Everyone Dies (not a spoiler!): Hilary Mantel's WOLF HALL and BRING UP THE BODIES

71901109 Thomas Cromwell, by Hans Holbein the Younger ca. 1530. Chalk on paper. The Bridgeman Art Library/Getty Images

There Are No Endings

A review of WOLF HALL (2009) and BRING UP THE BODIES (2012) by Hilary Mantel. Henry Holt & Co.

This summer I fell in love with an old man. He had a tough childhood, left home early and took off for Italy and France, where he somehow talked his way into a series of better and better positions, despite having never gone to school. He learned several languages; people said he could recite the entire New Testament from memory. That wasn't what impressed me. What I loved about him was his sense of humor, his sense of absurdity. He was enormously ambitious and didn't try to hide it and yes, he was ambitious for money but mostly he wanted power. Not the flashy kind of power — he didn't want to be King — but the real power that comes from working the levers behind the scenes. As he - Thomas Cromwell, the hero of Mantel's genius novels WOLF HALL and BRING UP THE BODIES, puts it:

How can he explain to him? The world is not run from where he thinks. Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, from where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from castle walls, but from countinghouses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.

Most critics read these books a few years back, when they were first published. It took me three tries to get into WOLF HALL and it's not that they're difficult books, exactly, but they are so much their own thing, nearly their own genre - the super-historical super-novel - that I think I just needed to make a mental switch. And once I did, that was it: two weeks of solid reading (about 11oo pages between the two books) that I wished would never, ever end.

Mantel is telling the story of Thomas Cromwell and his role as advisor to King Henry VIII of England in the early 1500s. What most of us know about this period is Henry's deadly sequence of marriages and the supposed heroism of Thomas More, the Chancellor who refused to give Henry permission to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Mantel's is a completely different vision, with Thomas More as the priggish fundamentalist eager to torture and kill those who dared to read the Bible in English (as opposed to Latin) and Cromwell as More's progressive, surely-there's-a-reasonable-solution-to-all-the-world's-problems foil and, eventually, successor (More was executed for treason with Cromwell's help in 1535).

Cromwell is no angel, of course, but he has a few things More lacks: a sense of proportion; a sense of humor; a lack of fanaticism; intellectual curiosity. Here's Mantel's version of Cromwell, musing on his rival Thomas More:

He never sees More—a star in another firmament, who acknowledges him with a grim nod—without wanting to ask him, what’s wrong with you? Or what’s wrong with me? Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, “Purgatory.” Show me where it says “relics, monks, nuns.” Show me where it says “Pope."

I don't think it's possible to fall in love with these two incredible novels without also falling in love with Cromwell. Even as he leads Anne Boleyn to her death, we walk with him, right up to the edge because, like King Henry, we trust Cromwell. Mantel's description, which is essentially Cromwell's perspective, of the execution of Anne Boleyn is as intimate, devastating, and surprising as we have been led to expect by this point in the novels. This is Anne with her executioner:  "Silent, she steadies herself against his shoulder, leans into him: intent, complicit, ready for the next thing they will do together, which is kill her."

Yes, Anne Boleyn dies. But we knew that. And we know Cromwell eventually has his day, too (though I try to put that out of my consciousness even now). EVERYONE DIES. Mantel's magic is in her understanding of the way we are all of humans trapped in linear time. No matter how well we think we understand that every man and woman's story can end in only one way, we spend our time fixated on the moment, forgetful of the fate awaiting us all. WOLF HALL and BRING UP THE BODIES are studies in this time-shifting consciousness, filled with small moments of passion, sorrow, and humor, like this aside from Cromwell in the midst of a tense secret negotiation: "The trouble with England, he thinks, is that it’s so poor in gesture. We shall have to develop a hand signal for “Back off, our prince is fucking this man’s daughter.”" And yet the momentum of the novels, as with our own lives, is relentlessly forward, rushing to the inevitable end.We know what's going to happen to Anne Boleyn and yet we hang on the flirtation between Anne and Henry as if anything could happen, something good, even. Despite everything we know.

And this is Thomas Cromwell's talent, the thing that sets him above his rivals: he knows the only strategy is in playing the game several steps ahead. "They will find him armoured, they will find him entrenched," thinks Cromwell, "they will find him stuck like a limpet to the future." Cromwell is above all a realist. Having barely survived a hellish childhood, he's happy to be alive and wants to stay that way… as long as he can. "He has studied the world without despising it. He understands the world without rejecting it. He has no illusions but he has hopes." He's a modern man in a medieval world. He would be modern in a 21st century world, for that matter.

THE MIRROR AND THE LIGHT will be the sequel to BRING UP THE BODIES and it may be published as early as 2015, but who knows? It will be Mantel's third novel in the series. I can't bring myself to refer to it as a concluding volume, because I want her to write them into infinity. We know that these books must end — and we know how. Yet even the very last sentence of BRING UP THE BODIES gives us hope (don't worry, it won't spoil anything):

There are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings. Here is one.