'Bring Up the Bodies' by Hilary Mantel (2012)

Bring Up the Bodies (Thomas Cromwell, #2) - Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies (London: Fourth Estate, 2013), 485pp

 

"The order goes to the Tower, 'Bring up the bodies.' Deliver, that is, the accused men..." (pg. 432).

Bring Up the Bodies sees Hilary Mantel continue her fine work from Wolf Hall with another instalment of peerless historical fiction set in the court of King Henry VIII. Whereas Wolf Hall dealt with Henry's divorce from Catherine of Aragon and his subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn, bringing about a break with the Catholic church, Bring Up the Bodies deals with Anne's dramatic fall and Henry's infatuation with Jane Seymour, who would eventually grant his infamous desire for a male heir. Seeing how the winds are changing, Thomas Cromwell facilitates the fall of Anne/rise of Jane with the same ruthless opportunism and formidable political scheming that characterised his dramatic rise chronicled in Wolf Hall. The fall of Anne does not prove easy to facilitate, however; to paraphrase Thomas Wyatt on page 421, considering how much trouble Henry caused to get Anne in the first place, what must it cost to be rid? Though Cromwell ends Bring Up the Bodies at his peak in terms of money, power and influence, one can see (and one can know, if one knows Tudor history) that he may have overplayed his hand and that there are new and powerful political enemies he has made. The events surrounding Anne's fall will no doubt come home to roost for Cromwell in the eagerly awaited final book of Mantel's trilogy, The Mirror and the Light.

Essentially, all the elements of Wolf Hall that I praised in my review of that novel are also evident here in Bring Up the Bodies: this is historical fiction at its very best. I continue to be amazed at how tangibly authentic Mantel's Tudor world feels and sounds; it is better than just about any other piece of historical fiction I have read. A great strength of Bring Up the Bodies, and of Wolf Hall before it, is that the story you thought you knew so well is much richer than you were ever aware. Henry is not a totalitarian tyrant going through wives on a whim; as Cromwell discovers, it is not so easy to behead a queen. The politics are more complex, the loyalties more obscure, than many factual history books convey. Though I recognise this as a work of fiction, I feel I have learned more about the Tudors from Mantel than I have from anyone else.

In one small respect, Bring Up the Bodies is better than the first book, as although Mantel persists in using 'he' to refer to Cromwell (readers of Wolf Hall will know what I mean), it is less irritating and confusing here. Or perhaps I'm just used to it by now. But upon finishing the book, I found that I preferred Wolf Hall. You see, Wolf Hall, as I mentioned in my review of that novel, balances the 'soap opera' of the Tudor court with the big picture, i.e. the English Reformation (the break from Rome and the dissolution of the monarchies). It was this balance which made the first book such an exhilarating read for me. Bring Up the Bodies lacks such a balance, focusing almost exclusively on the fall of Anne Boleyn. As engrossing as that story is, I was also looking forward to a continuation of Cromwell's political reforms, and Bring Up the Bodies did not provide. No doubt they will resurface in the not-yet-released third book (if my knowledge of Tudor history is up to scratch), but their absence here means that, in my opinion, Wolf Hall is the better book.

Story-wise, I was surprised by how meekly Anne submitted to her fate; she does not seem to counter Cromwell's (or anyone else's) schemes at all, despite frequently warning early on in Bring Up the Bodies - and in Wolf Hall - that she will not go down easily. As Cromwell notes on page 444, he was once told "how a dying lioness can maul you, flash out with her claw and scar you for life. But he feels no threat, no tension, nothing at all." Mantel must, of course, adhere broadly to historical fact, but I was expecting more from her Anne, who was a formidable political player in the first book. But Anne is rather passive; the battle of wills between Cromwell and the queen we were promised does not occur. Despite this, Bring Up the Bodies was a very worthy successor to Wolf Hall, and I shall count down the (many, many) days until the third and final instalment.