Book Review: Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Bring Up the Bodies
Hilary Mantel

410 pp. A John Macrae Book/Henry Holt & Company
Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel's book before this one, introduced us to Thomas Cromwell, protegé of Cardinal Wolsey and, later, chief minister of Henry VIII. In almost any telling of the story of Henry, Cromwell is depicted as a Machiavellian, amoral, devious schemer. Mantel takes a more subtle brush to limn her portrait and presents us with a much more complex man, one motivated by urges other than raw self-interest. Here is a man who loves his wife, worries about his son, is loyal to his friends but is capable of uncompromising ruthlessness. He is a man of prodigious talents, and possessed of a memory both vast and unforgiving.
"He is the very man if an argument about God breaks out; he is the very man for telling your tenants twelve good reasons why their rents are fair. He is the man to cut through some legal entanglement that's ensnared you for three generations, or talk your sniffling little daughter into the marriage she swears she'll never make. With animals, women and timid litigants, his manner is gentle and easy; but he makes your creditors weep. He can converse with you about the Caesars or get you Venetian glassware at a very reasonable rate. Nobody can outtalk him, if he wants to talk. Nobody can better keep their head, when markets are falling and weeping men are standing on the street tearing up letters of credit."
Those who are familiar with the story of Henry and his many marriages will not need a re-telling of the plot. In short, Wolf Hall tells the story of the replacement of Katherine of Aragon with Anne Boleyn. Anne is depicted as smart, independent and a bit of a flirt. Henry, on the other hand, is something of a dullard and probably in no way the intellectual equal of his new wife. Bring Up The Bodies is the telling of Henry’s replacing Anne, who has failed to give him a male heir, with the dowdy Jane Seymour. In both replacings, Cromwell is the agent and the king’s conscience. There is a point in Bring Up the Bodies where Henry is thought to be dead. Cromwell becomes acutely aware of his own precarious situation (surrounded by enemies) and England’s precarious situation (with no line of succession clearly in place). The tearing down and humiliation, some years earlier, of his mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, also serves as a quiet but relentless urge to vengence. At this point events start to move swiftly. The book covers only nine months with the latter half of the book covering just three weeks. The action moves swiftly and Anne Boleyn’s fate becomes horribly inevitable. Cromwell 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 ax in your hand."
No argument is made in Bring Up The Bodies for the innocence or guilt of Anne and those accused with her. We see only how the charges are put together and left to our own conclusions.
The ending of the book is harrowing in places and the execution of Anne particularly hard to read. Indeed, both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies bring medieval England to life so vividly -- the politics, theology, cruelty and the fragility of life -- that there are moments when one has to stop and draw breath. That said, these books are well worth your while. The prose is strong and brilliantly assured, the world depicted is so vivid and the characters so real that it’s hard to stop reading.

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