Bring Up the Bodies

Bring Up The Bodies

Hilary Mantel

Henry Holt & Co.  2012.  410 pgs. with list of characters and genealogical charts.

Book 2 of the Wolf Hall Trilogy:  novels about Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s secretary.  The first of the series was Wolf Hall; we’re waiting for the third and last novel.

Other books I’ve read by Mantel:  not enough.  I read the acclaimed Wolf Hall last year (winner of the Man Booker Prize, 2009) and of course I admired it greatly but I found it….a bit dense.  I also started and put down:  A Place of Greater Safety, which is about the French Revolution.  I’m definitely going back and trying that one again at some point.

I know, I know!  At this rate I’m never going to finish the Guardian 1,000 list!  I just keep getting distracted by too many delicious detours and when my mother in law sent me Bring Up the Bodies, I knew I was going to have to go off track again.

Bring Up the Bodies takes place during a very short, but eventful period at the court of the Tudor monarch, Henry VIII:    September, 1535 to May-June, 1536.  Henry waited long and fought hard to marry his second queen, Anne Boleyn.  Unfortunately, Anne has disappointed Henry in many ways.  Despite her promises, she has delivered no heir, her ambitious family has alienated various court factions, she plots and schemes for the French and she exhausts Henry with her incessant hatred of his former wife, Katherine of Aragon and his daughter:  Mary.  The days of Henry’s infatuation with Anne are long-gone and he returns again and again to the quiet, peaceful and somewhat vacuous side of Jane Seymour for comfort.

So….who is there to make sure Anne is removed?  Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s low-born, ambitious and powerful Secretary.  An enigma to many — a focus of jealousy and hatred for some — Cromwell once again takes center stage in Mantel’s brilliant portrayal of policy, strategy and intrigue in a world shaped by the personal desires of a despotic and sick king, and where a queen’s very life depends on the frailties of her own biology.  Within this world, we don’t really know who Cromwell is — is he the abused child of the London slums he came from — a ruthless mercenary — a loving and sympathetic father and uncle — an international intellectual and diplomat — or merely the instrument of Henry’s policies?  In this second book of the trilogy, we know Cromwell thinks sadly and fondly of his former boss and patron, the fallen Cardinal Wolsey.  He effectively and strategically affects the dissolution of religious houses, making Henry a very rich king in the process — but we really don’t know what his own religious views are.

I loved this book and couldn’t turn the pages fast enough.  It reads more quickly and the dialogue is more accessible and somehow, less dense than Wolf Hall.  As Mantel says in the author’s note to Bring up the Bodies:  “This book is of course not about Anne Boleyn or about Henry VIII, but about the career of Thomas Cromwell, who is still in need of attention from biographers.  Mr. Secretary remains sleek, plump and densely inaccessible, like a choice plum in a Christmas pie; but I hope to continue my efforts to dig him out.”

Can’t wait to dig into the third and last book of the trilogy to get a taste of what Mantel will offer us!  Knowing some history, I’m both fearful, and curious — about the ending.

Thomas Cromwell

Portrait of Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein