Though he battled for seven years to marry her, Henry is disenchanted with Anne Boleyn. She has failed to give him a son and her sharp intelligence and audacious will alienate his old friends and the noble families of England. When the discarded Katherine dies in exile from the court, Anne stands starkly exposed, the focus of gossip and malice. At a word from Henry, Thomas Cromwell is ready to bring her down. Over three terrifying weeks, Anne is ensnared in a web of conspiracy, while the demure Jane Seymour stands waiting her turn for the poisoned wedding ring. But Anne and her powerful family will not yield without a ferocious struggle. Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies follows the dramatic trial of the queen and her suitors for adultery and treason. To defeat the Boleyns, Cromwell must ally with his natural enemies, the papist aristocracy. What price will he pay for Anne's head?
This second volume of a planned trilogy concerning Cromwell’s life is incredibly well written and really, Mantel has outdone herself in this volume which tells the ins and outs of the downfall of the king’s second wife, Anne Boleyn. But it’s Cromwell, again and again that we come back to, and although he’s aged since WH, he is actually aging (and prospering) quite nicely:
”Thomas Cromwell is now about fifty years old. He has a labourer’s body, stocky, useful, running to fat. He has black hair, greying now, and because of his pale impermeable skin, which seems designed to resist rain as well as sun, people sneer that his father was an Irishman…(Thomas) never spares himself in the king’s service, he knows his worth and merits and makes sure of his reward: offices, perquisites and title deeds, manor houses and farms. 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 never knew existed. Every day Master Secretary deals with grandees who, if they could, would destroy him with one vindictive swipe, as if he were a fly. Knowing this, he is distinguished by his courtesy, his calmness and his indefatigable attention to England’s business. He is not in the habit of explaining himself. He is not in the habit of discussing his successes. But whenever good fortune has called on him, he has been there, planted on the threshold, ready to fling open the door to her timid scratch on the wood.” (Page 6)
And as realistic as Mantel’s description is, Cromwell is a hard man to figure out. On the one hand he takes in orphans from the street and feeds and educates them. He is the picture of altruism and gains great sympathy when he ruminates about his family, lost to the plague a few years ago or when he lovingly considers his surviving son, Gregory. On the other hand he is capable of questioning certain subjects of the king in a way that is both chilling and understated in order to get the information he seeks. Whether or not that information is the truth is of no importance to him and won’t obstruct him from his goal.
That goal, in this case, is producing the evidence that will prove the queen’s adultery and thereby enable the king to move on to wife #3 who may succeed in producing a son for him. He needs an heir. Desperately evidently.
It may just be me, but I thought this book was, for lack of a better phrase, “dumbed down.” I know some people complained about WH and Mantel’s use of the pronoun “he” whenever she referred to Cromwell, without using an antecedent, and that’s pretty much gone in this volume. But beyond that, the narrative just seemed to flow so easily that I wondered what made that so. Being “dumbed down” was all I could come up with. Don’t get me wrong, the writing is spectacular but something made it different from WH.
I don’t know how to begin to describe Mantel’s uncanny ability to put you there in 1536 in the castle as well as in the courtroom. It’s quite daunting yet she does it with such skill that you come up from being immersed in the narrative in a fog and it takes some time to adjust to the phone ringing way, way in the background. Wait, the queen is about to testify, what’s going on here?............
For a couple of hundred pages we watch his character develop. We see him mourn his dead wife and daughters and carefully arrange opportunities for his son, nephew, and other dependents. We laugh at his wit and enjoy his exchanges with those same young men of his household. We catch our breaths at the insults that he endures - both the unconsciously delivered ones from his friends and the malice-laden thrusts of his enemies. His expression never changes; he feels and remembers each one. We see him work unstintingly for the king he serves and for the good of the country and its poor. We feel that Cromwell is a good man, a uniquely gifted and driven man, a man of integrity. Yet we never feel that we know him.
When Cromwell sees that he is going to have to engineer the divorce of King Henry from the queen, we suddenly remember who he is. His interrogation of Mark Smeaton, Anne’s minstrel, is totally charming and totally cruel. Without trying, he brings Smeaton to a confession of adultery with her and, therefore, treason to the king. He shows no regret. Even his reflection is that Mark is a boy, whereas at his age, he, Cromwell was a man. Cromwell had instructed his young men in manipulating the king, in performing what he could not be steered away from, and in knowing the difference. Now we see him moving ruthlessly to accomplish his master’s desire.
Henry’s desire is to be rid of Anne in order to marry Jane Seymour. Although we have fewer glimpses of Henry in this book than in Wolf Hall, we do see him. We also see the differences between these two women, who are alike only in their ambition. Anne is dark, sharp, witty, driven; Jane, fair, literal-minded, willing to wait and be courted. They are fascinating characters, as are all the rest who surround the throne. Mantel leaves endless opportunities for speculation about the place of women or about theology or about power and its uses, but the novel itself moves implacably to its climax.
A friend asked me why he should read Wolf Hall rather than a history of the time. I said then that he should read it for the wonderful writing. That’s still true of Bring Up the Bodies, but now I find that only the beginning. Read this book in order to enter into the period and participate in the mindset. Mostly, read it for Cromwell. Mantel ends her author’s note like this: “Meanwhile, Mr Secretary remains sleek, plump and densely inaccessible, like a choice plum in a Christmas pie; but I hope to continue my efforts to dig him out.” Dig, Ms. Mantel. I will surely read!
Since college days I've been fascinated with Anne Boleyn. She is one of my favorite historical characters and over many years I've enjoy reading about her personality and downfall through various different perspectives. Some books are scholarly written and heavily researched -- E.W. Ives for example. Others written in a historical fiction slant without embellishment and with some fiction but basically adherence to historical "fact", those in my opinion are written by Alison Weir and Carolly Erickson. And, then there is Phillipa Gregory who plays very fast and very inaccurately with this subject.
It is a joy to read a book by an author who confesses the book is in the category of historical fiction, yet rarely have I found a book re. Anne Boleyn that weaves so much fact into an obviously well-researched story, while page after page holding the reader captive.
Following on the heels of her bestselling and Man Booker Prize winning Wolf Hall, Mantel once again chronicles history through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, schooled by treacherous, cast- aside Cardinal Woolsey, he then became Henry's trusted and ruthless Chief Minister serving him well from 1532-1540.
We learn of Anne's downfall through Cromwell's perspective. The cast of slimy characters show the underbelly of human nature. If you want to learn about court/political intrigue, then this is the book for you!
If you want to learn about self aggrandizing plots that swirl wherein no one is spared from sudden downfall, this is the book for you.
If, at times you believe your family is dysfunctional, read this book to realize you are not alone.
In many books I've read, while Ann is portrayed as a shrew, yet also one to be pitied. In Bring Up The Bodies Ann's soul is laid bare. She is a conniving, cunning, intelligent and phony. She is a hypocrite who, while well versed in how to use people, is very naive in thinking she can stab and not be stabbed (hung) right back by those she so willingly threw to the lions of the court while gleefully watching their bodies hang from the Tower of London.
As Cromwell plots and schemes Anne's downfall, knowing the tempestuous fickle, sociopathic nature of his boss, the snakes of the court bite and twine their way in ever constricting circles.
This is the court of lies and deceit. This is the court of back stabbing snakes who smile in front of relatives, friends and foes while striking at the heel as soon the person is out of sight.
These are the group wherein no one is spared from poisonous, violent attacks, either by sly smiles and pretend alliances or from sudden ambush.
As the Boleyn faction wanes and the Seymour faction rises, just as when Henry tossed aside Kathryn of Aragon, Cromwell is placed in the role of once again cleaning up Henry's mess while trying to save his own neck.
Mantel's writing style can be confusing. Those well versed in Tudor history will like this book. Those who haven't read a lot of Tudor history may be confused by her at-times difficult to follow switching from characters without transitional explanations.
Initially I found the book difficult to read, but as I continued was enthralled by her ability to capture an image. Her turn of a phrase is marvelous.
My favorite quote of the book occurs on page 239 wherein Edward, brother of Henry VIII's new love Jane, meets with Cromwell to broker a deal for power in the placement of his sister on the throne.
Fearing Henry's two-faced nature and also reprisal from the Boleyn's he notes to Cromwell, "The Boleyns if they go down will take us with them. I have heard of serpents that, though they are dying, exude poison through their skins."
And, in reading this book, while the setting is 1535-36, human nature is the same then as now.
Those who smile while holding hands, will gladly inject venom before the unsuspecting victim realizes the deceit. Those who, through insecurity, jealously, immaturity, prior territorial claim or down right psychopathic motives, will indeed spew venom long after a battle that never should have been fought scorches the earth and leaves the attacked worn and scarred.
Highly recommended and destined to be one of my top ten favorites of 2012.
I cannot say enough about Mantel’s portrayal of Thomas Cromwell. He is an absolutely fascinating character: wily, intelligent, loyal, cunning, honourable, cutthroat – a foil unto himself. I remember reading Wolf Hall and being spellbound by his exceptional, streetwise, shrewd observance of others – and how that talent served him in his rise to power. The trait is again on full display in Bring Up the Bodies. And I particularly enjoyed Cromwell’s acknowledgement of Anne Boleyn as accomplished strategist. She is, in a sense, his perfect enemy, though of course the powers of king and court are behind Cromwell.
“He has always rated Anne highly as a strategist. He has never believed in her as a passionate, spontaneous woman. Everything she does is calculated, like everything he does. He notes, as he has these many years, the careful deployment of her flashing eyes. He wonders what it would take to make her panic.” (204)
Mantel’s prose is fabulous: accomplished and sophisticated. Each time I picked up Bring Up the Bodies, and my experience was the same with Wolf Hall, it took me a moment to find her particular “rhythm” (for lack of a better word) before settling into the extraordinary. I look forward to the third in her trilogy, The Mirror and the Light. In the meantime, Bring Up the Bodies is very highly recommended.
"… the order goes to the Tower, 'Bring up the bodies.' Deliver, that is, the accused ... to Westminster Hall for trial." (364)
The trick she pulls off so magnificently is to let her characters talk their way through the history. We know many of the facts, but what we do not know is what they said to each other, she fills in these spaces between the facts. Like it's predecessor [Wolf Hall] this her latest novel is brim full of dialogue. This can be treacherous ground for a novelist who concerns herself with historical accuracy and so she needs to make the reader believe that her characters might have said what she says they said. Here is an example; Thomas Cromwell was trained as a lawyer, he became a consummate statesman and took a leading role in steering Henry VIII towards making Anne Boleyn his queen, but now Henry wants rid of her and so it falls on Cromwell to find a means to this end. Cromwell hears rumours about Anne and when he finds that there has been an accidental fire in her bed chamber he calls in Jane Rochford, one of her ladies in waiting and their conversation goes like this:
Jane Rochford is on her high horse: she thinks he is attempting to blame her. "Look, Master Secretary (Cromwell). Shall I be plain with you?"
"I wish you would."
"First this is a household matter. It is not within your remit. Second, she was in no danger. Third, I do not know who lit the candle. Four, if I did I would not tell you."
"Five, no one else will tell you either
"If as it may happen, some person visits the queen after the lights are out, then it is an event over which we should draw a veil"
"Some person" He digests this "Some person for the purpose of arson, or for purposes of something else?"
"For the usual purposes of bed chambers" she says. "Not that I say there is such a person. I would not have any knowledge of it. The queen knows how to keep her secrets."
"Jane" he says "if the time comes when you wish to disburden your conscience, do not go to a priest, come to me. The priest will give you a penance, but I will give you a reward."
Clearly this dialogue is not how they would have spoken to each other; for example Tudor English would need to be translated for the modern reader and I am not sure that Master Secretary would address a lady in waiting to the queen on such familiar terms, but Mantel cleverly uses the dialogue to flesh out her characters and there is no modern usage of words that screams out to the reader as being so out of place. We are left with the idea conversations like this could well have taken place.
Thomas Cromwell is centre stage and the reader sees the world largely through his eyes. Little is known about his origins apart from his claim that he was a ruffian and so Mantel can invent his background to fit her story. She places him as a son of a Blacksmith who was abused by his father. She say he made his own way in the world first as a soldier of fortune then as lawyer. His rise to power started with his service to Cardinal Wolsey, working his way to become his secretary. When Wolsey was jailed for treason Cromwell managed to distance himself far enough to become a useful tool for Henry VIII. He owed his position to Henry VIII and knew that he stood or fell according to the whim of the king. Cromwell is an infighter but he is an outsider in Henry's court, because he cannot claim noble birth and so Mantel can use the background she has invented to give additional reasons for his action. He wants revenge for the overthrow of Wolsey and he wants to curb the power of the courtiers. He obviously elicits sympathy from the reader, but I think Mantel overdoes this a little when she claims that he was also a reformer who wanted to help the under privileged.
Mantel does not enter into the controversy of the reformation to any great degree, but as it must it keeps pace with her story. Anne was a protestant and claimed she was working to further her cause with the king. Cromwell remains a catholic but his position is never really clear. Henry's daughter Mary a devout catholic is ostracised and in mortal danger from Anne and looms in the background. The intrigue, the violence, the dangers of being in service to Henry VIII are well portrayed. The courtiers, the statesmen, those in waiting are continually looking over their shoulder. It is a dog eat dog world and Mantel does not shy away from her depiction of it as such. Mantel writes in such a way that actions taken are believable and even forgivable. Henry VIII was not a perfect king nor even a very good one, but he knew what he had to do to keep the Tudors in power. He needed men like Cromwell around him but they were expendable and he was not.
I think Mantel has captured the politics, the atmosphere, of life in and around Henry VIII 's court. Her portrayal of Tudor England (those parts that her characters see) feels right. Her characterisations are wonderfully well drawn and interact in ways that move her story on to it's inevitable conclusion. We all know what happened, but Mantel convincingly tells us, some of how and why it might have happened. The dangers are that her story telling is so compulsive that we will believe everything she writes. Is this how History is re-written I ask myself, I don't care because I enjoyed the book so much and so 4.5 stars
Mantel brings in a number of details that I either was not aware of or had forgotten, such as the irony that Henry's marriage to Anne was annulled for the same reason as his marriage to Katherine, prior sexual relations with a sibling (in this case, Henry's affair with Mary Boleyn). And she successfully ties in to the events of Wolf Hall through memories, as in the recurrent appearance of the peacock wings worn by his deceased daughter Grace in a Christmas pageant. Again, the writing is at times almost lyrical--another way of humanizing the man whose own son says that he looks like a murderer.
Two responses to repeated comments by other reviewers: first, on the insertions of "he, Cromwell" as a supposed attempt to answer criticism of the sometimes confusing use of simply "he" in Wolf Hall. Overall, I found this less helpful than it was disruptive. It was often unnecessary, and the repetition grew irksome; it was as if I was being reminded that I was a poor, confused reader who probably couldn't figure out for myself who was speaking or being spoken about. I would rather be a little confused on occasion than frequently irritated. Second, I don't agree with those who feel that Bring Up the Bodies is far superior to Wolf Hall. It's an excellent book with a tighter frame of action, but overall, I'd give the first novel in the trilogy an extra half star.
Like everyone else, I'll be eagerly awaiting the third installment in this awesome series.
She, Mantel, portrays Cromwell as the ultimate chessmaster, as he expertly and deviously manipulates his pieces and captures those of his opponent, while maintaining control of the board at all times until the final outcome is a foregone conclusion. Old slights and seemingly innocent comments by former friends and foes are used by Cromwell to his utmost advantage, to bring down Anne and to increase his own power and influence with Henry. As in Wolf Hall, the dialogue is witty and bitingly humorous, and the action filled narrative made this a book that was nearly impossible to put aside until its foregone conclusion.
Bring Up the Bodies is nearly as brilliant as Wolf Hall, as she, Mantel, proves again to be one of the contemporary masters of historical fiction. It certainly deserves to be included on the upcoming Booker longlist, and I will look on with interest to see if it can claim another prize for its fabulously talented author.
In Bring Up The Bodies, the marriage between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn is three years old, and so far, the two have only produced one daughter. Compounding this situation, Henry's eye is wandering (again) as he becomes smitten with Jane Seymour. Cromwell, seeing an opportunity to rid the court of all things Boleyn, begins masterminding a plot to get rid of Anne and replace her with Jane. As circumstances unfold, Anne is accused of adultery and eventually executed. While Cromwell didn't hold the sword, her blood was on his hands.
In this fictional depiction of Cromwell, we see him as the great orchestrator. He does Henry's dirty deeds, and accomplishes the tasks so beautifully, it is almost a work of art. Additionally, we learn that Cromwell only pursues tasks that benefit himself and his loved ones. Cromwell can persuade Henry like no other. By novel's end, though, Mantel hints at Cromwell's inevitable demise - a subject surely to captivate audiences as she completes the third book in this trilogy.
Compared to Wolf Hall, Bring Up The Bodies is more approachable and action-packed. It is also half the length. Mantel gets better with each page, and Cromwell's character provides a muse for her storytelling. Honestly, I was not sure if I would like the sequel, but I do. It is everything a good novel should be. If you have an interest in historical fiction, be sure to get your hands on Bring Up The Bodies.
In the new book, Mantel gives us her fictional account of Thomas Cromwell's perspective on the period from September 1535 through the fall of Anne Boleyn in the middle of 1536. The short time-frame allows Mantel to really explore events deeply, from the death of Henry VIII's estranged first wife Katherine of Aragon, to Henry's growing disaffection for Anne Boleyn (and attraction to Jane Seymour). Cromwell was positioned perfectly to provide a view of all these goings-on, and Mantel puts him to good use. She's left out a few characters, &c. to make the story work better (see her Author's Note for details), and of course her version isn't meant to be the "real" story, but as a possible interpretation it certainly makes for an enjoyable read.
I wrote in my review of the previous book that having a search window open nearby as you read would be handy, but I feel like the characters have become a bit more familiar to us (or at least to me) in the meantime, and I didn't feel that need as I read this volume. That made it easier to just lose myself in Mantel's version of this, surely one of the most interesting few-month periods in English history!
Royalty, all in all, is seen to be much like the Mafia - its friends profit wildly, but friendship is fickle and falling out of favor dangerous. Since I hear this is planned only as a trilogy, and since we are on just wife number 3 of 8, I'm thinking the all powerful and vengeful Cromwell is going to be one of those unfortunates out of favor in the final book. Ow, it will be hard to read that.
But in the end, perhaps there is not a compromise, as it is all in line with two of Cromwell's central philosophies: "Choose your prince," and "Arrange your face." And who could possibly argue with either piece of advice?
This book concerns the fall of Anne Boleyn, and to some extent, the rise of Jane Seymour. But aren't there only three books? And quite a few wives to go? I am constantly reminded of how little I know of English history, and how much, now, I would like to know more. When I finish this trilogy I will definitely be looking for a good book on Elizabeth.
Mantel continues to do such wonderful things with words. I can't believe I have been sucked into not only a trilogy but a work in progress trilogy. And now have to wait an undefined amount of time for the third book? Have I learned nothing from fan-fiction?
Almost impossible to put down, I initially reluctantly picked up the audiobook version feeling almost certain this particular book would not work on that format, but was once again pleasantly surprised. Simon Vance does an excellent job as always, with a reading which makes Mantel's brilliant prose flow and sparkle. Even the "He, Cromwell" Mantel used throughout to help the reader along, and which many readers found jarring, seemed completely appropriate as delivered by this narrator. Much recommended, whichever format you opt for.
While many, many books have been written about the Henry VIII and his wives, Mantel has approached the story from a different angle; in both ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring Up the Bodies’, Mantel has taken the point of view of Cromwell. Usually considered a horrible villain, Cromwell emerges here as brilliant, hard working, capable of love and a servant to the king alone. Not servant to the Boleyns, the Seymours, the queen that was, the foreign ambassadors, the Pope; just the king and England. That is why he had so many enemies; he did not care who was discommoded in his efforts to please the king and keep England together. And pleasing Henry was not an easy job; Henry was monstrously egotistical and his moods and loves were fickle. He could love and favor someone one day and the next, after some poorly worded comment or even a lie from someone else, that person could end up banished from the court, stripped of their wealth or dead. And no matter how many times Henry changed his mind, his ability to feel himself innocent of wrong doing is astonishing. No matter what he said or did, it was always because he was deceived or bewitched, not because he simply got tired of someone and wanted them gone. Yet, despite these faults, he was also an intelligent and passionately curious man who cared about running the country. He just happened to care about himself more.
Here is what makes Mantel’s writing rather brilliant; despite the fact that you know what’s going to happen to Anne, there is still an awful feeling of suspense. I found myself hoping that she and the men executed with her would find a way out!
While this is a stand alone novel, it is probably best appreciated read after ‘Wolf Hall’ unless you are already familiar with the politics of the time and the story of Henry, Katherine of Aragon and Anne. And even if you are, seeing the story from Cromwell’s point of view casts a different light on it. This isn’t ‘The Tudors’ where lust reigns supreme; this is about political machinations and spinning spider webs of doom around those the king wishes to rid himself of. It’s about a man who accumulated much wealth, but didn’t have the time to enjoy it because his master wanted him available 24/7. Mantel manages to make Cromwell a human, but not a likable one. The writing is rich and creates the Tudor world before our eyes without getting bogged down in description.
Another aspect that I liked is that Mantel doesn't seem to subscribe to any one particular school of thought on Henry VIII or the Boleyns, especially Anne. I felt that the characters were presented to me with as much accuracy as possible and I had the freedom to make out of them what I willed. For example, even though there's mention of witchcraft, no credence is given to it. I still dislike Anne (probably always will) but it is after reading Bring Up the Bodies that I felt compelled to truly reexamine the person behind the name of Thomas Cromwell.
Aaaah, Thomas Cromwell. If you think you know all there is to know about him, I encourage you to read Bring Up the Bodies. I realize that facts speak for themselves but Ms. Mantel managed to open my eyes to possibilities. Before I started reading the Wolf Hall trilogy, I had regarded Cromwell as one of the villains of history. When reading Wolf Hall I began thinking that maybe he wasn't all that bad. Bring Up the Bodies has me question why I disliked Cromwell so strongly to begin with. What can I tell you...Hilary Mantel is a persuasive writer in the study of character. He was a 'nobody' in the eyes of his contemporaries. He had nothing working for him, no dues owed him, no loyalties to fall back on. He truly was a man alone. And he knew it. And as much as he conspired against and/or lied to others, he never hid the truth from himself. You will get no excuses, denials or justifications for Cromwell's deeds. But neither will you get an apology. And maybe that is the singular decision of Mantel's that speaks of her skills most strongly, to offer us no apologies for Cromwell (because maybe she liked him and wanted us to like him too) or condemnation of him and his deeds (because maybe she despised him and wanted us to despise him as well).
The quote below represents to me the true depth of Cromwell's inner pain over losing what he loved and somehow shows the man he was (not to mention, it's also one of the most beautiful to me):
"He once thought it himself, that he might die of grief: for his wife, his daughters, his sisters, his father and master the cardinal. But the pulse, obdurate, keeps its rhythm. You think you cannot keep breathing, but your ribcage has other ideas, rising and falling, emitting sighs. You must thrive in spite of yourself; and so that you may do it, God takes out your heart of flesh, and gives you a heart of stone." *
People do not know what the future holds. When the judges awarded Mantel the Man Booker Prize for Wolf Hall, they couldn't have known that what followed would be a lot more deserving of that honor Wolf Hall is a brilliant novel but Bring Up the Bodies has that intangible 'something' that allowed me to make the emotional connection I wasn't able to make reading its predecessor. My only suggestion is to read Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies in succession, without a long lapse of time. I read Bring Up the Bodies right after I finished Wolf Hall, and because I was already acquainted with the somewhat unusual narration, I could just relax and let the story take me where it wanted.
In this book, Anne Boleyn is starting to lose favor with Henry. Cromwell continues to be a confidante to the King but worries about his future. Should something happen to Henry, he would be lost,as he has made enemies in helping Henry obtain his goals. The Boleyns don't trust him and those that favored Katherine hate him. Cromwell is dedicated to cleaning up the religious mess made by the Catholic Church, while being at Henry's beck and call.
I love that these books are told through Cromwell's and we see what a complex character he is.
Some people were confused when reading Wolf Hall because so many were named Thomas and that many were referred to as "he" and you could not always tell who was speaking. In this book, Mantel refers to Cromwell as "he, Cromwell" to make things less confusing for those people.
The writing was brilliant as always and I look forward to the final book in this trilogy. And maybe I will finally get around to reading A Place of Greater Safety, another well reviewed book by Hilary Mantel.
It is 1535 and we plunge back into the mind of Thomas Cromwell, as he attempts to keep Henry VIII happy and his court loyal – a far from easy task. Henry is beginning to tire of Anne Boleyn and his eye creeps towards the meek and modest Jane Seymour; Cromwell must judge which way the wind is blowing, and do what he judges best for the realm - and for himself, of course. Mantel's character is delightfully complex: he's always conscious of his humble roots in Putney, but he’s no less conscious of the skills he’s picked up from his unorthodox youth as a mercenary in Italy, a banker in Florence and a student of the human psyche. He is not a good man, in a moral sense, but he is loyal, honest and amazingly sharp. Like all the most engaging fictional characters, he lives in shades of grey. He cares about what makes people tick, how you can rule, and how you can apply just the right pressure at just the right time to make someone behave. And he is prepared to sacrifice those who are no longer useful or who start to cause difficulties for him. Mantel creates a very plausible practical mind - which is all too prepared to put sentimentality aside. She also shines in her depiction of Cromwell's 'family', which is a vivid Renaissance household, made up not of a modern nuclear family, but of relatives, servants, informants, wards and general hangers-on; his house is a blend of home, office and fortress. Similarly, court life is shown in all its claustrophobic detail: parted from their families, confined in a hothouse atmosphere, the ladies and gentlemen have little to fill their time but rumour, temptation and jealousy.
The story of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn has been rather over-exposed recently, thanks to The Other Boleyn Girl (in book, TV and film form) and The Tudors. But although her path is well-trodden, Mantel makes the story seem fresh and new, not least in showing how breathlessly quick was Anne Boleyn’s fall. Her characters live and breathe, seen through Cromwell’s unforgiving and unrelenting scrutiny. The only false point for me was Mark Smeaton’s confession: I didn’t believe in the way that the character started boasting about the queen to Cromwell, of all people. But otherwise it’s a wonderfully-written book, ferociously readable. This was one case where my Kindle came into its own: had I bought the hardback copy, I would have been rather less keen to lug it around with me and so it would have been much harder to lose myself as entirely as I did.
I understand that Mantel plans to continue Cromwell's story - and I'll definitely be queuing up for the next instalment.
The year is 1535. Thomas Cromwell has put aside his lowly origins as the son of a blacksmith and is now chief minister and leading statesman within the court of Henry VIII. He’s fast approaching the height of his career, having found a way for Henry to extricate himself from his childless marriage and uncovered a rich source of new income for the King through sequestration of monastic lands and buildings.
Most books featuring Cromwell concentrate on his work and achievements as lawyer and statesman. What makes [Hilary Mantel’s] novels about this period different is the way she reveals the man behind the titles and the legislative actions. The Cromwell she shows us, first in [Wolf Hall] and again in her sequel, [Bring up the Bodies], is a complex character. He’s an astute business man with a thriving cloth trade with Flanders derived from relationships built during his years in that country. He’s a politician par excellence, nimbly navigating the myriad jealousies and jostlings for position amongst the gentry and aristocracy that surround the King. But in Mantel’s text he is also a loving and devoted father with a touch of humanity that extends to opening his home to the poor and needy who require food. The man who manipulates young, impressionable men into confessing they committed adultery with Henry’s new queen (Anne Boleyn) is the same man who is moved to tears when he finds the angel wings his dead daughter once wore at Christmas time.
It’s that duality of character that Mantel brings to center stage in [Bring up the Bodies], conveying it in a third person narrative style that simultaneously has the intimacy of a first person narrator. Often those moments of character revelation come through short comments made almost en passant.
One such passage occurs when Cromwell is despatched by Henry to see the woman he divorced (Katherine of Arragon) in order to marry Anne Boleyn. Katherine is a problem that will not go away for this royal couple – she refuses to acknowledge the validity of the divorce, refuses to give allegiance to the new queen and is a focal point for Catholic plots against Henry. they need to know whether reports she is dying are true. What Cromwell sees is a shrunken figure of a woman swaddled in an ermine fur cape.
She is jaundiced, and there is an invalid fug in the room – the faint animal scent of the furs, a vegetal stench of undrained cooking water, and the sour reek from a bowl with which a girl hurries away: containing, he suspects the evauated contents of the dowager’s stomach.
Noticing the ermine fur coat in which she is swathed, the pragmatic side of Cromwell’s character comes to the forefront. “The king will want that back, he thinks, if she dies.’ But almost immediately the lens is changed to show his more thoughtful nature as he wonders whether Katherine’s dreams are of the gardens of the Alhambra she left as a young girl:
….the marble pavements, the bubbling of crystal water into basins, the drag of a white peacock’s tail and the scent of lemons. I could have brought her a lemon in my saddlebag, he thinks.
Four months after I closed the book, I could still remember that passage and the way Mantel shows Cromwell’s mind leap from the wizened creature he sees in front of him to a simple action he could have taken to remind her of a better life.
Moments like this abound within the novel. For that reason alone, Mantel for me deserved to win the Man Booker Prize 2012.
Bring Up the Bodies seamlessly picks up the story where Wolf Hall ended. Thomas Cromwell is garnering wealth and power while maneuvering amid the complicated and difficult maze that was Tudor England and the Court of Henry VIII. Anne Boleyn has a daughter Elizabeth and has suffered several miscarriages. Henry begins to lose patience with Anne, and his eyes have fallen upon Jane Seymour. Meanwhile, Thomas plays a thrilling, complicated, and enormous chess match with his life, his fortune, and his family at stake.
I have long been fascinated with the Tudor period, and I have a collection of biographies for every major figure of the family and the court, from Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Lady Jane Gray, Mary I, and Elizabeth I. Mantel vividly captures the intrigue, the treachery, the spies, the volatile moods of Henry, as well as the passion, the loves, and she paints wonderfully interesting portraits. The chess game Cromwell plays extends far beyond England to Spain, Italy, France, Germany, the Low Countries, and all the little nooks and crannies in between.
Mantel mesmerized me again from the first page of Bring Up the Bodies. Thomas visits Wolf Hall, his estate, and Mantel writes, “You may find a bride in the forest, old Seymour had said. When he closes his eyes she slides behind them, veiled in cobwebs and splashed with dew. Her feet are bare, entwined in roots, her feather hair flies into the branches; her finger, beckoning, is a curled leaf. She points to him, as sleep overtakes him. His inner voice mocks him now: you thought you were going to get a holiday at Wolf Hall. You thought there would be nothing to do here except the usual business, war and peace, famine, traitorous connivance; a failing harvest, a stubborn populace, plague ravaging London and the king losing his shirt at cards. You were prepared for that” (25-26). This passage brilliantly illuminates the Tudor period
As in Wolf Hall, Mantel provides a detailed list of characters and their individual domains, as well as a family tree. This information greatly aids the reader unfamiliar with the time period. Mantel’s novels are a stunning and outstanding introduction to an important and pivotal period in world history. I will be sorely disappointed if the trilogy does not win a third Booker Prize for The Mirror and the Light. But start with Wolf Hall, go on to Bring Up the Bodies, and you will find yourself anxiously awaiting the final volume of the trilogy. 5 platinum stars.
The drama and intrigue of King Henry's court is better than a soap opera, and Mantel does a brilliant job of making historical fiction set hundreds of years ago feel immediate and these characters your intimates. I completely fell into the story, and if it took me a couple of weeks to read it was definitely me who was at fault, because when I was reading these 400+ pages flew by.