“Where to begin with Cromwell? Some start with his sharp little eyes, some start with his hat. Some evade the issue and paint his seal and scissors, others pick out the turquoise ring given him by the cardinal. Wherever they begin, the final impact is the same: if he had a grievance against you, you wouldn’t like to meet him at the dark of the moon.” – Hilary Mantel, Bring Up The Bodies
It’s not often I enjoy the second book in a series better than the first. But Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel has left its predecessor Wolf Hall in the dust.
When I reviewed Wolf Hall in March, I confessed that it had “the tendency to put me to sleep” and that reading it “felt like running a marathon”. I encouraged people to read it if they were “up for a literary challenge” or had “an interest in Tudor history”. What a bland review!
Now I want to eat my words. Stop what you’re doing and read Wolf Hall. Persevere through the detailed descriptions and fight your way, one sleepy page at a time, to the end. Because Bring Up The Bodies is well worth the effort.
Picking up where Wolf Hall left off, Bring Up The Bodies starts in the depths of Thomas Cromwell’s mind. As readers, we are forever perched on the shoulder of this elusive Tudor lawyer, shown snippets of his brilliance and malice.
Setting the tone for the novel, the first chapter opens with ghosts and omens, as Cromwell rides through the English countryside, on yet another errand for King Henry VIII.
“His children are falling from the sky. He watches from horseback, acres of England stretching behind him; they drop, gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze. Grace Cromwell hovers in thin air. She is silent when she takes her prey, silent as she glides to his fist. But the sounds she makes then, the rustle of feathers and the creak, the sigh and riffle of pinion, the small cluck-cluck from her throat, these are the sounds of recognition, intimate, daughterly, almost disapproving. Her breast is gore-streaked and flesh clings to her claws.”
Here is he, Cromwell, cantering forward, with England “behind him”, his own wretched past a constant companion, no matter how much ground he covers. Cromwell, the blacksmith’s son, the Putney-born, now Master Secretary to the King of England.
Anyone familiar with Tudor history knows Cromwell does not have a happy ending. It makes for interesting reading then, to follow his life knowing what fate lies ahead. Each page is marred by a sense of foreboding, each word uttered tinged with risk. The roll of a dice, a high-stakes game where the rewards are dazzling and there are no second chances. But Cromwell knows no way but forward.
“The things you think are the disasters in your life are not the disasters really. Almost anything can be turned around: out of every ditch, a path, if you can only see it.”
Bring Up The Bodies is set during the reign of Queen Anne Boleyn – or La Ana, the concubine, depending on which team you play for. Anne is one of history’s most famous figures. Like Cromwell, she is elusive, much of her character having evaded historians for centuries.
Historians have used much creative licence when depicting Anne. There has been much literature about her rise and fall. The majority of historical fiction from the Tudor period is filled with sex, romance and war – as if one has to ‘sex up’ history to make it interesting.
But Mantel chooses to portray Cromwell, the lawyer. It says a lot about Mantel’s commitment to character, that she manages to make Anne look dull and Cromwell dazzling. In her two books about the Tudors, there is barely any sex or battle, just words and whispers.
In doing this, I believe Mantel gets closer to the heart of Henry VIII’s reign. What happened during this period was not driven by romance or lust, but by law. Henry could not simply act as he pleased – all of his whims and desires had to be framed in legal terms. It was Cromwell’s task to legalise and justify his King’s demands.
“We are not priests. We don’t want their sort of confession. We are lawyers. We want the truth little by little and only those parts of it we can use.”
There is nothing simple about the way Henry dismissed his wives. Behind the scenes was Cromwell, pulling the puzzle apart and piecing it together again. Bring Up The Bodies is a masterpiece of political brilliance and calculation. It’s offers unique insight into one of the most turbulent times of British history; I won’t bore you with the plot, it is already well-known. Instead this book is worth reading for its fresh perspective.
I was completely blown away by Bring Up The Bodies. The time Mantel put into building Cromwell’s character in Wolf Hall shows, as in Bring Up The Bodies he is as familiar as an old friend. You know his character and his ambition. You might not know what he is going to do next, but you have a fair idea of how he is going to do it; with deliberate precision and care. You find yourself respecting him, even if the outcome is bloodshed.
“Look, he says: once you have exhausted the process of negotiation and compromise, once you have fixed on the destruction of an enemy, that destruction must be swift and it must be perfect. Before you even glance in his direction, you should have his name on a warrant, the ports blocked, his wife and friends bought, his heir under your protection, his money in your strong room and his dog running to your whistle. Before he wakes in the morning, you should have the axe in your hand.”
The book makes it feel as though you, the reader, are Cromwell’s shadow. You follow him from the warmth of his home to the coolness of the court, and everywhere in between. Cromwell sees and hears everything, and therefore so do you. Mantel has managed to find a way of condensing the complexity of Henry VIII’s court into one man’s mind, and then opened a window so the world can look in.
When I finished Bring Up The Bodies I had goosebumps, a huge smile on my face and I think I may even have whooped with satisfaction. Well played, Mantel, well played.
“But 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.”
“Truth can break the gates down, truth can howl in the street; unless truth is pleasing, personable and easy to like, she is condemned to stay whimpering at the back door.”
“He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged.”