Monday, June 18, 2012

The death of Anne Boleyn

I finally settled down to Hilary Mantel's sequel to Wolf Hall, which I had been eagerly awaiting. The first novel introduced Thomas Cromwell, the rough-and-ready blacksmith's son who rises from acolyte to Cardinal Wolsey, to trusted councilor of King Henry VIII. Cromwell smooths the path for Henry to rid himself of Katherine of Aragon, to become head of his own Church and throw off Rome, and to marry Anne Boleyn in hopes of  a male heir. But, as the title foreshadows, by the end of the first installment, even in his triumph, Henry's eye falls on Jane Seymour of Wolf Hall, and as his enthrallment with Anne fades, the stage is set for Bring Up the Bodies, which picks up just where Wolf Hall ends.

True to his philosophy of "pick your prince," Cromwell realizes that, for better or worse, his best interests lie in aligning himself with Henry's interests -- in this case, Jane Seymour. Of course, there is always a faction angling for power, and Cromwell falls in with Anne's enemies as he plots her ouster and Jane's installment as queen. Cromwell has lost his wife and young daughters; grief has stripped away any moral ambivalence he might feel as he manipulates events to remove Anne. He doesn't hate the Queen, but she is an obstacle that must be removed. If she would consent to be put away quietly in a convent, Cromwell would be satisfied, but he knows she will not. It is to be a fight, literally, to the death, and he is equal to the task. Mantel's great power lies in her ability to shade the character of Cromwell. His ruthlessness is monstrous, but also merely practical; he feels sympathy for his enemies, but understands his neck will be on the block in their stead if he does not prevail. He knows how unlikely it is that he will retire quietly to the country after faithful service to the king, but he is willing to play the game out to the end.

The four interviews he holds with Anne's accused lovers are marvelous. Each man's guilt, in Cromwell's eyes, isn't so much about what they may or may not have done with Anne, or how they may have been treasonous to the king, but the extent to which they had a hand in the downfall of his mentor Wolsey. If they are to be executed for crimes which they may not actually have committed, they will at least pay for something: "He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged."

 As for Anne, Cromwell believes she is the author of her own fate -- up to a point. She has only the the poor weapons that women can wield, and they are not enough to vanquish her enemies. Until the end, she believes Henry will rescue her, but she is already dead to him before the sword falls -- this is something that Cromwell understands.
The queen is alone now, as alone as he has ever been in her life. She says, Christ have mercy, Jesus have mercy, Christ receive my soul. She raises one arm, again her fingers go to the coif, and he thinks, put your arm down, for God's sake put your arm down, and he could not will it more if -- the executioner calls out sharply, 'Get me the sword.' The blinded head whips around. The man is behind Anne, she is misdirected, she does not sense him. There is a groan, one single sound from the whole crowd. Then a silence, and into that silence, a sharp sigh or a sound like a whistle through a keyhole...
Again, at the end of Bring Up the Bodies, Cromwell's will has carried the day. The executions are accomplished and Jane Seymour will ascend, but this is not an end as Mantel makes clear in the final words of the novel: "There are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings. Here is one."

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