The exercise of political power is timeless. Robert Caro's "The Passage of Power," his fourth installment on the life of Lyndon Johnson, describes how LBJ wielded it effectively in 1964. In "Bring Up the Bodies," Hilary Mantel's second novel about Thomas Cromwell, we see how little has changed since the 16th century.
"He never spares himself in the king's service," she writes of King Henry VIII's trusted administrator. "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."
That passage could describe how Johnson pushed civil rights legislation through a Senate influenced by Southerners.
Ms. Mantel's Cromwell is a modern politician plying his talents in England of the early 1500s, like the U.S. Congress of the early 1960s, dominated by tradition and seniority. A commoner, Cromwell was aware that the hidebound nobility "if they could, would destroy him with one vindictive swipe, as if he were a fly." That threat hangs over this novel like an ugly dark cloud.
Readers of conventional historical fiction might be puzzled, even frustrated by Ms. Mantel's singular approach to the past -- she treats it as though it were the present -- and she writes her history from the inside out -- the view from Cromwell's mind -- rather than through the retelling of external events. And since Cromwell made things happen, her readers are always in the moment, present at the creation, as it were.
Traditional history brands Ms. Mantel's protagonist a cold-blooded pragmatist. Starting with "Wolf Hall," however, we meet a fascinating, sympathetic hero who's the smartest guy in the room.
His experience as a mercenary and merchant in Europe prepared him to become, at 50, secretary to the king and administrator of the Church of England. He's grown wealthy in the course of his rise, yet bereft of family affection after illness killed his wife and two daughters. In his few moments of introspection, Cromwell's sadness deepens his humanity, yet Ms. Mantel doesn't allow sentiment to deter him from doing the king's business.
Thanks to its brash monarch, England faced ostracism and invasion from Europe's Roman Catholic countries after Henry defied the pope in order to divorce Catherine of Aragon, his first wife, in favor of the younger Anne Boleyn in hopes of fathering a male heir. Unfortunately, she failed as well, also bearing a daughter like her predecessor. The history of Mary and Elizabeth Tudor, though, will have to wait for another time.
Unlike "Wolf Hall," where Catherine was allowed to survive Henry's dismissal, "Bring Up the Bodies" takes few prisoners. Executions were required this time to rid Henry of Anne so he could try his luck with another young woman, the shy Jane Seymour.
Anne and her brother George were convicted of incest; four other courtiers were found guilty of adultery with the queen, conflated into a form of treason. Cromwell made the cases against them through fabrication, threat of torture and unreliable or spiteful witnesses. His justification was that these people were guilty of something, perhaps not of the crimes they were charged with.
He also has a personal grudge against the courtiers, an element of the novel that runs counter to the dispassionate nature of Ms. Mantel's character and perhaps a flaw that leads to trouble later on.
Ms. Mantel builds the search for evidence against Anne layer upon layer, her Cromwell a clever, patient interrogator. The dialogues proceed like small dramas from witness to witness and suspect to suspect, filled with asides, glances, nods of the head and sympathetic smiles -- a master novelist at work.
As prosecuted by Cromwell, the trials were a sham, much like the "show trials" of the Stalin purges of the 1930s, but they were necessary in his view to demonstrate the so-called justice of the English system. "Surely if Henry wishes to be rid of his concubine, he can do it quietly?" muses the French ambassador.
Cromwell thinks, "The French do not understand law courts or parliaments. For them, the best actions are covert actions," then explains, "once you have chosen a course, you should not apologize for it. God knows, I mean nothing but good to our master the king."
Ms. Mantel makes no apologies for her Thomas Cromwell. His character defines a brutal age when kings were god-like and loyalty mattered above all. It appears that she will continue to follow her hero with a third installment, revealing that, in the end, loyalty can count for nothing.
Bob Hoover: firstname.lastname@example.org.