in European history that ushered in the modern age.  I loved it.

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Filed under Hilary Mantel, Historical Fiction, Review