What a fabulous book!
It is rare that I anticipate a book as eagerly as this one; rare that a sequel can live up to the expectations of the first book; rare that historical fiction can grip me quite so intently! But Mantel manages all this in Bring Up The Bodies which, in my opinion, outshines the original Wolf Hall.
The original book had charted the rise of Thomas Cromwell and Anne Boleyn and the fall from grace of Cardinal Wolsey. This book, in which Cromwell is at the height of his powers, charts the fall, trial and execution of Anne Boleyn and her replacement by Jane Seymour.
Is that a spoiler? It’s historical, there was never any doubt about the outcome. If so, what’s the point of reading it? The ending is mapped out by my (somewhat cloudy) GCSE History; the plot twists and turns that, say, C. P. Sansom relies on cannot appear here. The delight is in the people, the life, the humanity that Mantel’s language brings to what had been just names before! She invites us into a new and vibrant world populated by some of the most complete people that I have ever met in fiction.
In fact, Mantel’s language explicitly does invite us in: the present tense, the occasional first person plural pronoun that places her world before “us” as “we” explore it. By instinct, these overly writerly techniques to bridge the 500 years gap between us and the Tudors would usually irk me. But here they work exceptionally well.
Let us consider the title: “Bring up the bodies” is the cry to bring the prisoners out of the Tower to face their trial. But Cromwell is also haunted – so so haunted – by ghosts that it is almost tearjerking. The opening image is of him hawking with hawks named for his dead children. We are told that “when the house is quiet… then dead people walk about” in Austin Friars; the Christmas costume that he had made ten year previously for his daughter reminds him “Do not forget us. As the year turns, we are here: a whisper, a touch, a feather’s breath from you”; following an argument with Henry, he recalls advice his father gave him and “is glad his father is with him”; the final image in the book is of a page turned over and displaying the remnants of “the cardinal’s writing… so he can see the dead hand that inscribed them”. In fact, despite being dead, Wolsey’s presence is so frequent and integral to Cromwell he deserves to be cited in the dramatis personae at the start of the book.
This is a book resonant with imagery that is redolent with symbolism but also rooted in the world if the book. The hawks circling their prey in the opening pages parallels Anne’s waiting women circling and betraying her; the proverb book given by Henry to Jane and still bearing the jewel encrusted “A” for Anne and the marks of the “K” beneath it like a palimpsest is hugely and wonderfully evocative of the effect on our lives of all our past encounters.
And finally onto the big question: how is Cromwell himself portrayed? Enigmatic and shadowy in history, “sleek, plump and densely inaccessible” as Mantel describes him. Here, he is perhaps less sympathetically portrayed than in Wolf Hall. He is certainly utterly imposing: the moment when he is beside the injured King and
seems to body out and fill all the space around the fallen man. He sees himself, as if he were watching from the canvas above: his girth expands, even his height. So that he occupies even more ground. So that he takes up more space, breathes more air, is planted and solid when Norfolk careers into him, twitching, trembling. So he is a fortress on a rock, serene, and Thomas Howard just bounces back from his walls, wincing, flinching and blethering.
This is almost a Gandalf The Grey moment facing the Balrog!
And his conduct of the interviews with Anne’s women and then her four alleged suitors and her brother is utterly chilling. He shows an utter lack of compulsion or interest in whether the five men were guilty as charged. As he tells us: he was charged to find guilty men; and the men he found were guilty of something. When Gregory asks “Were they guilty?” he meant had they slept with Anne; Cromwell heard the question asking if the court had found then guilty.
Nor is he trustworthy: as he said to Thomas Wyatt, he cannot split himself into two men, one his friend and the other the King’s man. Nothing can be said to him in confidence that it will not be used against you later.
Yet he is still wholly compelling! His utter self assurance is refreshing; his splashes of humanity and disregard for others who mock Anne even as the preparations for her execution are made; his concern for his son; and, above all his loneliness and his ghosts all humanise him.