From Chivalry to Banking

 

The resonance and relevance of Hilary Mantel’s novel
Bring Up the Bodies to the modern-day Greek context

 

Joanne Paul

 

To add to the roar of acclaim for Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies – the much-anticipated sequel to her widely-successful Wolf Hall – would perhaps be an exercise in redundancy, the sort of uneconomical effusion of words that her laconic protagonist would abhor. Mantel has broken records with the sales and awards proffered for her flawless management of prose, careful crafting of engaging characters and diligent dedication to historical research. Nevertheless, in anticipation of its publication in Greek, something must be said of the monumental nature of the novel, and ideally something new. Thus, rather than reflecting on its historical accuracy, or very fine prose, we might instead consider its resonance and relevance to the modern-day Greek context in which it has just been released.

The story that Mantel’s brings to life in her historical fiction is a well-known one. Henry VIII, having abandoned his (first) wife and (Catholic) religion in order to secure the alluring Anne Boleyn, casts her off after three short years of marriage in one of the most violent and scandalous domestic affairs in English history. Like a dramatic car-crash in the middle of history, historians have failed to tear their eyes away for centuries, and have approached the event from nearly every angle. Yet Anne Boleyn’s fall remains shrouded in mystery. Were the charges that she had had taken to bed five men close to the king – including her own brother – and plotted his death with her purported lovers true? Or was she framed? And in either case, why?

Mantel approaches the horrific and perplexing event through the eyes of her protagonist, the intelligent and resourceful Thomas Cromwell. For historians, Cromwell’s motives and background are as shrouded as the case in which he was so thoroughly intertwined. Mantel’s research brings to light new details about his life and places them in her narrative to construct a plausible case for his motives and involvement. On this, the suggestions are compelling, although perhaps too forcefully made – the persistent reference to Cromwell’s agenda against the men who celebrated in the death of his former patron Cardinal Wolsey perhaps would have been more enjoyable from a reader’s perspective were they more subtly made. Of course, one need not be interested in these persistent historical questions in order to enjoy Mantel’s work; her engagement with themes of loyalty, revenge, ambition and betrayal are in some sense eternal, and presented in a way that bridges the centuries. 

“But chivalry’s day is over. One day soon moss will grow in the tiltyard. The days of the moneylender have arrived, and the days of the swaggering privateer; banker sits down with banker, and kings are their waiting boys.”

(pp. 141-2)

In addition, despite the expanse of time and geography that separates the Cromwell from a modern-day Greek reader, Mantel places her drama within a context thoroughly familiar to both. Her real triumph is in the atmosphere that she weaves around the events and persons she (re)constructs. For Cromwell is not only the king’s most important minister, but he is also a banker. In the context of the court, Mantel’s Cromwell continues to lend money amongst his fellow courtiers to great success, using purse strings like spider webs to keep both friends and enemies where he wants them. In Bring Up the Bodies, the success of Cromwell exhibits an important shift in the workings of English – and indeed European – politics. In many ways, Anne is a victim of this change. She had thrived on the medieval chivalric conception of courtly love, but it is precisely this exchange between lady and nobleman which Cromwell uses as the basis of her charges of incest and adultery. It is thus truly symbolic (as well as historically accurate) that King Henry abandons her during the great chivalric scene of the joust. It is the lowborn and straightforward Cromwell, with his numbers and figures, to whom king and country turn.

“Personally, he would hang hoarders, but the chief of them might be some little lordling who is promoting famine for fat profit, and so you have to tread carefully. Two years ago, at Southwark, seven Londoners were crushed to death in fighting for a dole of bread. It is a shame to England that the king’s subjects should starve. He takes up his pen and makes a note.”

(pp.27-28)

This shift from chivalry to banking is laid by Mantel in a larger context of economic scarcity and anxiety. Although there is certainly dialogue and action, Mantel’s focus is on opening up the reader to Cromwell’s private thoughts – he is, after all, economical not only in his spending but in his speech and so a view to his inner dialogue is essential. Nipping away at the periphery of Cromwell’s thoughts is a pressing concern for the coffers of England, not only to please Henry, but more importantly in order to provide for England’s poor. Having risen from the dregs of a poor London upbringing, Cromwell is egotistically egalitarian, biting into the stored and ennobled masses of wealth, while also aggregating what he can for himself and his family. He is limited in this endeavour, however, for the nobles are tight-fisted folk. Raised in self-righteous wealth, they have no concern for the poor. Cromwell is forced to find another way to stabilise England’s unsteady finances.

“Let us think about how to pay for England... From last year he has been sure of his answer: monks, that parasite class of men, are going to provide. (p.41)

...

It will be a better country, believe me, once it is purged of liars and hypocrites.”

(p.42) 

His greatest quarry in this endeavour is the monastery. Cromwell’s motives for the reform of the church are presented by Mantel as realistically complex – a synthesis of religious zeal, economic concerns and moralism. Cromwell sees the monks as a parasitic class, who feed off the poor without remorse or recompense. His mission is to bring them down, to funnel the wealth into the king’s coffers, in the hopes that by this means it will then descend to those who need and deserve it most.

“Daily he ponders the mystery of his countrymen. He has seen killers... It is better not to try people, not to force them to desperation. Make them prosper; out of superfluity, they will be generous. Full bellies breed gentle manners. The pinch of famine makes monsters.”

(p.34)

Through the wide-ranging thoughts of Thomas Cromwell, Mantel is thus able to situate in this context of tense economic anxiety and warfare the more personal and domestic battle of Henry and Anne. Cromwell himself – a man not surprised by much – is completely taken aback by the willingness of the king, nobles and people, to present and swallow what befalls Anne and the men condemned with her. Due in large part to this atmosphere of scarcity, the mood in England has changed to one of suspicion and desperation, and so the unthinkable is performed with little reflection or regret.

The parallels are hard to ignore; despite the distance of time and custom, one cannot help but feel that Mantel brings us into a world which is all too familiar. The shift demonstrated through Anne’s fall and Cromwell’s rise is realised – bankers have indeed taken the place of their knightly predecessors, equally abandoning the moral codes to which they ought to be held. Politicians, we cannot help but feel, now bow and scrape at their feet. It is Cromwell’s final efforts, to make such changes serve the interests of the poor which continue to go unfulfilled. It is perhaps telling that even within Bring Up the Bodies, Cromwell’s attempts to address economic inequalities come to naught, for parliament reduces his bill to provide work for the unemployed to “an act for the whipping of beggars” which is “more against the poor than for them.” Cromwell assures himself that he will try again, but his pivotal role in the drama surrounding the crown provides little time for such things. Those with the wealth are disinterested in the plight of those without. Even Cromwell’s thoughts, as given to us by Mantel, increasingly turn away from such concerns as he is increasingly preoccupied by ambition and revenge. It is a well-known story with an all-to-familiar lesson, presented by Mantel in a way that is fresh, engaging and hard to put down.

 

   

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  ΧΡΟΝΟΣ 09 (01.2014)