Bring up the Bodies is Hilary Mantel’s sequel to the Man Booker prize winning Wolf Hall. In it, she charts the fortunes of Thomas Cromwell, which are still rising, and those of the Queen Anne Boleyn, which are plunging.
Thomas Cromwell is Henry VIII’s personal enforcer, his “good right hand,” but still a commoner among the sleek, privileged aristocrats, many of whom take pains to remind Cromwell of that. In Wolf Hall, Cromwell helped the king put aside his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, and marry Anne Boleyn. The king repudiated the Pope in order to do so. Henry pursued Boleyn for seven years. Now, married for fewer than three, he is already dissatisfied with his queen, and his gaze is wandering. As Mantel says in her afterword, in Bringing up the Bodies, she offers an alternative suggestion of the mechanics of Boleyn’s fall from grace.
Mantel uses the same tight third person point-of-view in this book. She is an accomplished writer with a good understanding of what you can and can’t say in first person; observations Cromwell makes about himself in third person seem wry and perceptive; not pompous, as they would in first person. This choice creates the same stylistic awkwardness that riddled the first book. Within a paragraph, Cromwell frequently looks out and describes what he sees, then shifts into his own thoughts and Mantel is forced to telegraph that. It works like this:
“Sir, how are you not burned?” Rafe Sadler demands. A redhead like the king, he has turned a mottled and freckled pink, and even his eyes look sore. He, Thomas Cromwell, shrugs; he hangs his arms around Rafe’s shoulders as they drift indoors.”
Phrases like, “he, Cromwell,” show up a lot. Surprisingly, I enjoyed this in the first book and again here. There is something symbolic and powerful about Cromwell repeating his own name. Mantel also chooses to bury dialogue in the centers of paragraphs rather than leading with it. These are conscious writing choices. I noticed them but they did not distract me.
As Bring up the Bodies opens, Mantel has made one surprising change. At the end of Wolf Hall, Cromwell had developed an infatuation with one of the Queen’s waiting women, a quiet little slip of the thing named Jane Seymour. Now, in the opening of this book, that desire is gone. Cromwell ruminates that seasons change and fancy changes. It seems more likely that Mantel didn’t want to address the complications that would ensue if her character wanted the same woman the king did. Or maybe Cromwell, seeing where the king’s desire has landed, is merely rationalizing away his own desire. It’s not clear. Mantel’s interpretation of Seymour is interesting and baffling. At the beginning of this book, she is so quiet and so literal that she reminds me (and this is embarrassing to admit) of Luna Lovegood in the Harry Potter series. Someone comments that a person is as mad as a scalded cat and Jane asks Cromwell, “Have you seen a scalded cat?” Cromwell himself never quite knows if Seymour is kind of dim, or, as he suspects, someone who keeps so much to herself that she wishes should go about veiled, so no one could see her face and guess her thoughts. Like Cromwell, I never know this either. Certainly, historically, it’s crystal clear that Jane Seymour was the polar opposite of the clever, sharp, proud, stubborn, enticing and demanding Anne Boleyn. She was also able to do the one thing Boleyn was not able to do; give the king a legitimate male heir.
Cromwell came to power in England as a banker and a lawyer… a “fixer” for the king. His past includes occupation as a soldier and a thug. Cromwell doesn’t speak much of his rough past but he is not embarrassed by it. He sees it as a source of strength. Here is an exchange between Cromwell and his enemy Stephen Gardiner:
“But do you ask yourself why people what to kill you?”
He had laughed. “Why, Stephen—much in this life is a mystery but that is no mystery at all. I was always first up in the morning, I was always the last man standing. I was always in the money. I always got the girl. Show me a heap, and I’m on top of it.”
In Wolf Hall, Mantel successfully contrasted Cromwell against the famous Thomas More, and made Cromwell the more likeable. In Bodies, Cromwell, ever the banker, has five noblemen he feels are owed “payment.” After Cardinal Wolsey, Cromwell’s patron, died, five nobles put on an entertainment for the King, depicting Wolsey as an ape, dragged down to hell by four demons. While the king struggles with his marriage to Boleyn, Cromwell plans what to do to these aristos.
Bring up the Bodies is a juggling act. Cromwell is a complex character, but so is Henry VIII. Probably the only thing more precarious than being the king’s enemy is being his friend. Anne Boleyn and Katherine of Aragon are strong believable royal women. No one is given short shrift and even secondary characters like Gregory, Cromwell’s son, Rafe, Richard and a new character, the jester/servant Anthony, are well-drawn.
Mantel gives Cromwell a yearning for art, a poetic turn of phrase, and a humorous one. We get descriptions like this:
“… The light shivers, then settles against the dark wood like discs pared from a pearl.”
A moment later Cromwell, who is talking to one of his servants, a Welsh boy, thinks, “Why is it always little legs that have to save big legs?” Meditating on age: “He thinks, that’s the bleat of a man of fifty; Welsh, tennis, I used to, I can’t now.”
Later, when he is casually questioning several of Boleyn’s ladies, he does it with a tray of dessert cakes.
He does not mind who comes in to see him, who is noticed as they come and go. Who would not pass the time with a man who has cakes? And Master Secretary is always so pleasant and useful.
Bringing up the Bodies is the opposite of a “guilty pleasure.” It’s a “virtuous romp.” Because it’s historical and literary, I can feel high-minded about it; but in fact, I am simply sucked in by the wild political soap opera, the machinations of an unholy alliance of politics and religion, and the works of a strange, enigmatic and compelling character, blended by a skilled and gifted writer.