In today’s Books page:
My review of Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies, which is the sequel to Wolf Hall and in the longlist for this year’s Booker prize.
It’s near the end of the novel that the title phrase, “bring up the bodies”, is finally used. It’s the order sent to the Tower of London when it’s time for those incarcerated in the Tower to be presented for trial. There’s a morbidity to the sentence, as though those on trial have already relegated to the status of corpses even as they make their way to court. In case of Anne Boleyn and the men labelled as her lovers, this was true. The executioner’s axe hovered over their necks from the moment Thomas Cromwell chose them to be sacrificial lambs in Henry VIII’s quest for marital bliss.
Wolf Hall ended with Henry and Anne poised for happily ever after, but as anyone even vaguely acquainted with Tudor history knows, this accord was not to last. Bring Up The Bodies begins in September 1535 and ends in the summer of 1536. More than 400 pages are spent recounting descriptions of what Cromwell sees, from his papers to the costumes donned for Christmas festivities and his reminiscences about a drunk knight he met decades ago in a pub in Europe. His conversations, whether with the cook or an imperial ambassador, are presented in detail. This could make for dreary reading but the pace of Bring Up The Bodies never slips and not a single paragraph meanders from the central concern, which is the collapse of Henry and Anne’s marriage. Cromwell is a masterful chess player, using the people around him like pawns. His precision, like the way he wields Jane Seymour and her family to bring down the Boleyns and hasten the collapse of the royal marriage, is chilling.
Historical fiction is a challenging genre because it demands a story from the past be told in a way that suits the sensibilities of present-day readers. It must appear authentic without seeming dated, well-researched but not dry.Bring Up The Bodies ticks all these boxes. Add to this Mantel’s elegant language, Ann Boleyn who is one of the most controversial women in British history and Mantel’s Cromwell, and you have historical fiction that crackles from the very first page. The contest between Anne and Cromwell is not a fair one — his spies far outnumber hers and are loyal to him while hers prey upon her insecurities and perch upon her shoulder anxiously, hyper alert to shifts in power. Plus, he has the king’s backing. However, perhaps the ultimate victory is Anne’s. At one point, Cromwell thinks, while talking to Anne, “If needs be, I can separate you from history.” The fact, however, is that Anne proved to be unforgettable, despite Cromwell’s stratagems.
As far as Mantel is concerned, while Cromwell may be the one who effectively builds the foundations upon which Anne’s execution takes place, Anne’s beheading is Henry’s cross to carry. The king behaves petulantly, eager for a new toy now that the Anne is no longer shiny and pleasing after having given birth to a girl and suffered miscarriages. So eager that he asks Cromwell to deliver to Jane Seymour a miniature, jewelled Bible as a token of his affections soon after Anne is taken to the Tower of London.
When Jane — a delicate and tragic creature who is pushed and prodded by power brokers — unwraps her gift, she sees it has the initials H and A on the cover; under the A, the K is still visible.
Henry’s adolescent carelessness seems all the more pronounced because of Cromwell’s extremely measured conduct. As secretary to the king and a commoner who has risen to a powerful position in a relatively short period of time, Cromwell has many aristocratic enemies. He focuses his attention upon keeping Henry happy and if this requires removing Anne, Cromwell will do so. If he can also get rid of a few of the courtiers who have insulted him as part of this project, Cromwell is not one to let such opportunities pass. His heroic stature, however, comes not from being an able servant of the crown but from his genuine commitment to bringing change to England, finding able men from unimpressive backgrounds and attacking exploitative systems like the corrupt clergy. Knowing the history and being aware of the fate that awaits Cromwell in the final part of Mantel’s trilogy, it’s impossible to not feel a sense of painful disappointment as Mantel draws her portrait of this extraordinary and mysterious man whose ability to remain in the background and yet manipulate events is nothing short of a superpower.
While the order “bring up the bodies” pushes the living towards the dead, Hilary Mantel’s novel exhumes Tudor England from the grave of history and infuses life into its most powerful players. Mantel succeeds in not just neutralising the Curse of Part Two, but writing a sequel that is more accomplished than the first. Wolf Hall evoked Tudor England brilliantly andBring Up The Bodies succeeds both as a follow-up but also as an independent novel. Plotted precisely and written with extraordinary elegance, Bring Up the Bodies deserves every superlative in the dictionary.