BRING UP THE BODIES by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate, 2012)
I enjoyed this historic novel but didn’t find it quite as enthralling as Wolf Hall. Possibly this is down to the fact that I knew more what to expect but also could be because Thomas Cromwell seems less Machiavellian this time around. I missed the fact that he had no intellectual equal to play off against. Thomas More fulfilled this role in Wolf Hall but, by the time the sequel starts, More has gone the way of many others by being executed.
More’s fate served as a reminder that no one was free of the threat of public execution simply for disagreeing with the royal policy. An abrupt end hung over anyone who falls out of favour with Henry or the church, which in England, after a rejection of papal rule from Rome, amounted to the same thing.
The novel begins in 1535 with a hunting scene and “riot of dismemberment” and ends a year later in similarly bloody fashion with human victims.
Cromwell is well established as Henry’s trusted advisor but is under no illusions that, for the most part, he is treading on thin ice. One false step could prove fatal.
His big headache is Anne Boleyn who like her predecessor, Katherine of Aragon, is unable to produce the male heir Henry so desperately craves. The impatient King has already lined up plain Jane Seymour as her successor.
Anne’s downfall is further assured as rumours abound of her unfaithfulness with a string of male suitors and it is even said that she had incestuous relations with her own brother George.
Hilary Mantel does not claim authority for her version of events, admitting that her work is a speculation based on the extant, and often contradictory, historical evidence. In her author’s note, Mantel admires Anne as “a mercurial woman, elusive in her lifetime”; but her willful nature also made her a ticking time bomb.
Cromwell is depicted as an equally complex character who the author describes as “sleek, plump and densely inaccessible”. He meteoric rise to become the King’s secretary was due to his skills in diplomacy and ability to play his cards close to his chest.
Cromwell is respected for his “indefatigible attention to England’s business”. He is ruthless when he needs to be but never reckless. The suggestion is that he helped refine Henry’s bull in china shop technique but knows that the King has such a bloated ego he can’t abide being wrong: “He doesn’t want people who say ‘No, but….’ ; he wants people who say ‘Yes, and….”.
This is another fine novel that entertains while plugging the numerous gaps in my knowledge of English history.