Let’s begin with an admission: I have an extremely love-hate relationship with Wolf Hall, the Booker Prize-winning predecessor to this novel. I don’t think anyone can deny that Hilary Mantel is a tremendously talented writer, but there were long segments of Hall that were deadly dull if I’m being honest. It’s a sprawling novel that takes work to get through. Finishing a book that makes you work can feel thrilling, but not when the effort is born out of frustration.
So it was with no small amount of trepidation that I picked up its sequel and plunged back into the world of Thomas Cromwell and the court of Henry VIII. You may wonder why I bothered, but the truth is that there is a great deal to love about Mantel’s rich portrayal of the period. In its best moments Hall is absolutely enthralling, and the cool machinations of Cromwell make for the most layered, complex character fiction has seen in a long time. On top of all that, the focus of this installment is perhaps the most intriguing (and bloody) time in British history: the downfall and execution of Anne Boleyn. It has everything most readers dream of (love, sex, power, violence, and betrayal), plus the added bonus of a writer with serious literary heft. How could you resist?
I was not disappointed. I expected to rely on the family trees and extensive character guides at the beginning of the novel (as I did with Hall), but I was pleasantly surprised to find that I fell back into the world of Henry VIII with ease and a great deal of familiarity. I already got to know everyone. I already knew their history, their alliances, and what skeletons they had hidden in their closets. A lot of Hall is dragged down by exposition but it really seems to have paid off in the end. You see, in the first novel we get the full introduction to Cromwell: his childhood, his years wandering abroad, his time working for Cardinal Wolsey, and his unexpected rise in Henry’s favor following Wolsey’s downfall. It’s information that is vital to Mantel’s recreation of Cromwell, but Bodies has the luxury of skimming over all the detail work. It makes for a significantly more focused story. Consider this: while Hall spanned decades, Bodies takes place in a scant nine month period.
And what a nine months! Henry, already disillusioned with Anne at the close of Hall, begins to transfer his affections to Jane Seymour, making it necessary to undo a marriage he had moved Heaven and Earth to make possible in the first place. The characterizations of Cromwell, Anne, and Henry are where Mantel’s writing shines the brightest for me. Anne’s dark, glittery eyes are a descriptive quality that has stayed with me from the first book. But here they are all getting older. Henry is in middle age and desperate for a legitimate heir to the throne. Anne, who maneuvered so seductively into the throne, is losing her guile and her grip more and more. And Cromwell, also in middle age, is becoming so fixated on achieving revenge on those who have wronged him and his beloved Cardinal Wolsey that he is slowly sowing the seeds of his own eventual downfall.
“A queen, and [Anne] calls herself a queen, must live and suffer under the world’s eye.”
But it’s not just them changing. The entire world is shifting in a new direction–largely because of their actions. Henry’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon has scandalized the world. His break from the Catholic church challenged the authority of an institution most people believed unassailable. Boleyn and, especially, Cromwell are eyed with suspicion because of their ‘low birth.’ Yet they have ruthlessly risen to two of the highest positions in their country. The classical orders aren’t just being challenged, they’re being ripped asunder. “Chivalry’s day is over. One day soon moss will grow in the tilt yard. The days of the moneylender have arrived, and the days of the swaggering privateer; banker sits down with banker, and kings are their waiting boys.” The fact that this novel arrives on the heels of the Occupy Wall Street movement makes it all the more timely.
We know that Anne’s bloody end is approaching, that Henry will have two wives after Jane Seymour, and that Cromwell’s own relationship with Henry will come to a bitter end. But watching it all unfold through Mantel’s eyes is nothing short of fascinating. She still rambles a bit. At times her prose seems willfully opaque. She is defiantly not an author who spells it all out for the reader; indeed, one can never be quite certain which lines the characters speak are lies and which are true (particularly when it comes to Henry). But isn’t that life for you? In the end, finishing Bring Up the Bodies gave me a charge the way Wolf Hall didn’t. This one is work that is worth the effort.