In Bring up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel’s much anticipated follow-up to the multi-award winning Wolf Hall (2009), we explore one of the most unsettling episodes in English history: the destruction of Anne Boleyn. As the author points out in a note at the end of the book, however, this new novel is not about the story of Anne as such—or even Henry VIII himself—but the machinations of Thomas Cromwell, the tenacious Master Secretary. The son of a thuggish, drunken blacksmith, Cromwell has risen about as high as any commoner could ever imagine, largely through his own obstinacy, cunning, and resourcefulness.
Even an underdog bears his teeth when he must. It is to Mantel’s considerable credit that here—as in her previous work—she is able to fleck some truly sympathetic light on a man long painted as a nefarious, brawling politician. As a famous passage from Wolf Hall declares, “He is at home in courtroom and waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury.”
Mantel’s Cromwell is not a modern man in Tudor dress but someone whose mental landscape is firmly rooted at the tail end of the Middle Ages, just as the Protestant revolution gathers momentum. He is not a Machiavellian snitch in the strictest sense, nor is he a self-destructive Blairite. Rather, he is a vivid yet distant echo of human caprice, a familiar yet long forgotten totem of social ambition.
Mantel has astutely evolved her style along with her expanding investment in the period. Bring up the Bodies runs to half the length of its predecessor and is strikingly much narrower in focus, if not ambition. Whereas the first book in the trilogy traced Cromwell’s career from childhood, through the death of his mentor and predecessor as Henry VIII’s minister, Cardinal Wolsey, the sequel barely covers the nine months of Anne’s downfall and final execution, engineered by Cromwell on behalf of the Seymour family, who supplied Henry’s third wife, Jane. At the same time, Mantel adeptly repurposes some of the strongest traits of the earlier piece. Just as Wolf Hall tracked Henry VIII’s waning interest in Katherine of Aragon, we now watch as Anne’s life unravels in ever rapid lunges towards the end. Henry has spotted the pale Jane Seymour in his crosshairs and wears, to mix the metaphor, the moronic daze of a stunned veal-calf “knocked on the head by the butcher.”
Much criticism has been levelled at the author for drawing female characters infinitely more finely, and critically, than men. Judged solely on her depiction of the King as a grunting, petulant oaf, such claims would be near on impossible to refute. But given that Anne in particular, along with many if not all of Henry’s women, has fared poorly at the hands of caricaturists, any redress is surely welcome. This book brings back many bodies, not merely the headless ones strewn in the path of the King’s increasing despotism. Never descending into the bodice-ripping domain associated with recent historical fiction, Mantel’s universe is peopled with impressively rendered avatars of the age. Even if Bring up the Bodies lacks the stark originality of Wolf Hall, it is still a remarkable piece of writing or, in the publisher’s words, a “speaking picture.” Movie sequels rarely win Oscars. Mantel’s new book, however, would be a worthy winner of the Man Booker prize.