Warning: Spoilers (although if you know anything about Tudor history, you will already know the ending anyway!).
A little while ago I reviewed Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize winning Wolf Hall, and loved it so much I gave it a 5/5! I now regret that, and not because I have decided I didn’t like the book as much as I originally thought, but because I can’t mark its sequel (and also a Man Booker Prize Winning novel) Bring Up The Bodies any higher!
Beginning a couple of months after Wolf Hall ends, Bring Up The Bodies follows Thomas Cromwell throughout the months up to and during Anne Boleyn’s downfall, and the breakdown of Henry VIII’s second marriage. As part of Cromwell’s fame as something of a villain is due to his turning on Anne Boleyn, Mantel’s sympathetic portrayal of him gets even more interesting in her telling of such a shocking period of history – the execution of a Queen.
Yet again, Hilary Mantel’s unique present-tense style is captivating, and the characters perfectly drawn. Cromwell, who I praised in Wolf Hall as being both ruthless and charismatic, here becomes even more complex, and his morals even more dubious as he becomes embroiled in Anne Boleyn and her supposed suitors’ trials. He is tasked with uncovering the Queen’s unfaithfulness (whether she is actually guilty or not), and is to do so by whatever means necessary. Whilst he never resorts to torture, his ingenuity results in him variously tripping up and incriminating the four men who go to trial, who just happen to be the very men who harried his mentor Cardinal Wolsey to death. At points it is implied that he doubts the guilt of those he is trying to have convicted, but the King, already enamoured with plain Jane Seymour, wants rid of his second wife, and Cromwell, as always, is the man who gets the King what he wants.
Yet again Henry VIII is shown as a slightly pompous figure, who is constantly being manipulated by the various people around him, and leaves the dirty work to Cromwell . Whilst he isn’t an altogether unlikable character, his unwillingness to take any blame for anything and the way he can forget the unpleasant things (like having his wife beheaded) by simply leaving it to other people makes him come across as something of a coward.
Anne Boleyn herself is a well-drawn but not particularly admirable character, being courageous and ambitious, but with a viscous streak. Prior to her own downfall she constantly plots that of others, persistently trying to have the King’s daughter Mary put to death, and making enemies out of most of the court. Her flirtatious nature also comes back to haunt her, when her actions are used as evidence of affairs, and in the end, as she walks feebly up to her execution you definitely pity her and the sudden reversal of her fortunes.
The danger of the Tudor court, in which anyone who rises can suddenly fall is perfectly captured by Hilary Mantel, and I think this is partly through using Thomas Cromwell as the main character. As an incredibly clever, scrupulous man, he sees the court much like a game, and the people the players. As the king’s right hand man he has control of the board, but at the same time he knows that his own meteoric rise could end in a massive fall, and is constantly guarded against it, as he makes his own share of enemies. In Wolf Hall he was on the side of the Howards and Boleyns as he fought for the King’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon, whilst in Bring Up The Bodies he switches sides and takes up with the enemies of the Boleyns, fully aware that they could turn on him once she has been brought down. This gives the novel a distinct air of danger, with Cromwell acting as the ‘before the fall’, and Anne Boleyn as the ‘after the fall’, and you fear for Cromwell as you fear for Anne.
Although I loved both books, the reason I wish I could rate Bring Up The Bodies higher than Wolf Hall is the pacing. Bring Up The Bodies is a shorter book, in which a lot more happens, meaning it is considerably faster paced. From Cromwell’s original meeting with the musician Mark Smeaton (one of those accused of having an affair with Anne Boleyn), in which he tricks him into saying he has slept with Anne, everything seems to snowball, and suddenly the Queen of England is heading to her execution following closely on the deaths of four of the King’s closest friends. As the story of Anne Boleyn’s death is well-known, and has been retold in literature over and over, it is definitely a credit to Mantel that she has managed to write something that is totally unique and captivating, the effortless prose and characters of immense depth drawing you deep into the dangerous world of the Tudor court.