Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies is the second book in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy. This book and its predecessor, Wolf Hall, were awarded the Man Booker Prize—a rare achievement. Wolf Hall is more sweeping—it introduces Thomas Cromwell and traces the beginning of his career with Thomas Wolsey up through Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. Bring Up the Bodies is more condensed. Its narrow focus concerns five months from January to May of 1536.
As the novel begins, Henry has grown tired of Anne Boleyn. She is pregnant, and everything hinges on whether or not she will deliver the long-awaited male heir. Meanwhile, Henry’s first queen Katherine dies, and Henry is grievously wounded in a joust (some historians argue the injuries he incurred in this joust are responsible for Henry’s transformation into a tyrant). Shortly after Henry’s accident, Anne miscarries her child—a son. Five months later, she is dead.
As much as I loved Wolf Hall, and I did, I have to say I enjoyed Bring Up the Bodies even more. Thomas Cromwell emerges as a complex individual. He has been cast in history as a notorious villain, but these books also display his love for his family and his eagerness to become a surrogate father and teacher to several young men in his household. He has a dry wit. But he has a long memory. The scenes in which he interrogates the men accused of adultery with Anne Boleyn are chilling, and no less so because it is clear Cromwell remembers their role in ridiculing Cardinal Wolsey.
The books tread a careful line: Were Anne Boleyn, Harry Norris, George Boleyn, Francis Weston, William Brereton and Mark Smeaton guilty of the crimes for which they were executed? Thomas Cromwell himself is not sure, but they are guilty of other things. Cromwell observes that “He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged” (328). Cromwell has a slow fuse. He never forgets when he is wronged, even slightly, and when the moment comes to strike, he’s as swift as a snake. Or a lawyer.
The book also contains some exquisite sentences. It’s not just good storytelling—this novel in particular reads almost like a play, and you can see all the action on the stage—it’s also just good writing. Perhaps my favorite quote:
He once thought it himself, that he might die with grief: for his wife, his daughters, his sisters, his father and master the cardinal. But pulse, obdurate, keeps its rhythm. You think you cannot keep breathing, but your ribcage has other ideas, rising and falling, emitting sighs. You must thrive in spite of yourself; and so that you may do it, God takes out your heart of flesh, and gives you a heart of stone. (329)
I can hardly wait for the third installment in the series. No matter what you think of Cromwell, you can hardly deny he left a mark on history, and he is perhaps more interesting and complicated than the larger figures of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, at least in Hilary Mantel’s capable hands. Mantel sets a high bar. I’m not sure I’ve read any writer who does historical fiction quite so well. I’m really looking forward to the production of Wolf Hall/Bring Up the Bodies on PBS in April. If you like historical fiction, even if you think you are so over the Tudors already, do yourself a favor and read these books.
This book is set largely in London, with the most memorable passages at the Tower of London, located in Middlesex County. I will count this book as my London book for the Reading England Challenge.