Bring Up The Bodies

Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary MantelFull Title: Bring Up The Bodies: A Novel
Author: Hilary Mantel
Publisher: Fourth Estate, London (2012)
Number of Pages: 407
How long it took me to read: 6 days
Where I bought this book: Passed on to me by my sister
ISBN: 978-0-00-731509-3

Like a Moth to a Flame

This second in a series of three books set in the era of Henry VIII in England, created a stir when it followed the first book, Wolf Hall, in winning the Man Booker Prize in 2012. It also won the Costa Fiction Award and the overall Costa Book of the Year in 2013. I am drawn not just to the winners of these prestigious awards, but to all the short listed works, because I like to keep up-to-date with what constitutes ‘good writing’ and I enjoy comparing them to see if I concur with the judges’ decision.

Favorite Five

I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “He has a way of getting his way, he has a method; he will charm a man or bribe him, coax him or threaten him, he will explain to a man where his true interests lie, and he will introduce that same man to aspects of himself he didn’t know existed.” (p.6)

4. “I cherish diplomacy. It’s cheap.” (p.21)

3. “Daily he ponders the mystery of his countrymen. He has seen killers, yes; but he has seen a hungry soldier give away a loaf to a woman, a woman who is nothing to him, and turn away with a shrug. It is better not to try people, not to force them to desperation. Make them prosper; out of superfluity they will be generous. Full bellies breed gentle manners. The pinch of famine makes monsters.” (p.34)

2. “You cannot see Henry and not be amazed. Each time you see him you are struck afresh by him, as if it were the first time: a massive man, bull-necked, his hair receding, face fleshing out; blue eyes, and a small mouth that is almost coy. His height is six feet three inches, and every inch bespeaks power. His carriage, his person, are magnificent; his rages are terrifying, his vows and curses, his molten tears. But there are moments when his great body will stretch and ease itself, his brow clear; he will plump himself down next to you on a bench and talk to you like your brother.” (p.35)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “I thought I should have another twenty years or more to live as I have, and then when I am old, forty-five or fifty, I should give to hospitals and endow a charity, and God would see I was sorry’. He nods. ‘Well Francis’, he says, ‘we know not the hour, do we?’ ” (p.339)

New Words

Words are wondrous creatures. Put them together and they paint a picture. Rearrange them and the scene changes. But to be able to see what they are saying, we must first know what they mean.

New Word: exsanguinates (verb)

Definition (Source: to bleed to death
Synonyms: grammar
Origins (Source: 1849; from Latin exsanguinatus ‘bloodless’; pp. of exsanguinare: from ex- ‘out’ + sanguinem (nominative sanguis) ‘blood’; as an adjective, exsanguine ‘bloodless’ is attested from mid-17th century in literal and figurative use
As in: “….the body exsanguinates, and its flat little presence becomes a puddle of gore.” (p.”397)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“A distinguishing characteristic of Mantel’s historical writing is her ability to transport me back to a period, by speaking in the present tense through the voices of the protagonists. This is a fascinating period of English political and religious history, when the King of England removed first one, then several other wives, and placed himself at the head of the Church. I eagerly approach this story to see how the case is built to allow the King to re-marry and introduce a new Queen (Anne Boleyn) whilst Katherine (the first wife) was still alive, and to discover the ultimate downfall of Anne and the introduction of Jane Seymour.”

“According to the author’s note (p.409), this book is not really about Anne Boleyn or Henry VIII, but rather ‘about the sleek, plump and rather inaccessible Thomas Cromwell’—a commoner from a murky background, previously legal adviser to the once powerful but now deceased Cardinal Wolsey. He has risen to the position of Master Secretary to the King and nothing happens in England without his knowledge or maneuvers. Cromwell has become indispensable to the King and is hugely resented by the nobles surrounding Henry. Mantel has taken two books to build the portrait of Cromwell in an attempt to show how ‘such a man has achieved his present eminence’. The novel comes across to me, therefore, as a study of the role of those hidden, behind-the-scenes, unelected advisors and the power they can wield, with impunity, to great effect. Coming, as I do, from a background in human resource training and development and having a particular interest in leadership and human behavior, the book appeals on several fronts by addressing a range of my interests: history, biography, and an almost clinical investigation of human interactions and relationships.”

“The story is presenting Cromwell as, by and large, a sympathetic character who, at a very young age, ran away from home and an abusive father to become a soldier in foreign armies. Through hard graft and innate intelligence he acquired, as they say, a particular set of skills. He knows he is despised by the nobles around Henry for his lack of nobility and feared for his influence. Mantel’s descriptive powers and authentic voice have the effect of transporting me to the period. I am there at the scaffold, the hunt or the back stairs; I can almost smell the hay, the hawthorn hedges, the chamomile grass; I feel the textures of the medieval clothing and almost taste the food.”

“We see here the part played by the Secretary to the King in bringing about the founding of a new Church with the King of England at its head and his building of the case against Anne Boleyn, (who has lost the king’s favor) by implicating several men around her. In his machinations, Cromwell is motivated, for the most part, by vengeance for past transgressions and by a drive to serve. In the case of Anne, it was nothing personal. But it’s not clear whether Anne Boleyn is guilty of the charge of treason brought against her. She failed to produce a male successor and Henry has found another woman (Jane Seymour) whom he wishes to marry. Cromwell, this initially genial and sympathetic man of the people, is ready, willing, and able to ensure that the King gets what he wants. Now where have we seen that before? Most leaders, in my experience, attain their status generally as a result of significant personal qualities; they maintain it, however, in my view, only through the support (implicit or explicit) and the acquiescence of the people around them.”

“I am reminded, as I read, of people behind the leaders I have known. They were, like Cromwell, complex characters—often likeable and hard-working. Soon, however, as with Cromwell, conscience and values take a back seat and actions, regardless of collateral damage, are often justified on the sweeping rationale of the ‘greater good’. I think that Mantel’s career, before writing, was in education, but she shows an excellent grasp of corporate organizational dynamics. Well, wait a minute, no sector is immune to these behaviors—as I write, speculation surrounds the role of the Secretary of State within the Vatican itself, in the so-called vati-leaks affair.

“From a period spent working in a large, bureaucratic organization, I recognize in this narrative some of the dynamics surrounding the top echelons of power: people scurrying for positions of power, their back-biting, naked ambition—all of which, when they lead to an unwillingness (or fear) to question flawed decisions of superiors, can have catastrophic effects on an organization or society. In such a corporate culture, colleagues understand that anyone who has the temerity to speak up against the prevailing thought or challenge well-established ways of doing things, is seen (by senior management) as ‘persona non-grata’, ‘opinionated,’ and a ‘loose cannon’. I’m afraid I never learned the art of staying shtum and sometimes found myself shafted, frozen out. Nothing personal: they just needed to move someone ‘more like-minded’ into the position. When you are in the firing line in this type of situation, you find yourself in a zone, almost isolated, with colleagues (formerly friends) afraid to be seen with you for fear of contamination. I kept on my desk the profound words of Lao Tzu:

If someone has offended you, don’t get upset or angry; go and sit quietly by the river and soon you will see the bodies floating by.

“After some years working in such an environment, I was fortunate to find myself part of a happy, well-coordinated team of like-minded misfits producing some excellent, innovative work under the leadership of an inspiring and fearless manager! Curiously, however, we were not put in charge of innovation—that function was carried out by a different, (more manageable?) team.

“Cromwell clearly didn’t just sit by the river waiting for the bodies: having orchestrated the case against them, he oversaw the ‘bringing up of the bodies’—a term used to bring up for trial the prisoners from the Tower of London.”

“Although set in the 1530s, the shenanigans in this tale throw a light on power, leadership and corruption in our own times. Despite modern thinking on organizational behavior, human psychology and leadership, we still find those in authority, even at the highest levels of business and politics, surrounding themselves with people who won’t question their decisions and who are most likely to agree with their views. My experience in management development has shown me that where two managers in a team think the same, one of them must be unnecessary. As this story comes to a close, those words attributed to Edmund Burke (1756) come to my mind: ‘It is necessary only for good men to say nothing for evil to triumph.”

Gaye Kelly

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  1. Isabelle Nicot says:

    Wonderful format for the review! I enjoyed the parallel between those characters from a distant past and our modern organizations. I’ll certainly add the book to my reading list.

  2. Evelyn Moorkens says:

    Super review and really helpful. I have read Wolf Hall and was wondering about reading this one. As before, your reviews are very insightful, hope you will be doing lots more!

  3. valerykelly says:

    an insightful review which draws on the reviewer’s 20th century professoinal experience of corporate culture

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