Bring Up the Bodies
Fourth Estate, 608pp, £20
Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning novel about Thomas Cromwell, was one of those novels you either loved or hated. I belonged to the latter camp. Having followed Mantel’s career with admiration, I was intensely irritated by the novel’s implausible hero, by the decision to write a historical novel in the present tense and, above all, by the absence of plot. It struck me as the kind of novel that flattered the middlebrow.
Many disagreed with me, though others agreed. If you are one of the latter, then try Bring Up the Bodies. Although it has the same cast, the same tense and takes up in 1535 more or less where Wolf Hall left off, it is lively and full of narrative suspense, as its predecessor was not.
Henry VIII has married Anne Boleyn and she has given him Princess Elizabeth. Pregnant again, she is staking all on having a son next time. From the opening, in which Cromwell and Henry VIII are flying Cromwell’s “children” – the hawks named after his dead daughters and wife – the novel grips the reader with bloody talons and doesn’t let go.
What makes Bring Up the Bodies so different from its predecessor? I think it’s the emotional intelligence with which Henry, Boleyn, Cromwell and the rest are depicted as characters we can feel for, as opposed to just know about. Historians such as David Starkey and Alison Weir have already built up near-novelistic portraits of Henry and the Boleyns through the forensic examination of primary material. Here, Mantel has used her research to render them as people, both like and unlike ourselves. She has laboured so hard on their portraits that we can see them sweat and strain. And their conversation has the flavour of Tudor English without slipping into pastiche.
Mantel’s Boleyn is no innocent victim (though she is almost certainly not an adulteress) but one who exceeded the Tudor gentlewoman’s powerless role as the pawn of her male relations. Her Cromwell is as witty, humane, sinister and captivating a consciousness as any Shakespearean villain. Boleyn has previously destroyed Cromwell’s patron Cardinal Wolsey and now makes it clear that she is his deadly enemy. The way in which he, and events, conspire to thwart her has the inevitability of Jacobean tragedy. We know what the ending will be but the machinations of corruption and cruelty by which this is achieved are what make the novel such a page-turner. Henry, desperate for a son to inherit his crown, has already turned his gaze on to plain Jane Seymour and this changes everything – especially once Catherine of Aragon dies. Mantel makes us see both Seymour’s charm and her quiet calculations; the appalled view of the French ambassador (“He will not really marry her, another woman of no importance?”) is left for a comic passage at the end. Cromwell must extricate his king from his second wife in order that he can marry a third. Such is his suavity that he gets those accused of adultery with the queen to confess their guilt without ever putting them on the rack.
This is one bit of fudging by Mantel in favour of her hero that the reader may find a step too far. Cromwell’s private reasons for wishing to humiliate the accused courtiers – who dressed up as the four paws of a beast in a mocking masque, in which the dead Wolsey was carted off to hell – are more artfully presented. Instead of repeatedly telling us how clever Cromwell is (as she did in Wolf Hall), Mantel shows us. Fully aware of his power, Cromwell is also the only man in the book to treat women with respect and to understand why the poet Thomas Wyatt, alone of all the accused, must be saved from execution. Small wonder that his better-known great-great-great-nephew ended up cutting off a king’s head and ruling Britain.
Cromwell’s thoughts are rendered sometimes in the first-person plural, sometimes in the second person and sometimes in the third. It’s a brilliant literary technique, mimicking the essence of a man who can confide in none but himself – and us, his unseen witnesses, judges and reluctant sympathisers.
By the time Queen Anne’s headless, “sodden remains” are carried away, unassisted, by the ladies in waiting who denounced her, you are aware that the next character to be executed is Cromwell. Bring Up the Bodies should net its author another Booker Prize – deservedly, this time.