The EIBF isn’t pure undiluted pleasure, you know. It comes with horribly anxious moments for someone who cannot access the online ticket facility on the day the box office opens and who knows that plan A i.e buy own ticket, just won’t cut it. This was the event I was not prepared to miss and it took twitterish machinations, of which Thomas Cromwell himself would be proud, to ensure that I was able to take my seat on the night. (As it transpired both plans B and C bore fruit … no matter, I was taking no chances.) Herewith profuse thanks to my fellow conspirators.
So it may surprise you that this report will not be a full one. Most of the proceedings have already been recorded in the reports at Every Book Has A Soul, Cornflower, plus the transcription of the author’s words in the Guardian. I’m going to concentrate on the efforts of the unsung hero of this event, chairperson and novelist James Runcie, which turned what was always going to be a great event into something extraordinary.
Starting with the assumption that everyone in the audience had read the book freed him from discussing the novel Bring Up The Bodies superficially. Instead, after Hilary Mantel had read the scene in which Henry falls in love with Jane Seymour (pages 26-29), Runcie concentrated on matters of technique, for instance:
- Use of pronouns. He (paragraph 1) becomes you (paragraph 6) becomes we (paragraph 14). Yes, said Hilary Mantel, I want to bring the reader into the time and place of Henry’s entourage. I want the reader to be there with them, moving forward with imperfect knowledge into an unknown future. I want the reader to see through Cromwell’s eyes, not to judge with hindsight but to make decisions with him and to conclude that they would have acted in the same way.
- The modern vibrancy of a text infused with Shakespearian effects from the high language of rhetoric to the crudity of the servants in Cromwell’s kitchen.
- The particular inspiration of Julius Caesar Act 3 Scene 2 in which Mark Anthony through rhetoric turns a crowd into a mob. Mantel particularly fascinated with spin and transformation building, she said, turning points in every scene – even the quiet ones. It is her way of dealing with historical inevitability. The reader already knows the end but not the torturous way it is arrived at.
- The focus on reducing units of time as Anne Boleyn’s life comes to an end: from days to hours to minutes to seconds. Anne’s hope of a reprieve was realistic. Henry was capricious.
The time for audience questions came too soon. Don’t worry, said James Runcie, if you have no questions, I can go on. I wish he had. I could have listened to this kind of textual analysis for the full 17 days of the festival.
The big question: Is the book any good?
Do you still need convincing? It is brilliant, though when I first read it, I thought not as good as Wolf Hall. I was chastised in the kindest way at the event, although I still maintain, perhaps churlishly, that in reacting to her critics and simplifying the text by clarifying who He is, Mantel has penned some clumsy insertions of the He, Cromwell kind.
My biggest issue is that Bring Up The Bodies acts as a revisionist history – a veritable wobble in my glass. Prior to reading this, feisty Anne Boleyn, was my favourite of Henry’s queens – probably based on the classic and sympathetic figure in Anne of A Thousand Days. Well, there’s nothing sympathetic in these pages. In fact, it is a portrait laced with Cromwellian venom. On page 38 he describes her thus:
Anne was wearing, that day, rose pink and dove grey. The colours should have had a fresh maidenly charm; but all he could think of were stretched innards, umbles and tripes, grey-pink intestines looped out of a living body; he had a second batch of recalcitrant friars to be dispatched to Tynburn, to be slit up and gralloched by the hangman. They were traitors and deserved the death, but it is a death exceeding most in cruelty. The pearls around her long neck looked to him like little beads of fat, and as she argued she would reach up and tug them; he kept his eyes on her fingertips, nails flashing like tiny knives.
As events progress, an emnity develops between Anne and the man who made her. One that culminates in a kill or be killed standoff. We all know the ultimate victor in this and how he gained the victory. But perhaps we’re not aware of just how calculating Cromwell was in seizing a half-truth to bring down a queen. We are after reading this. Anne may have been indiscrete, vengeful and ultimately unlikeable, but she was not Catherine-Howard-stupid. As one convinced of Anne’s innocence and, therefore, the innocence of the men who were sacrificed to Cromwell’s political objective/personal vendetta, I’m not capable of suspending my moral judgement in the way Mantel wishes. It is actually quite chilling though, just how reasonable Cromwell’s murderous thought processes become when reading these pages.