Join us to discuss Hilary Mantel's Bring Up The Bodies, our September Book of the Month, Wednesday 26 September, 9-10pm(139 Posts)
Our September book club choice, BRING UP THE BODIES, is shaping up to be The Book of 2012. It is Hilary Mantel's electrifying, pageturning second volume in her planned trilogy of Tudor novels, voiced by the master manipulator Thomas Cromwell. A sequel to the Booker Prize winning WOLF HALL, the story starts with Cromwell at the height of his power and influence, and Anne Boleyn beginning to lose hers. It is a fabulously famous story, yet Mantel manages to make it entirely new and fresh. Reading such expertly written historical fiction is a double delight: there are fascinating factual tidbits of Tudor life alongside brilliantly imagined inner workings of the mind. As Anne's world falls apart and the court struggles with the manic unpredictability of Henry, Mantel sustains heart-thumping suspense, even though the outcome is familiar to us all. But most gripping is the slow steady burn of Cromwell's character: an entirely bewitching, strangely seductive, Machiavellian, anti-heroic, self-made man. Mantel's abstracted narrative style, half observing from afar, half inside Cromwell's head, is a miracle: highly original, beautifully descriptive and entirely real. This is an exceptional, wonderful, revolutionary, exhilarating book that you deeply miss once finished. What a relief to know that another one will be on its way.
The book of the month page with more detail about Bring Up The Bodies is now live. You can also get a Kindle edition or a hardback copy of the novel here
We are thrilled that Hilary will be answering questions about BRING UP THE BODIES, her previous novels and her writing career in an emailed Q&A. So please put all your questions up here by 15 September, and we will send them on to Hilary. We'll publish Hilary's answers and discuss the book amongst ourselves on Wednesday 28 September, 9-10pm.
Hope you can join us...
I loved Wolf Hall and BUTB but having got into the narrative style of Wolf Hall I didn't like all the "he, Cromwell" stuff.
I don't have a question but I want to say thank you to Hilary for a character on whom I have only my second literary crush ever (the first being her Danton) which is no mean feat given my Catholic education.
Gosh what a fantastic book. Towards the end as we get an inexorable sense of the net closing in I was reminded of A Place of Greater Safety... Cromwell is riding high for now but he starts to feel the cold wind round the edge of the door. I also really liked the way that the more dubious things Cromwell does are never highlighted, one just becomes gradually aware of them, sometimes through other characters' comments.
Anyway my question is: I absolutely loved Cromwell's flashbacks to his younger days abroad. Are there any sources for this period in his life, or did you have licence to make up whatever suited the wider narrative? And was it liberating to have so much freedom, in comparison to the fall of Anne Boleyn section, which presumably required much painstaking work with the sources and subsequent scholarship?
Loved both Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies and can't wait for the third one.
1. I saw an interview with you where you said that most biographies of Cromwell were still very unfair to him and there was yet to be a biography that did him justice. What did you think of John Schofield's 2008 biography? I'm reading it at the moment and it seems to take a much more sympathetic view of him.
2. You've obviously done a fantastic job of making Cromwell a compelling and and likeable character. But I can't help thinking to do this you've had to elide over some of the historical reality, particularly in the second book which ends with Anne Boleyn's execution. Cromwell was, after all, capable of some very brutal and ruthless behaviour. Did you feel that you were distorting the historical facts at all, and if so, did you feel uncomfortable about this? Or did you feel that Cromwell's behaviour was justified in the context of the time?
Hully, I think the "he, Cromwell" device is in Wolf Hall, too. Agree that history seems to have been a little over-Thomased during that period, but there aren't too many Cromwells. So I think it is more than just a simple clarification: there does also seem to be a decision always to use either "he" alone, or "he,Cromwell", i.e. never to refer to him just by name. And that is done only for him, not for any other character, so it does seem quite interesting to think about why.
I'm going to be bad and ask a second question. Both books (Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies) are a tough read, despite being beautifully written and despite having such an exciting, page-turning story. I kept asking myself why the story was so challenging a read. I would read whole scenes and find it quite hard to absorb and remember what I had read, what the significance of the scene was, how it fitted with earlier scenes, how it progressed the story.
It struck me that a possible reason was that each scene wasn't selected and created just to progress the story, or just to develop characters or contexts. When scenes are written for those reasons it is relatively easy to absorb their significance, to extract and remember the essential bits of them, and move on to the next scene.
I wondered if some scenes were created for special extra sorts of reasons that are generated by the project of writing historical fiction that is based on extensive research.
I'm guessing that if you are a novelist and you read a particularly intriguing fact in the history books, or come across a particularly interesting and puzzling piece of primary material, you feel very tempted to "grow" it, to play with it and evolve it into a scene, like trying to regenerate a bit of dried-up DNA into a whole new dinosaur.
So my question is, were some elements in the books "experiments" motivated by that sense of curiousity about source material, rather than being motivated by narrower, strictly narrative demands? Do you think that could explain why the books are sometimes quite a challenging read?
Glad everyone enjoying it. It is by far my top book of the year.
I'm still pondering why exactly I have such a crush on Cromwell. He should probably disgust me in parts yet I only have admiration and slight pangs of longing for him. Is it because:
a) he has a dry sense of humour
b) he loves his son and his household, so he is honourable underneath all that grim political persona
c) he's clear-sighted about Henry's insane behaviour and knows all he can do is keep himself and those he likes alive. And there's no point in standing up for moral righteousness because that isn't going to help anyone.
Cromwell doesn't make any kind of stand at all. which I would usually find deplorable, but in this case I don't seem to mind.
I'm now working back from fiction to the facts - I keep googling images of the characters and trying to find details of Anne's alleged affairs.
Thanks to everyone for the questions so far - do keep posting them here and we'll send them to Hilary on Sept 15.
And looking forward to discussing it all at length on Sept 28...
You are right OatyBeatie, this is a tough read and I have felt the story disjointed in places... I am enjoying it though. I think it is a little more like a history book than a fictional work which is different to what I have read before (e.g. Phillipa Gregory etc)
Aaargh, so excited. Best living writer in my opinion.
Ms Mantel, can you tell us a bit about the research you did for Wolf Hall? I re-read Peter Ackroyd's biography of Thomas More after reading it, and wondered whether you had drawn much from there.
Your historical novels are so wonderfully compassionate and empathetic; can you say much about why certain historical figures (St Just in A Place of Greater Safety, and More in WH) seem to fail your 'human empathy' test? Is it to do with fanaticism?
I've heard that you live in the same village as me and that you were invited to speak at the village's first ever literary festival, and that no one showed because it was before the Booker and no-one knew who you were. The village has a woolly and an angel, a gracechurch and a co-op, and a hardware shop that's been around since the 1700's. I've never seen you here as far as I know so it may be not quite true. If it is, then I'm sorry no-one came and please do it again and I will send the children to play on the road so I can come and listen to you. I loved Wolf Hall and BUTB, and all your other books are on my list to read when I've got my studying out of the way.
So- my question: could you please not let Thomas have his head cut off? Just make it up. We won't mind.
I might think of a proper question soon.
Hello Hilary, looking forward to hearing you at the fest in a couple of weeks time. What/who do you read?
I was quite in love with Thomas Cromwell all the way through both books. Do you think he genuinely WAS so lovely, unbiased and really tried so hard to live up to his morals as opposed to seeking power/avoiding execution?
No no no, he wasn't lovely! Maybe his bad deeds ARE glossed over too much.....
(Never studied him in history lessons, so not biased!)
Just love love love your writings - what I think is very powerful is putting the human side of historical events that we have lived with since o level!!! I have always thought Anne Boleyn's story is haunting and you go to such levels of horror I had to stop reading at times ...... Those young men....often dismissed by history .... Love your expansion of them....... I found that the your writing about the French Revolution (previous fabulous book - called "A Place of Greater Safety" ace book) was equally human - small observations carrying that nightmare of travelling through Paris to the guillotine - the bottom line is its tragic. Don't you agree?
1. How do you get into the mind of someone facing such horrors - you do scared .... really well....
2. Where did the idea for the image of the birds as angels/spirits of his (Cromwell's ) lost children - where did it come from - I found it moving - a very masculine angle of grief ........ Love that chapter , it left me breathless - thank you for writing it - you are amazing
I am feeling borderline tearful thinking about both these books, they just affected me. I love reading, but am a total philistine - it's all about plot and character for me, I can take or leave "good" writing - but in the case of these books the writing is just sublime, I could almost feel it nourishing me. Anyway. My questions:
Cromwell always maintains his motivation for anything and everything is his loyalty to Henry and his wish to do his bidding. Even when we get to read his thoughts, he does not express any dislike or disloyalty to Henry. And yet, the Henry in BUTB (which is of course how Cromwell percieves Henry, because every character is viewed through the prism of Cromwell) is a weak, annoying, borderline lunatic, totally unlikeable and seemingly incapable of inspiring loyalty. His main good point seems to be that he is polite. Do you know what is really motivating Cromwell in BUTB, and how does he really feel about Henry?
Oh, also I loved the "he" device, in both books. It drove home again and again how all these people are just satellites around Cromwell - whether that is how he perceives himself or whether it was just a trick to stop the novel wandering off down the corridoor with Anne Boleyn or visiting Henry in his provate rooms, I don't know, but it was fab.
That's a really good question, HarderTK (the question as to why Cromwell is so loyal to Henry, I mean). I wonder whether we are almost tricked (in a good way) into believing in this loyalty, just by virtue of Cromwell's prior loyalty to the Cardinal. That prior loyalty seems to be something that everyone around Cromwell is struck by, and perhaps something that helps Henry to trust Cromwell as someone who "sticks by his man." And it is understandable because the Cardinal is clever, comprehends Cromwell's intelligence, nous, and aesthetic talents, and serves as a surrogate father.
Henry is unintelligent, less perceptive of Cromwell's high level of culture, and certainly not a father figure. But as readers we have already had "unswerving loyalty to patron" built in to our perception of everything Cromwell does.
Having said that, Henry does seem to have a certain charisma. Wolsey seems to have loved him dearly. But then, Wolsey loved Henry in a kind of fatherly way, and Cromwell's capacity for political loyalty isn't that of a father: it is more of the "son" sort, in compensation for not having felt himself during childhood to have a father he could admire. (His loyalty as a father is reserved for his actual children. I love him for being such a fantastic dad, and for nurturing the intellectual life of his daughters.)
Loyalty to Henry is perhaps more clearly self-serving in BUTB than in WH. He sticks to Henry because he would be lost and dead without his support. And it is also a means of continuing to serve the Cardinal loyally, because his strategies for helping the king also allow him to trash a few of Wolsey's enemies.
One more question for Hilary:
Cromwell seems to re-evaluate his brutal father during the course of BUTB. He understands him more and perceives some strengths. And at the same time he is becoming more openly brutal himself, in a way that makes us revisit the death of Thomas More and retrospectively mistrust Cromwell's stance there.
When you wrote of this reevaluation by the son, did you conceive of it as a case of "Perhaps his dad was not as bad as the surly child Cromwell thought him to be" or a case of "Perhaps the urbane adult Cromwell was never in fact as good as the readers want him to be."
I haven't quite finished bring up the bodies, got lots of questions, but I'm just going to ask one.
I am fascinated by Gregory.
Clearly Cromwell wants to bring him up to have all the advantages he din't have, and also he is young, but given who his father is, he seems pretty vacuous, and almost stupid.
Was that grounded in historical accounts, or did you want to illustrate Cromwell's fatherly instinct to protect his son from cynicism?
I loved the book! Well up to the standard of Wolf Hall.
I didn't think Cromwell was lovely, though. The skill of the books is to get us under his skin, to understand him and the internal logic that drives his often less-than-lovely deeds. Actually, reading the books made me think of Nazi Germany and the 'banality of evil', how vast numbers of NOT evil people end up colluding with very great social evils.
Cromwell is not evil, but he is a survivor. He is fiercely loyal to 'his' people, and they in turn to him, but has a utilitarian briskness when it comes to anybody outside that circle. He does not favour gratuitous cruelty, but he is perfectly prepared to dispose of anybody who gets in his path. He is an expert technocrat - the kind of man who could have devised the most efficient methods for transporting millions of Jews to death camps, for example, without actually holding any particular ill will towards Jews.
Do you think your Catholic and/or legal education has in any way influenced your "Tudor" novels?
We read this for our book group and actually had a small review published in Mslexia recently! The first question I was going to ask has been asked - about how much manipulation of history you had to do in order to portray a more sympathetic Cromwell. Some of our group felt it wasn't a believable portrayal of someone who would have had to be utterly ruthless to rise from such lowly origins to his position. I look forward to your answer on that one!
We disagreed about whether there should have been more of Anne Boleyn in the book - was it a conscious decision not to let her force of personality too far into the narrative?
Hello Hilary, I'd like to know if you have a detailed story plan before you start writing or do you have an idea of a character and let the story evolve as you write? Is it different planning a book based on real events from say writing pure fiction (such as your books Beyond Black and A change of climate)? I really enjoyed those novels as well as Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies; even though I know the Tudor period well as I studied it at A Level, it had never come alive in this way before.
Congratulations to Hilary - Bring Up the Bodies is on the Booker prize shortlist... Brilliant news and I will be rooting for her on 16 October when the winner is announced.
Thanks everyone for all the questions and keep them coming - we'll send to Hilary at the end of the week.
Can't wait to read Ms Mantel's comments as Wolf Hall soared straight in at the no.1 spot of the books-I-have-to-read-from-the-start-again-straight-after-finishing-and-can't-stop-asking-everyone-if-they've-read-it list. Bring Up The Bodies has just taken the no.2 spot.
I'd like her to know how much I enjoy her incredible writing style - it's unique. I'm very surprised that some found it a difficult read. Both books have had me reading into the early hours, unable to put them down. For me, it's a style that somehow conveys Cromwell's innermost thoughts, the objective situation and others' impressions of Cromwell all within one sentence. Incredible. Can't wait for part three.
Like others, I've been wondering how much of Cromwell's early life did she feel she invented, how much she found from her research? To be crass, could she give a percentage?
Oh, and second question.
I've been nursing a Cromwell crush too . Are you, Hilary?
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