Following her success with Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel won a second Man Booker prize for this second volume in a historical trilogy bookended with executions. In Bring Up the Bodies, Mantel continues to flesh out her portrait of Thomas Cromwell, self-made man and adviser to Henry VIII. (One reviewer calls him Henry’s consigliere.) We’re still only a sixth of the way through the Tudor mnemonic rhyme: Divorced, beheaded, she died…, but the atmosphere of doom is palpable.
Anne Boleyn’s days are numbered. The king is watching another woman, plain, “bun-face” Jane Seymour; Anne hasn’t given him a son; and Henry’s own brush with mortality reminds everyone how badly peace in England depends on establishing an uncontested succession. Always alert, Cromwell is the first to sense the direction of Henry’s thoughts, but it isn’t always obvious whether he’s making use of events or triggering them. It’s a credit to Mantel’s storytelling that she makes so much of this history seem fresh and immediate, when we all know what’s going to happen. When Henry falls from his horse and is thought dead, we know this isn’t how he’s going to end, but we’re still caught up in Cromwell’s panic as he envisions the political chaos and civil war about to break loose.
Bring Up the Bodies covers a briefer time span than Wolf Hall, and the prose is more fanciful and meditative. At the same time, events are moving quickly, overtaking even calculating Cromwell’s long range plans. Less than a year passes between the king’s first infatuation with Jane and Anne’s demise. Fortunately, Cromwell, like many a fifty-year-old, spends a lot of time thinking about his past. It helps to bring readers back up to speed on the convoluted court politics, as well as to trace the very long roots of reward and revenge that guide Cromwell’s actions.
Even as we follow Cromwell’s thoughts in Mantel’s close first-person, present tense style, it’s not as easy as you’d think to make out his intentions. A literary Hans Holbein, Mantel builds her depiction out of layers and layers of conversation, rumor, and inner monologue, while reminding readers all the while about how haphazardly history chooses which details remain and which are forgotten. Cromwell himself, constantly sifting the gossip of the court to separate useful facts from scurrilous fancies, manipulates the fact that it’s Anne’s reputation, rather than her actions, that will make or break her as Queen. As I reread, I’m still trying to work out which “facts” Cromwell is learning from Anne’s treacherous ladies-in-waiting and which “facts” he’s inventing to take her down. No mere Machiavelli, though, Cromwell wants what every good father wants: a better life for his son than the one he had. Charming, hospitable, generous and utterly ruthless, he, Cromwell is a fascinating man to spend time with.
There are only two things missing: first, I always want more of Anne’s blustering uncle, Lord “By the thrice-beshitten shroud of Lazarus!” Norfolk. His scenes in this novel are fewer and his role more chilling, as he wolfishly presides over the sentencing of his niece. And second, although I can’t believe I’m saying this about such a cracking good novel, footnotes! Endnotes! What I wouldn’t give for a look at Mantel’s research.
Gorgeous turns of phrase and a convoluted plot make Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies excellent candidates for re-reading, or re-listening. Both novels are great audiobooks, read with gravitas and dry humor by Simon Vance.