Because I'm crazy like that I followed up my horrible, no good, too small meal of Wolf Hall with a second helping of Bringing Up The Bodies. I've changed my mind. Reader's privilege, I guess. Its not that I've changed my mind about Wolf Hall though. I still think that was rather awkwardly written and lacked a strong presentation of Cromwell's interior life. But a lot of that is corrected or added in Bring Up the Bodies. For example, someone clearly said to Hilary Mantel "I can't figure out who is talking in these long passages" because she moved off her hard affectation of only referring to Cromwell as "he" and began adding a modest little comma and his name as a shy aside as in "He, Thomas Cromwell, said..." Meanwhile, Mantel added a lot more discussion and self reflection by Cromwell, offering us not just snapshots of meaningful bits of his past but actual emotions and ideas about his situation.
Everyone must have their favorite bits or their favorite issues in the book--for me I was interested in the shift between a nobility and a non noble functionary class, between aristocratic ways of looking at politics and the country and Cromwell's, and between a Catholic way of looking at religious doctrine and authority and the shift that comes with the printing and dissemination of a vernacular bible. Mantel positions Cromwell at the intersection of all of these changes and in the second book, as he achieves his most rapid rise and begins to look over the precipice to his inevitable fall, she starts to tackle those issues. Its not in enough detail for me, but its still there and still fun.
The model of Cromwell's life and memoirs as a kind of memory palace, though intriguing, still doesn't work for me--for one thing I guess I'm too thick and often can't figure out (or didn't figure out until afterwards) which images and events were merely allusions to Cromwell's mental techniques for storing information and which were really happening in the book. Years ago I read The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci and I'm currently reading Moonwalking With Einstein so I find the history and application of memory--especially in both a sacred and a secular space, pretty interesting.
I think she has correctly positioned Cromwell, again, at a crossroads as a pivotal figure--a man of memory, records, and accounts in a court society in which the aristocracy floats on a sea of forgetting. Cromwell, for instance, lends money and keeps accounts, using old debts when necessary in new political strategems. Meanwhile his aristocrats are playing at politics using a different chessboard--they borrow money against their lands (that they aquired through birth), and against emoluments that they control through marriage, flirtation, and begging. Even the romances and the writing of poetry, we find out during the trial of Anne Boleyn, are just a covert form of trade with women paying men to write poetry for them in order to increase their social standing at court, and men accepting money from their mistresses in order to increase their own standing at court. These debts are part of a system of exchange that has no fiscal year, no moment when accounts are totted up except when pivotal figures change position: when the King dies, a new heir is chosen, or a new marriage creates new possibilities for control of the King and his purse. The aristocrats don't remember their debts at all, or even bother to tote them up, until the moment of death when they realize the game is over. This is something that is made clear when Cromwell, who has been secretly bankrolling both his friends and his enemies, brings the hammer down and has to explain to them that he has not forgotten the parodic play they made of Wolsey's death.
The reaction of the aristocrats to being reminded of Wolsey's death and their sport with his image is pivotal to the second book, and to Mantel's construction of Cromwell as the consummate outsider. He remembers seeing the play--performed by Boleyn's favorites and Wolsey's old friends--as an outsider, going backstage and seeing them strip off their costumes, and he stores them in his memory as the body parts of an animal so he will never forget. Meanwhile the entire incident, from his presence there to the insult offered to the dead Cardinal, has been long forgotten by the actors themselves. It was no more than part of the flood of manipulations and playacts and poetry and positioning that are normal at court. They almost can't believe that Cromwell remembers or holds it against them--these are just things that happen in a courtier's life, one moment you are up and then you are down. Respect and honor are things that are held by the living, not the dead--unless he has family to fight for them after he has gone. And neither the Cardinal nor Cromwell have real "family" in the sense the aristocrats mean it.
The one thing the Aristocracy never forgets is birth--who is married to whom and who is outside the bounds of aristocratic connection. Meanwhile Cromwell, the outsider, never forgets who was responsible for the first move in the big chessboard that is his life: the death of Wolsey. Cromwell was born as a man with an independent connection to the King at the moment that Wolsey died and Henry began his rapid slide from ruler to pawn of his own illusions and need to produce a male heir. Its in the second book that Mantel really begins to explore what happens when Cromwell and the merchant class, the proto-protestants, the educated, the literate and the numerate begin to get close enough to the Monarchy to see its flaws and to be subject to its embrace and its wrath.(1) The fictional Cromwell in the first book seemed to be merely rising up as a functionary and servant. The fictional Cromwell in the second book is now right under the eye of the capricious tyrant, as much in danger as the Boleyn family when they can't give him what he wants. So you might argue that while the Boleyns (and the Seymours) pursued power the old, aristocratic way, by arranging alliances and fostering blood connections and Cromwell and the rising merchant class pursued power by arranging favors, money, political control they are both still stuck in the old model where the only important thing is: have you pleased the King? Maybe we might argue that Cromwell is on the verge of modernity and the post feudal in terms of his understanding of money, finance, and international political realities but he will fall, in the end, because its too early for this kind of power.
(1) There is a definite sub theme in the books that the working class of London have a separate knowledge and sense of the Monarchy and its doings. At first they are very much in love with the fiction of the King as King and the Queen as Queen. In the first book Mantel talks about the way Cromwell reports back about court fashions and about Queen Katherine and later Anne Boleyn to the women in his household. But later the populace become jaded with the bad news and the bizarre reports-- it is in gossiping with the watermen and other low life workers that Cromwell gets the first hint of the scandals that he will later use to bring down Anne Boleyn. The role of the King as father and husband is clearly a hugely important one for the country in the first book. By the second you start to get the feeling that the country itself is going to give up on this model if the King keeps changing wives like other people change shoes. Live by the metaphor, die by the metaphor.