Bring Up The Bodies will definitely be in my Top 10 novels of the year. I’m sure you hardly need me to describe the plot, it’s been reviewed everywhere. It’s the sequel to the Man Booker Prize winning Wolf Hall, & continues the story of Thomas Cromwell, Master Secretary & Henry VIII’s fixer & right hand man.
Bring Up The Bodies takes up where Wolf Hall left off. Henry VIII is staying at Wolf Hall, the home of the Seymour family. Henry is tired of his Queen, Anne Boleyn, who has failed to give him a son & for whose sake, he broke with the Catholic Church, repudiated his wife, the Spanish princess Katherine of Aragon, & cast off his daughter, Mary. Henry is falling in love with small, mousy, plain, shy Jane Seymour, the complete opposite of Anne. He’s already looking for a way to get rid of Anne so that he can marry Jane who will surely give him a son & heir. He looks to Thomas Cromwell to arrange it.
Cromwell grew up in Putney, roamed all over Europe as a soldier & then as a clerk & he learned everything he knows about serving Henry from his former master, Cardinal Wolsey. However, Wolsey failed to secure Henry’s divorce from Katherine & was rejected by Henry. Wolsey died of disappointment & grief on his way to the Tower & Cromwell stepped into his place. Cromwell’s love for Wolsey is one of his defining traits. He has learnt from Wolsey’s mistakes & steps carefully through the treacherous Tudor Court to bring about the result the King desires.
The action of takes place over just six months. Anne’s failure to give Henry a son has led to their estrangement. She has grown bitter & shrill & Henry is almost afraid of her & her scorching temper. Henry is injured at a tournament, for a while his courtiers think he’s dead, & Cromwell suddenly realises how vulbnerable his own position is. Everything depends on Henry. Without the King, Cromwell would be at the mercy of his many enemies, not least among them the Boleyn & Howard families. Anne miscarries her last child, Katherine of Aragon dies in her retirement at Kimbolton & suddenly the way is clear for Henry to choose a new wife. A new marriage that won’t be tainted by the scandals of the divorce & the antagonism of much of Europe towards Anne. Cromwell listens to gossip, rumour & innuendo & targets five men who have been close to Anne. He accuses them of adultery with the Queen which is high treason. The final weeks of Anne’s life are about to begin.
Hilary Mantel has written such a compelling book, it reads almost like a thriller. I’ve read dozens of books about Anne Boleyn & the Tudors but, even though I knew the ending, I was on the edge of my seat. The book is written in present tense which I usually don’t like but in this case it reinforced the immediacy the reader feels. We’re inside Cromwell’s thoughts much of the time. We become complicit with the things he does, the compromises with the truth that he makes. At one point he says that he has found five guilty men but they may not be guilty of what they are accused of. Cromwell has a grudge against George Boleyn, Norris, Weston & Brereton because they took part in a play that mocked Wolsey after his fall but it’s too simplistic to say that he takes revenge on them for this. Some part of him is pleased to have the chance to humble these men who have always looked down on the boy from Putney with not a drop of noble blood in his veins. He knows that Anne is his enemy but he isn’t vengeful towards her. He is carrying out his master’s wishes. He knows his place & carries out his duty as he sees it.
It’s difficult to describe just how impressive Mantel’s writing is. There are a few clumsy moments when she has to write “he, Cromwell ” to explain who is speaking or thinking but this is outweighed by the skilful way that she draws us in to Cromwell’s world, his household, his friends & enemies. I’ll just quote one short passage that shows how Mantel uses one beautiful image instead of pages of text to show the reader exactly what’s happening. Henry has recovered from his fall at the tournament & has accused Anne of wishing him ill,
The Boleyns have the sense to draw Anne backwards, backwards and away, Mistress Shelton and Jane Rochford flapping and tut-tutting, the whole Howard, Boleyn clan closing around her. Jane Seymour, alone of the ladies, does not move. She stands and looks at Henry and the king’s eyes fly straight to her, a space opens around her and for a moment she stands in the vacancy, like a dancer left behind when the line moves on.
The language is modern with turns of phrase to suggest an earlier time. I recognized many phrases & pieces of dialogue from Anne’s last weeks as she waits in the Tower for her trial woven into the text. It’s very subtly done. The novel ends with Anne’s execution & I can hardly wait for the third volume which will cover the last five years of Cromwell’s life. I can’t think that it will be better than Bring Up The Bodies but then I didn’t think she could top Wolf Hall. I’m quite prepared to be wrong again.