(For September, entries will be cross-posted with Southerly, where I am guest blogger.)
Recently I had the misfortune to finish reading Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, her second novel imagining the life of Thomas Cromwell, adviser to Henry VIII. I put off the moment of finishing for several days, not on this occasion because I am a pathological procrastinator, but because as I’d found with the first of these novels, Wolf Hall, life is duller once you’re done.
Writers can be bitter, unlikable people, brimming with venomous bile at the talents of others. Frequently, they will put down a book thinking: Well, yes, we could all do that, if that’s how you want to spend your time. It can be liberating for such people when they read something they could never pull off in a million years.
Is there any point then, in approaching Mantel’s supple, moving, intensely vivid portrait of Cromwell with an eye on the silver? Is there anything to make off with here? If we take apart works of literature perhaps we will be left sitting with the pieces on our laps, unable to restore them to the astonishing, mysterious thing that we have just impulsively dismantled (no pun intended).
In Reading as a Writer, Francine Prose argues that writers should engage in close reading of the giants of literature in order to see how they achieve their effects, and, more importantly, to make life better for themselves. I’m with Ms Prose (and only partly because I love her name). Reading and rereading passages that strike us as beautiful or particularly effective can only ever enrich our reading and appreciation of this art that unfolds in our minds. A writer is a reader first, someone for whom others’ writing is a gift: the proof that certain things are possible, that fine new things can still be made.
Attempting to plunder the House of Mantel for its entire haul of riches is beyond this blog’s humble ambitions. So today I will try to slip away with one small bag of jewels, a little purse containing something bewitching that I will call…
The strangeness of England
England, in Bring Up the Bodies, is storing up strife. The land is ancient, and though momentarily peaceful, will stir itself towards war. Cromwell, a blacksmith’s boy, spectacularly self-made, knows himself to be at the heart of things, a man who shapes not only his own life but whole kingdoms, belting them violently into the form he sees in his mind. He rides with the king through the western counties, where they enjoy the hospitality of subjects grateful for peace and keen for advancement. ‘These days are perfect. The clear untroubled light picks out each berry shimmering in a hedge’ (p8). Cromwell notices such things, because it is in his nature, and interest, to notice everything. In the stillness of the individual berries we see England in moment of calm. The light is untroubled, but nothing will be untroubled for long. The place will be awash with blood. ‘It’s not just the past you think of, as you ride these fields. It’s what’s latent in the soil, what’s breeding; it’s the days to come, the wars unfought, the injuries and deaths that, like seeds, the soil of England is keeping warm’ (p8).
In the space of a page the voice describing Cromwell shifts from third person to first person plural to second. He, we, you. I found myself thinking again and again reading this book, and Wolf Hall, is she allowed to do that? That’s the sort of thing editors are for, usually. But Mantel is always in control. Cromwell is part of an ancient landscape that holds history in its soil – what has happened and what is yet to happen. With this he, we, you the reader is drawn powerfully into the moment the land is changing. History dissolves into experience. Thomas Cromwell sees the berries shine in the clear light at the end of a bloody summer, at the end of fifty years of peace. It is a collective experience; we are English, remembering ‘our forefathers the giants’. You are Thomas Cromwell, and it is 1535.
Mantel has a rarely paralleled power to immerse. The distance between my own life in twenty-first century Sydney, unhaunted by potential beheading, and that of Cromwell, riding through England to do the king’s business, disappears. I have read a thousand novels and will read a thousand more in search of such moments.
One of the many pleasures of Bring Up the Bodies is the sense of a man recognisable to modern sensibilities: ambitious, dextrous, worldly, operating in a land in which a feeling of Arthurian legend seeps from the earth. This is partly the source of the novel’s power to convey a felt history. A man like Cromwell, making the stirrings of a king’s heart law and history, operates in a realm that frequently seems uncanny. At Wolf Hall, where the king takes an interest in Jane Seymour, Cromwell drifts towards sleep pondering the king’s troubles, his lack of a viable heir. ‘The old families of England are restless and ready to press their claim…He can almost hear them, hidden among the trees’ (p25). Hard-headed contemplation of the troubles before him slip into strange visions.
You may find a bride in the forest, old Seymour had said. When he closes his eyes she slides behind them, veiled in cobwebs and splashed with dew. Her feet are bare, entwined in roots, her feather hair flies into the branches; her finger, beckoning, is a curled leaf…
At the edge of his inner vision, behind his closed eyes, he senses something in the act of becoming. It will arrive with morning light; something shifting and breathing, its form disguised in a copse or grove (p25).
An irresistible force in the form of a forest bride is coming from dreams and the woods to change England. Ancient legends, the feeling at the edge of sleep of grasping towards truth, the vast wooded tracts of Seymour land, combine to create dark portent. (And if you read these sentences aloud, how lovely are they? When he closes his eyes she slides behind them, veiled in cobwebs and splashed with dew.)
Place in Bring Up the Bodies tells us what is coming in a way that is more subtle, mysterious and lovely than the bald statement: heads will roll.
Note to self: such things are possible.
P.S. Hilary Mantel’s rule no. 9 for writing fiction (see About for relevance) fills out Colm Toibin’s nicely: If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient. See no. 8 about writing place as well.