Bring on the Prizes? Review of Hilary Mantel's Bring up the Bodies
The long awaited sequel to Hillary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize winning ‘Wolf Hall’, ‘Bring up the Bodies' marks the second instalment in this semi-biographical account of one of Tudor England’s most notorious statesmen. Following the life of Thomas Cromwell between the years 1533 and 1556, it charts the downfall of Henry VIII’s second wife Anne Boleyn as his third spouse, Jane Seymour, begins her rise to prominence.
Finding Cromwell, now Master Secretary, at the height of his powers, the intrigues of court and courtship are explored in astonishing detail as the realm’s most powerful commmoner seeks to resolve Henry’s ‘Great Matter’once and for all as, a reformer himself, he orchestrates the dissolution of the monasteries during what
was arguably one of the most turbulent decades in English History. Throughout this period, the acrimony between himself and his rivals, Bishop Steven Gardiner
and Anne Boleyn, the archetypal She-Wolf of Early Modern Europe, creates a tension which only the genius of Mantel can maintain, with even the more mundane
of scenes having an energy and drive due to their present tense narration and Mantel’s chilling, yet throwaway remarks about the realities of Tudor life, which have been facilitated by the much shorter focus of the book.
Much like its predecessor, this portrayal of the traditionally Machiavellian Cromwell appears comparatively sympathetic within the largely fictional narrative, as references to his dead wife and daughters, draw upon a softer edge to his character and lend their support to an image of him as perhaps a more caring and compassionate character than the Historical record so often suggests. Indeed, he is even described as ‘loving’ the late Cardinal Wolsey, his early mentor whom he eventually came to replace and from whom he wisely distanced himself after the latter’s fall from grace.
However, in an attempt to remain within the realms of the currently accepted historical fact, as propagated by authors and historians alike (see CJ Sansom’s recent biography in the Mail Online), Mantel also explores the darker elements of his personality, showing his involvement in the torture of fated courtier, Sir Thomas Culpeper. Nevertheless, his actions always appear to be mitigated by his unwavering loyalty to his drooling, and increasingly drunken, lord and king, rather than a sadistic desire to inflict pain upon his rivals. Furthermore, Mantel also twists the historical evidence to support her argument in many ways, as she suggests that Cromwell’s ‘bark’ was invariably worse than his proverbial bite, with much of Culpeper’s initial terror appearing to come from a pair of ‘angel’s wings’, which were once owned by his dead daughter Anne.
However, in treading the well-worn path of school-curriculum History to its well-known conclusion, this book, for all its elements of genius, can feel a bit like a filler, bridging the gap between the excitement of Cromwell’s ascension and the apprehension of his downfall. Still a fantastic read though and a must for those wishing to whet their appetites in readiness for her finale. A great second offering.