Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel book cover
Bring up the Bodies (2012) picks up where Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel's previous novel about the rise of Thomas Cromwell, left off. Here we see Cromwell, now Master Secretary, at the height of his powers, dictating and manipulating the court around him. Anne Boleyn's final pregnancy has failed and, without a male heir, Henry's lecherous eye turns to the meek Jane Seymour – polar opposite of the fiery Anne. Once more Cromwell is required to manoeuvre the king out of his marriage and into the arms of another women. With the Catholics of Rome still fighting against England's split from the church, Cromwell has to balance foreign affairs with Henry's increasingly egotistical demands, entertaining diplomats whilst plotting the downfall and eventual execution of Anne on suspect counts of adultery, sweeping away with her those courtiers who most threaten his position of power.

Here we have a much stabler plot than that of Wolf Hall, with no great rise to prominence for Cromwell, but rather an exploration of the machinations used to retain power, and manipulate king and court to his own ends. Cromwell, now without family, and certainly without friends, is a man that keeps his own counsel, a man divorced from those around him both by virtue of his birth and of his current position. In this sense the interior and exterior worlds blend, Cromwell creating his own reality and imposing it on the court around him. Indeed, the illusion of truth and Cromwell's abuses of it as he creates his own fiction is both sinister and poignant, his manipulation of facts to fit the reality he requires an almost philosophical comment on the Mantel's part.

There is something very modern about Mantel's representation of power and influence, and this will resonate with contemporary readers who daily rub up against ill-refined politicking. However, Bring up the Bodies looks back also, touching on the historical role of women. In the sixteenth century women generally held little power over their own lives, but Anne rises above this notion and, having previously brought down Wolsey, she here sets herself against Cromwell, whose rise was intrinsically linked with her own. That she steps over the gender boundaries of the day means that, in order for stability to be regained, she cannot live.

As in Wolf Hall, Mantel brings the character of Cromwell alive, drawing out psychological complexity from historical fact, and creating a compelling protagonist whose sardonic musings about the world that surrounds him draw the reader round to his point of view effortlessly. Indeed, Cromwell's first-person narrative means that the reader takes in the Tudor world through his own very biased viewpoint; glossing over his own deficiencies and demonising others: previously it had been Thomas More, here, to a lesser extent, it is Anne and her accused lovers. Religion and money too are viewed through Cromwell's warped, although curiously modern, perspective. Equally, Anne is afforded a far more rounded character than many Tudor fictions have allowed; here proving humane and sinister by turns.

Mantel's writing is glorious – her extensive historical knowledge allowing her to recreate the atmosphere of the Tudor court, complete with compelling characters, subtly and without burdening the reader with unnecessary information; here truly, the beauty is in the detail. The prose is judged just about right: accessible to the modern reader, but with turns of phrase that feel at home in the Tudor times. That the reader is aware of the novel's conclusion before they have even begun it lends itself to the seemingly inexorable campaign that Cromwell wages against Anne – the inevitability of her fate adding to the sense of immense power that Cromwell wields: once his mind is set, there is little that can stand in his way.

Mantel imposes a number of contemporary leanings on Cromwell and the reader is aware throughout that this is a masterful piece of historical fiction, but fiction nonetheless. Bring up the Bodies is to be the second novel in a trilogy and, even as Cromwell watches on as Anne's body is dismembered, the reader is acutely aware that his own demise is creeping steadily forward, the violence he has done to others snaking it's way back to him.

After enjoying Wolf Hall, I was thoroughly delighted to find that this picked up the plot almost seamlessly, Mantel inhabiting her Cromwell so completely as to make the writing appear effortless.

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Review: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Wolf Hall (2009) is Hilary Mantel’s award-winning historical novel, which traces Thomas Cromwell’s rapid ascent, from his humble origins to his position as one of the most powerful men in Tudor England. Although elements of Cromwell’s early life... [Read More]