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2.0 out of 5 stars (2.5) A portrayal of Anne Boleyn that resembles the worst excesses of The Other Boleyn Girl, May 16, 2012
This review is from: Bring Up the Bodies (Hardcover)
Was Philippa Gregory's monstrosity of a historical novel The Other Boleyn Girl a source for Bring up the Bodies? It might as well have been. Manage to keep a cool head and not be drugged by the hypnotic prose (a difficult feat, I admit), and you may conclude that this novel's portrayal of Anne Boleyn and the reasons for her downfall reeks of misogyny - and not in a way that seems to condemn it as an unfortunate reality of the age in which she lived.

Anne Boleyn, this novel seems determined to convince us, was guilty. Guilty of being a Messalina who, in an effort to satisfy her unnatural lusts, had her lovers lining up outside her bedchamber - those lovers including her own brother. Take this scene:

He remembers what Thomas Wyatt told him: `That is Anne's tactic, she says yes, yes, yes, then she says no ... the worst of it is her hinting to me, her boasting almost, that she says no to me, but yes to others.'
He had asked Wyatt, how many lovers do you think she has had? And Wyatt had answered, `A dozen? Or none? Or a hundred?'
He himself thought Anne cold, a woman who took her maidenhead to market and sold it for the best price. But this coldness - that was before she was wed. Before Henry heaved himself on top of her, and off again, and she was left, after he had stumbled back to his own apartments, with the bobbing circles of candlelight on the ceiling, the murmurs of her women, the basin of warm water and the cloth: and Lady Rochford's voice as she scrubs herself, `Careful, madam, do not wash away a Prince of Wales.' Soon she is alone in the dark, with the scent of masculine sweat on the linen, and perhaps one useless maidservant turning and shuffling on a pallet: she is alone with the small sounds of river and palace. And she speaks, and no one answers, except the girl who mutters in her sleep: she prays, and no one answers; and she rolls on to her side, and smooths her hands over her thighs, and touches her own breasts.
So what if, one day, it's yes, yes, yes, yes, yes? To whoever happens to be standing by when the thread of her virtue snaps? Even if it's her brother? (p. 270)

It goes on and on, with Cromwell seriously considering incest as a possibility. I suppose you could argue that this is simply viewing things from his perspective. For instance, back in November the author was quoted in a BBC News article as saying, "If you read 20 different historians on Anne's fall you will get 20 different versions. I can't add to them, but I can try to convey to the reader what it might have been like to be caught up in those events. Thomas Cromwell remains a work in progress." Are we therefore supposed to conclude that Thomas Cromwell was working himself into a state in which he could orchestrate the death of an innocent woman by first convincing himself she was guilty?

If that was the intention, something went wrong - because that's not how it appeared to this reader at all. I felt I was on the receiving end of an effort to reinstate in the public's mind a portrait of Anne Boleyn that fits the very worst of what was created by sixteenth century Catholic propagandists: that of a monster of depravity whose evil deeds will provoke revulsion in the hearts of decent people for all eternity, etc. etc. Admittedly, this is no more irritating than are books - both fiction and non-fiction - in which Anne is portrayed as A Virtuous Protestant Esther Who Delivered Her People from the Wicked Demon of Rome: meek, humble, pious and, of course, Motivated to Become Queen Solely Out of Zeal for Spreading the Gospel (see Sandra Byrd's To Die For: A Novel of Anne Boleyn and Joanna Denny's Anne Boleyn: A New Life of England's Tragic Queen as classic examples of this). Both extremes are clichés, both ignore that this person was clearly a perfectly-human combination of good and bad, and both make for anything but first-rate reading.

It's not only Anne Boleyn who receives this treatment. Her sister-in-law Jane Boleyn is portrayed as a manipulative bitch who drips poison into Thomas Cromwell's ears:

She says, `I am not talking about his being a witness. I am telling you he spends time in her chamber. Alone with her. And the door closed.'
`In conversation?'
`I have been to the door and heard no voices.'
`Perhaps,' he says, `they join in silent prayer.'
`I have seen them kiss.'
`A brother may kiss his sister.'
`He may not, in that way.'
He picks up his pen. `Lady Rochford, I cannot write down, "He kissed her in that way."'
`His tongue in her mouth. And her tongue in his.'
`You want me to record that?'
`If you fear you won't remember it.'
He thinks, if this comes out in a law court the city will be in an uproar, if it is mentioned in Parliament the bishops will be frigging themselves on their benches. He waits, his pen poised. `Why would she do this, such a crime against nature?'
`The better to rule. Surely you see it? She is lucky with Elizabeth, the child is like her. But suppose she gets a boy and it has Weston's long face? Or it looks like William Brereton, what might the king say to that? But they cannot call it a bastard if it looks like a Boleyn.' (p. 266-267).

This in spite of the fact that Julia Fox's biography of Jane Boleyn is mentioned in the author's note: "The effect of omitting any source of rumour may be to throw more blame on Jane, Lady Rochford, than perhaps she deserves; we tend to read Lady Rochford backwards, as we know the destructive role she played in the affairs of Katherine Howard, Henry's fifth wife. Julia Fox has given a more positive reading of Jane's character in her book Jane Boleyn (2007)." Fox's book is speculative at times, but its assessment of the evidence that Lady Rochford was responsible for informing on her husband convincingly shows that such "evidence" is not contemporary, and consists of allegations made after she was dead. Why, then, reinstate the traditional portrait of a vindictive, shrewish wife who destroyed her husband and sister-in-law out of female malice? Misogyny sells, does it? Or are one-dimensional, stock-in-trade cardboard cut-outs all the reader is considered able to understand? Or is it a case of never letting facts get in the way of a good story?

This brings me to another issue: people who want to defend this book will set up their usual wail of, "Oh, it's only fiction. Read a biography if you want facts." No, it's *historical* fiction. These people really lived, and people who write about them should do them the courtesy of at least attempting to portray them as reliable contemporary sources record that they were. The author's note states that she is "indebted to the work of Eric Ives, David Loades, Alison Weir, G.W. Bernard, Retha M. Warnicke and many other historians of the Boleyns and their downfall". With such (largely) reliable sources, how did her portrayal of these historical figures end up so clichéd? Did it rely too heavily on G.W. Bernard's almost equally misogynist Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions? (Read the negative reviews if you want to see how convincing some readers found his arguments for Anne's possible guilt.) Although Alison Weir's biography of Mary Boleyn is flawed, it does demolish some of the myths that have long existed about her - for example, that she had the reputation of being a shameless whore who had crossed the line and taken too many lovers to be excused even under the standards of her day - or, at least, shows that the evidence to support such sweeping statements is lacking. Yet in Bring up the Bodies we have passages such as:

She [Lady Rochford] laughs. `Mr Secretary, that is what we all would like to know. But then, perhaps it is not always true. Mary Boleyn down in the country, I hear she blossoms like the month of May. Fair and plump, they say. How is it possible? A jade like Mary, through so many hands you can't find a stable lad who hasn't had her. But put the two side by side, and it is Anne who looks - how would you express it? Well-used.' (p. 111)

Maybe Mantel didn't read Weir's book in time, as it only came out last October. Nonetheless, about two-thirds into the book I finally realised what was so annoying me about it - it simply drips with a misogyny, as exemplified in the above passage, that's so heavy-handed it's almost insufferable. This complaint is not intended to be priggish. It's not portraying women of the Tudor Court as whores that's the problem. Some undoubtedly were, and the Imperial Ambassador is well known to have expressed scepticism that Jane Seymour could still have been a virgin at the time she married Henry VIII (he wrote, "You may imagine whether, being an Englishwoman and having lived so long at Court, she would not consider it a sin to be a maid."). The problem is that the whole business is laid on gratuitously thick. The Tudor Court was a murky place, and if women needed to be somewhat devious to survive it, then so be it - but in Bring up the Bodies they come across as caricaturishly sly, untrustworthy and quick to inform on one another from sheer pleasure. All Cromwell has to do is raise with Lady Worcester and Mary Shelton the possibility that Anne Boleyn is less than virtuous, and they're falling over themselves to dish up dirt. Poor Mary Shelton is so horrified by the Queen's loose living that she would have confessed of her own free will: `The truth is,' Mary Shelton says, `I would have tried to see you, Master Secretary, even if you had not sent for me.' (p. 256). So why did they keep it hidden for so long? And where's the evidence to support it? Why, when nearly all modern historians believe that Anne Boleyn was guiltless of the charges that were made against her at her trial, does someone put forward the opposite theory, with no explanation in the author's note to even attempt to back it up?

So much work has been done over the years to try to sift the conflicting portraits and work out what sort of person this important, influential, controversial woman really was. Paul Friedmann's 1884 biography, Eric Ives' 1986 academic biography, Retha Warnicke's revisionist The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn, David Starkey's Six Wives; all have looked at what Anne's detractors and supporters have written about her, and tried to produce a portrait that is fair, balanced and backed up by reliable sources. Now one of the world's most famous authors has whipped up a soufflé of nearly every discredited, defamatory story about Anne Boleyn (except for the sixth finger myth, thank goodness) and served it up to a massive audience in seductive prose. The poor woman should be rolling in her grave, and nearly all the authors listed in the author's note should be scratching their heads as to how their works could possibly have formed the basis of such a travesty of historical accuracy.

I'll happily admit that Wolf Hall was one of the best historical novels I've ever read; its one-dimensional portrait of Anne Boleyn was annoying, but not enough to spoil the book. In Bring up the Bodies, it is enough to spoil the book. I was left thinking, "I'm supposed to fall for all this? How can anyone with a good knowledge of the Tudor era not feel insulted, tricked, and as if their trust has been abused?" Maybe it was written for a different audience: one that knows little about the era and that likes its occasional reads on the subject to be superficial, racy and, at times, bordering on pornographic. Get as far as p. 291 and you'll see what I mean - Henry VIII's desire to be rid of Anne Boleyn is insinuated to stem from disgust with her whorish behaviour in the bedroom:

But Henry's mind as strayed. `Cromwell, what does it mean, when a woman turns herself about and about in bed? Offering herself, this way and that? What would put it into her head to do such a thing?'
There is only one answer. Experience, sir. Of men's desires and her own. He does not need to say it. (p. 290)

Nowhere do I recall it being seriously implied that political factors, such as opposition to the dissolution of the monasteries, and her inability to bear a son could have been solely responsible for Anne Boleyn's downfall. No, the depraved women alienated Henry VIII with her unnatural lustfulness! The poor man recoiled in horror! The silly girl brought it on herself! If only she'd stood sobbing in her nightgown and refused to come to bed until she was dragged there, Henry would never have got it into his head that she might have been unfaithful. Otherwise, what's he supposed to think? If she's not a Madonna, surely she can only be a whore?

I'll spare the reader a continuation of the quote from p. 290 as it continues onto the next page, but suffice to say that the book seems determined to ram home a message that no woman can be trusted, that they're all at the mercy of their lusts, and that not a single man can be certain his children are his own. This is taken to ridiculous heights in a scene in which Cromwell wonders whether his late wife was unfaithful and whether his late daughter Grace was his:

He thinks about his daughter Grace. He thinks, was my wife ever false to me? When I was away on the cardinal's business as I so often was, did she take up with some silk merchant she knew through her business, or did she, as many women do, sleep with a priest? He can hardly believe it of her. Yet she was a plain woman, and Grace was so beautiful, her features so fine. (p. 405)

During Cromwell's interrogations of Anne's accused lovers in the Tower, it does seem for a little while as if maybe he thinks they aren't guilty. Then there's this:

But then she raises her hands and clasps them at her breast, in the gesture Lady Rochford had showed him. Ah, Queen Esther, he thinks. She is not innocent; she can only mimic innocence. His hand drops to his side. He turns away. He knows her for a woman without remorse. He believes she would commit any sin or crime. (p. 345)

So, folks, there it is - Anne was guilty after all. Forget decades of modern scholarship. Novelists know better.

It's odd to read a book in which such skilful, subtle writing is combined with horribly clichéd and archetypal characterisation. The male characters seem like clichéd rogues as well - except, of course, for Cromwell, who is fully rounded. I suppose the book will sell millions of copies. Nonetheless, I can only hope readers will recall (if they are aware) that almost no modern historian believes Anne was guilty of adultery and incest; only G.W. Bernard thinks there is a real possibility that she was, with John Schofield also broaching the possibility in The Rise & Fall of Thomas Cromwell: Henry VIII's Most Faithful Servant I hope readers recall that, although this is historical fiction and not straight fiction, it's still only a novel; just one author's dramatic, if dreadfully misogynist, portrayal of the downfall and judicial murder of one of the most influential women in history. People who are serious aficionados of historical fiction, or who know a lot about the Tudor era and don't want to feel that their intellect is being insulted, might want to avoid it altogether.

With four stars for the writing - it dragged a bit at times, such as in the scenes in the Tower during which Cromwell interrogates Anne's accused lovers, so that I can't give it five - and one star for historical accuracy, I'll settle for 2.5 stars.

And now, for a torrent of vitriolic abuse from fans who won't tolerate a word of criticism of this book and have no respect for anyone's opinions but their own ...
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Showing 1-10 of 121 posts in this discussion
Initial post: May 17, 2012 10:16:28 AM PDT
"Anne Boleyn, this novel seems determined to convince us, was guilty."

I sure didn't read it that way.

Not to make this Reading 101 -- but this is an almost-first-person narrative. We're seeing everything through Cromwell's perspective. I don't think there's a scene where Cromwell isn't present. And I mention this because I don't think it's Mantel who wants to prove Anne is guilty. What I think she's doing is: showing that, for Cromwell to survive, he HAS to find Anne guilty. His career, and his life, depend on it.

The other point I think it's important to keep in mind is: the evidence about Anne isn't as cut-and-dry as everyone wants to suggest it is. We have contemporary sources, but Anne herself didn't leave a diary. Henry didn't leave a diary. Mantel has taken a point of view that's supported by the evidence. Interestingly, the point of view that Anne is entirely innocent can also be convincingly argued based on the evidence. This means that we don't have a lot of great evidence. It also means we all have an emotional stake in this.

"Are we therefore supposed to conclude that Thomas Cromwell was working himself into a state in which he could orchestrate the death of an innocent woman by first convincing himself she was guilty? ... If that was the intention, something went wrong - because that's not how it appeared to this reader at all."

I think your question is the right question. I don't think Cromwell is "working himself into a state" -- but he sees the incest charge as a charge he can make stick. Cromwell has to find Anne guilty. There is no other option for him as an actor in this terrible drama. I also think, again because this is from Cromwell's point of view, and that's an important point to keep in mind, he HAS to see her as guilty.

There's a great moment in the film "Dead Man Walking" where Sister Helen Prejean is talking with one of the attendants at an execution. That attendant says, "I'm responsible for the left leg." The point that I think that's being made is: to do a monstrous thing, we have to dehumanize the person. And I think Cromwell is finding, especially in this second book, that he has to think monstrously of Anne.

To your later point -- and I know I'm making an assumption about you, a person whom I don't know at all -- I think you are definitely Team Anne. Or Pro Anne. So I think you're going to be especially sensitive to, and critical of, anything that doesn't align with your thoughts about Anne Boleyn. Since this is a novel, not a history, that isn't a fair criticism of the novel, though, I think. The Anne that Mantel has created makes sense in the context of her book, and doesn't not act in ways that seem out of character. I don't think it's fair to say that Mantel has gotten Anne wrong. She simply hasn't created the Anne whom you'd create.

I also don't agree with your criticism of Mantel's treatment of Lady Rochfort. (And that's what's great about this discussion: we can disagree with each other! By which I mean to say: I'm pretty sure you're aces, even if we don't see eye to eye on this book.) Mantel defends her choices. She hasn't done wrong; she just hasn't agreed with you.

"The author's note states that she is 'indebted to the work of Eric Ives, David Loades, Alison Weir, G.W. Bernard, Retha M. Warnicke and many other historians of the Boleyns and their downfall'. With such (largely) reliable sources, how did her portrayal of these historical figures end up so clichéd?"

I think you're confusing "indebted" with "agreement." I've often read critics and historians and biographers (Claire Tomalin: you're the worst!) with whom I disagree categorically because it helps me firm up my own thoughts and theories. I get a better understanding of what I'm disagreeing with.

"Nowhere do I recall it being seriously implied that political factors, such as opposition to the dissolution of the monasteries, and her inability to bear a son could have been solely responsible for Anne Boleyn's downfall."

I don't believe Mantel believes that, either. And her Cromwell doesn't. Anne's downfall is entirely caused by the misogynistic whims of Henry Tudor. He's fallen out of love. He's still without a male heir. And while it's easy to read Henry Tudor as a monster, I think he's at least a romantic one: he wants to be in love. But part of "being in love" for Henry is also having the heir of his choice -- a theoretical male heir rather than either Mary or Elizabeth.

And to your claims of misogyny -- they may be in the book, but they have to be because feminism isn't a Thing, yet, in the Tudor era. It would have been completely out of character to have Cromwell or Henry or anyone acting in a feminist way. I'm belaboring the point, I know: but this is a book from a character's point of view.

And I'll draw this lengthy response -- which I hope you'll read as respectful, and not the rantings of someone who can't bear another's opinion. But when Cromwell signs on to Anne's guilt -- "He knows her for a woman without remorse. He believes she would commit any sin or crime." -- I chose to read that as the thing Cromwell needed to do, the point he needed to reach, in order to carry out the steps that will lead to her execution. He doesn't want to condemn an innocent woman; so he makes her guilty.

I think that's one of the themes Mantel is developing: the warped sense of morality and philosophy that comes from being in the orbit of figures like Wolsey and Henry. I really loved this novel a lot.

Posted on May 17, 2012 10:41:48 AM PDT
Hello, Judith Loriente,

Thanks so much for so thoughtful and articulate a defense of historical fiction, and the relevance of fact and truth. I have finished a few days of back-and-forth with "but the words are pretty" crowd and their cousins "it's FICTION". When I tried to point out it was "historical" fiction the argument posited was: "yes, but historical is an adjective, fiction a noun." At that point I should have thrown in the towel.

I didn't understand why Mantel shied away from portraying "the evil that men do" with regard to her protagonist. Clearly Cromwell was enormously intelligent and talented, rising in a system that allowed no leg up for his ilk. It would have been so much more interesting to see what one had to do to get to where one wanted to be. He learned (unlike Wolsey) when the king wishes to shed a wife, make it happen sooner rather than later. And just as Anne would only think of her destruction of Wolsey as a job well done, so too might he regard his ruin of her. It wouldn't be done to avenge a former patron--it would be done to preserve his own prospects and achievements. Few if any were deterred by modern-day impediments like values and conscience. The Norfolks, Suffolks and Boleyns were all plotters and schemers--It is inane to pretend Cromwell wasn't one as well. The Tudor boyscout resolutely uncovering the embarrassing truth Mantel portrays makes one cringe.

The author seems to have, as some biographers do, fallen in love with her subject, and therefore is determined to put the best possible face on his actions. The problem of course is it flies in the face of all we know about the characters and the circumstance of Anne Boleyn's fall. I am reminded of Sharon Kaye Penman's portrayal of Richard III in The Sunne in Splendour. In her determination to pin the murder on anyone but Dickon, we have to ignore things like motive, means, and opportunity. Quite a stretch.

It is a pity. With her obvious skills just a little adherence to facts and history could have created an absolutely terrific works. As you say though, "Maybe it was written for a different audience: one that knows little about the era and that likes its occasional reads on the subject to be superficial". That crowd will be arriving at your doorstep momentarily with torches and pitchforks to help bring you round. I hope my post beats theirs so they know you are not alone. Best regards....

In reply to an earlier post on May 17, 2012 10:58:08 AM PDT
How often do people think the worst about themselves? Do you think Henry Tudor thought of himself as a wife-killing-machine? Do you think Richard Nixon thought of himself as a criminal?

On my part, it's a rhetorical question: I don't think people think the worst of themselves unless they're willing to be brutally honest. And, since these Cromwell novels are told from the point of view of Cromwell, we're not going to get negative thoughts from him about his actions.

But! There's that sly line about how easy it is to hang Irish priests. That's from Cromwell. There's that tense and terrifying interrogation of Mark Smeaton. There's Cromwell's ruthlessness with Percey, convincing him that he was, in fact, betrothed to Anne even though earlier Cromwell and Wolsey had forced Percey to sign an oath saying that, in fact, he wasn't.

Mantel lets us see Cromwell act monstrously all the time.

She doesn't allow Cromwell to know that about himself, though, because I don't think that's a thing people do.

I've disagreed with you now, twice. And I disagree with this reviewer, too. The novel isn't bad because Mantel doesn't agree with your pet theory. That just explains why you don't like the novel.

In reply to an earlier post on May 17, 2012 12:42:52 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 17, 2012 12:49:40 PM PDT
Mr. Bevel,

You suggest, "What I think she's doing is: showing that, for Cromwell to survive, he HAS to find Anne guilty. His career, and his life, depend on it." Fair enough. I do think it likely at some point Cromwell may have thought your very words: "I have to find her guilty." But then Mantel should have depicted that process. She should have shown us whether it was a struggle or an easy decision. Was it done out of sheer malice or merely a practical means to survival? There is NONE of that in Bring Up The Bodies. As Ms. Loriente points out there is just a cast of cartoonishly catty women falling over themselves to "notice" or "realize" Anne's adulterous ways. It's more like Clair Boothe's The Women than any authentic Tudor Court.

For me the eye-roller in this process was the portrayal of her musician Smeaton. First, an observation about class--for a Queen consort to rut about with her staff (the lute player) would be an utter degradation and a risk never worth taking. Men might tup the maids but for a high ranking woman who hasn't produced authenticated male heirs to risk all for a roll in the hay is ludicrous. A ninny like Katherine Howard might do so, but what everyone, now and then notes about KH is how foolish she was. Anne Boleyn was nobody's fool. She was smart, intelligent and knew how to get on. Boinking the strummer was not an option.

Finally, the way that Smeaton simply blurts out a confession is ridiculous. What anyone intimate with a Queen knows is that to be caught in the act is to be beheaded. To simply VOLUNTEER the information is laughably dim-witted. When he recants, all Cromwell has to do is put him in a closet with some Christmas costumes and a brush against angel's feathers convinces him he is pursued by demons. Such nonsense. Smeaton is more afraid of ghosts than being disemboweled? Last, Mantel's assurance (through Cromwell) that Smeaton was never tortured is patently false. Every contemporary account says otherwise. What is so frustrating is it doesn't necessarily reflect badly on Cromwell that he would authorize torture. It was standard practice to do so--no thorough investigation was complete without it. In her anxiety to create a Cromwell admirable by today's standard Mantel has not only failed she has missed an opportunity to create a Cromwell that is admirable despite modern standards. And that's a shame. She is clearly a talented writer.

In reply to an earlier post on May 17, 2012 1:18:02 PM PDT
"But then Mantel should have depicted that process."

I think, on this point, we've reached an "agree to disagree" place. I think Mantel *does* depict the process. When Henry is injured jousting, Cromwell has to come face to face with the repercussions of his decisions: he has no one on his side except the man possibly dying next to him. (I knew Henry doesn't die from a jousting injury, and still found that scene So! Gripping!)

"First, an observation about class--for a Queen consort to rut about with her staff (the lute player) would be an utter degradation and a risk never worth taking."

But people take risks like this all the time. Especially sexual risks. It's almost the very bedrock of political scandal. You might even make a truism: for some, any risk is a risk worth taking. (For instance, one would think that someone as smart as Bill Clinton would know that sexual relations with an intern is among the defining traits of a Bad Idea.)

"Finally, the way that Smeaton simply blurts out a confession is ridiculous." and "Last, Mantel's assurance (through Cromwell) that Smeaton was never tortured is patently false."

I can't say definitively -- my copy of the book is at home and I'm at work -- but I don't think Mantel suggests that Smeaton was never tortured. She does say that Cromwell does not want to have Smeaton racked because then he'd have to be brought to trial in a chair. Cromwell has a fantastically chilling line (in my opinion) when he says something along the lines of, the secretary will write down what we say, but not what we do -- the implication being: there'll be no record of how we hurt you.

And I think Smeaton would be terrified of being locked in a closet. He's been arrested, he's been interrogated, he's all but been assured that things are pretty much Not Going to Go His Way for the rest of his life (which is not a very long Rest of His Life). The sense is: Smeaton *is* being tortured. And I even think Mantel is willing to suggest that what Mark confesses to is impossible.

But what's important to Cromwell is: Can I make a case with this. Doesn't matter if Smeaton's confession is true or not. (This is also why it's best for Smeaton not to be too visibly harmed -- all his limbs and extremities are accounted for.) That's the sense I got reading this second book. Cromwell doesn't need to believe in Anne's guilt or innocence. Anne doesn't have to be guilty or innocent. She just needs to be Gotten Rid Of.

There's a wonderful moment in "Wolf Hall" where Cromwell relates the time he handled a snake. It was for a bet, and Wolsey (I think, or maybe it was Rafe) asks him, "Did it bite you?" And Cromwell says, yes, it did, and he expected it to kill him but it didn't. If anything, Cromwell believes it might have made him more cunning.

In "Bring Up the Bodies," Mantel uses a lot of snake and serpent imagery while describing Anne. My takeaway is: she's another serpent that Cromwell has to handle. I also think that his having to railroad her into guilt is a metaphorical way of describing Anne sinking her fangs into him. But this snake bite, I think Mantel wants to tell us, is one that is actually going to poison him.

In reply to an earlier post on May 17, 2012 2:45:24 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 17, 2012 3:31:02 PM PDT
Julia Walker says:
Although historical novels are not frequent choices for me, I wonder if I might insert a question from another point of view. Clearly, Ms Loriente is an assiduous reader of the genre, as is Mr Bevel, but it might take an outsider bumbling into the mix to focus the crux of their disagreement.

If I understand her correctly, Loriente is furious a) that Mantel makes Anne Boleyn look guilty and b) that Anne's guilt constitutes misogyny on a grand scale. Bevel's anger seems directed solely at the fairly common Amazon review practice of offering opinion as if it were documented research.

But here's my question: isn't it possible that Mantel is setting out to elicit the response that Loriente so clearly articulates? Can we not have a main character whose flaws arise from what the reader observes, rather than what the narrator overtly states? Let me give you two examples of what I mean. Nick Carraway is a veritable Horatio in his admiration for Gatsby, but who can finish that book sharing Carraway's opinion? How does Fitzgerald do that?

I hope you don't think I plan to answer that question. But there are a couple of overt clues in Fitzgerald's choices. Nick is enamored of Jordan Baker, even though he believes she cheats at the game she plays professionally. And he went to Yale. (Never underestimate the venom of a Cottage Club member re those who go to school in New Haven.) Is that all? No, but the other things are too ephemeral for me. And even though I can't say why or how, I can safely say _that_ Fitzgerald manipulates the reader in ways not fully explained by mere narration.

Second example: Homer's Iliad. It's an epic about the last year (although not the conclusion of) of a 10 year war; its heroes draw their identity primarily or entirely from their skill in battle; its casual violence is such that not even Rachel Bespaloff's reasoned arguments can erase from our mind the scenes Simone Weil damns as soul-destroying. And yet, at the end of the poem, we are repulsed by war, by the idea of war -- that war, any war.

How does Homer do that?

My point, however, is more simple than that question. Homer manages.

No, I'm not saying Mantel is a Homer (and surely Cromwell is neither Achilles nor Hector) but she also manages, I think, and lets us see the horror by making us love the man who enacts it. As Mr Bevel remarks above, it's not in the nature of humans to see their own faults clearly. We know this. Why, then, do we try to hold literary characters up to a different standard? Think of all the high school English classes in which the teachers take Hamlet at his own valuation. Gruesome. And all the earnest undergrad papers penned on Satan as hero of Paradise Lost. Satan is the most _interesting_ character in PL, for sure; he has the best lines and he sees his story as heroic. But Milton is tempting his reader to respond to the fallen angel precisely so that the reader may fall, too (cf Stanley Fish _Surprised by Sin_.)

Two quibbles: Ms Loriente's argument that the Boleyn plot "reeks of misogyny" is perhaps an overstatement; if "misogyny sells" books, charges of same can try to sell reviews. And Cromwell's wonder at his daughter's beauty has, I would argue, everything to do with his own sense of being ugly and all that goes with that and virtually nothing to do with his wife's chastity.

In closing, can anyone who takes the time to write so thoughtfully for Amazon pages really mean to say "it's _only_ fiction"? Surely not. "Fiction" isn't the kid picking his nose at the back of the TRUTH bus. If anything, as Thucydides inadvertently (or maybe deliberately? nah . . . ) teaches us, that kid is history.

In reply to an earlier post on May 17, 2012 3:08:14 PM PDT
Ms Walker, I absolutely loved everything you wrote above. (Well, I didn't think I was being "angry" -- just passionate because, if we were Facebook friends for example, you would know that I am a HUGE FAN of these two novels so what I see as boundless enthusiasm might instead read as anger.) (Oh, and one other quick clear-up: I'm not actually a fan of historical fiction at all. I'm just a big fan of these two particular novels.)

But back to how you are absolutely right:

I think the confusion for a lot of readers -- both those familiar with this chapter of history and those who maybe aren't or maybe only watched "The Tudors" because... well, I don't know why they'd watch "The Tudors." That was a bad show. But I don't want to lose sight of the point which is this: For the most part, up until Mantel's novel, Thomas Cromwell had always been portrayed as a villain and Thomas More had always been portrayed as a saint. A lot of the press for "Wolf Hall," in reviews and opinion pieces, said, "Mantel makes Cromwell a hero!"

I think that's a misunderstanding promoted by media. He's not the hero. He's the protagonist. Mantel is saying: before they were Historical Figures, they were men. And men are fallible. Let's see *how* they're fallible.

I said in a separate comment somewhere in all of this mess that Mantel is definitely playing a game of seduction with readers. Cromwell *is* sympathetic in "Wolf Hall." And because he's the protagonist, it's easy to identify with him. (It's also easy because his is really the only point of view we get.) In "Bring Up the Bodies," though, Mantel says, "Here's your algebra question, solve for 'x' where 'x' is 'Cromwell survives with his job and reputation intact.'" And then she gives you a series of obstacles Cromwell faced and wants to know if you could do any differently.

(I've enjoyed these conversations very much about the book. Mostly because no one else has read it or will talk about it with me so I'm left to troll Amazon.com discussion threads for my fix.)

In reply to an earlier post on May 17, 2012 3:22:07 PM PDT
Good enough, Mr. Bevel. We agree to disagree. As I said to others, I wish I had liked BUTB as much as others did, but it wasn't meant to be. Just a quick note--my bone of contention with Mantel re: Smeaton was with him blurting out his confession while being interviewed. For me it stretched credulity to the breaking point--the idiot pronounced his own death sentence. After that, the closet scene was as plausible as anything else that had passed.

Like Ms. Loriente I quite loved Wolfe Hall and was really looking forward to this. I assumed Mantel would take him down cruel and murderous places that he was reluctant to but felt it necessary to go. It didn't occur to me for a minute that she would (in my opinion) try to rewrite history and distort known facts. As the author of this review correctly notes, these people ACTUALLY lived. It's a disservice to them to fictionalize their lives.

I'm not sure if I will read her third volume--but if I do, no doubt we will pick this up one more time! It was nice chatting, Mr. Bevel. Best regards...

In reply to an earlier post on May 17, 2012 6:13:22 PM PDT
Too many comments to respond to properly - the human brain can only do so much at once. In short:

"Cromwell has to find Anne guilty."

Have you read the Schofield biography? He makes out a convincing case that Cromwell didn't, and that the original plot was to find grounds to divorce her.

"To your later point -- and I know I'm making an assumption about you, a person whom I don't know at all -- I think you are definitely Team Anne. Or Pro Anne."

No, I hate that stuff. I think historical figures should be viewed dispassionately and judged on their actions. With Anne, she sounds like an atrocious flirt. If she'd been committing adultery, why wouldn't she have suppressed the flirtatiousness and pretended to be pious? Why draw attention to herself by flirting with Norris, Weston and Smeaton? I've read a huge amount on this subject and - based solely on the evidence - I see no evidence for her guilt. Every modern biography except for G.W. Bernard reaches the same conclusion, so it's not some quirk on my part.

"The Anne that Mantel has created makes sense in the context of her book."

But she was a real human being who was almost certainly the victim of spousal murder. Henry VIII could trump up charges and kill her using the law instead of his bare hands. That still leaves her a murder victim. Anyone, male or female, who's judicially murdered shouldn't be subjected to the double injustice of having the trumped-up charges that were used to kill them propagated for profit and sensationalism, particularly after it's been proven that they weren't even in some of the places that the indictment said they were on the days that the alleged crimes were committed. That's exploitative. People wouldn't want that done to them, so they shouldn't do it to others.

"feminism isn't a Thing, yet, in the Tudor era."

I know. My complaint is that the women are portrayed as worse than they needed to be, or than the evidence suggests they were - and that the author simply didn't need to do this. It doesn't read as Cromwell's perspective. It reads as simplistic, clichéd, vixenish characterisation. I've read plenty of other Tudor novels in which this does not occur.

"The Tudor boyscout resolutely uncovering the embarrassing truth Mantel portrays makes one cringe."
"The author seems to have, as some biographers do, fallen in love with her subject, and therefore is determined to put the best possible face on his actions."

Yes, that's how I read it: good little Cromwell exposing the villainess, who gets her just desserts when she's exsanguinated at the end. It seemed sincere - there was no indication that he was kidding himself. And it wasn't necessary. The book would have been far more interesting with Cromwell believing Anne innocent and wrestling with his conscience because he knows that if he doesn't bring her down he'll go the way of Wolsey someone else will be brought in to do the job - in which case why not do it himself? Now THAT would have been a fascinating read - the "evil that men do" thing, and getting inside their heads as they do it and try to convince themselves it's OK. I don't think Cromwell was a monster. He seems a perfect employee who gave his master what he wanted, with Henry VIII always directing events - until he failed to get Henry out of a marriage, and was ruthlessly discarded. Mantel could have had him judicially murder Anne without making him look pure evil, by making him seem like someone who's between a rock and a hard place, and feels he has no choice.

"The novel isn't bad because Mantel doesn't agree with your pet theory."

The pet theory appears also to be held by, or have been held by, David Starkey, Antonia Fraser, Eric Ives, Retha Warnicke, David Loades, Alison Weir, Hester Chapman, Marie Louise Bruce, Martin Hume, Paul Friedmann and Agnes Strickland.

"Fair enough. I do think it likely at some point Cromwell may have thought your very words: "I have to find her guilty." But then Mantel should have depicted that process. She should have shown us whether it was a struggle or an easy decision."

Couldn't agree more. It was a bad move not to do so, and wrecks the argument that we're being shown things from his perspective.

"If I understand her correctly, Loriente is furious a) that Mantel makes Anne Boleyn look guilty and b) that Anne's guilt constitutes misogyny on a grand scale."

She makes Anne look guilty when nearly all modern scholarship believes her innocent AND she doesn't explain in the author's note why she thinks she's right and the scholars are wrong. Anne's "guilt" isn't the only grand-scale misogyny - those "cartoonishly catty women" are too. They seem shallow, unconvincing and barely human.

"Cromwell's wonder at his daughter's beauty has, I would argue, everything to do with his own sense of being ugly and all that goes with that and virtually nothing to do with his wife's chastity."

I suspect you're reading too much into it but, like Voltaire, although I do not agree with what you say I will defend to the death your right to say it. It seemed straightforward to me: he's genuinely worried that his late wife may have been a whore.

That's enough for now. These comments are less abusive than I thought they might be, particularly after reading Mr. Bachmann's interrogation by the It's Fiction Inquisitors.

In reply to an earlier post on May 18, 2012 5:37:08 AM PDT
Clare Louise says:
Thank you for taking the time to write such a detailed and perceptive review, Judith. I agree with every word of it.
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