Wolf Hall won Hilary Mantel the Booker Prize for her account of Thomas Cromwell, and the role he played in the ascension of Anne Boleyn to the throne. I absolutely loved the book. Through Cromwell, Mantel found a fresh take on the Tudor era that we all know so well. The book was huge, but encompassed a very specific period of events, and ended, I thought, perfectly, so I was not without trepidation when I heard that it would now be the first in a trilogy. Would she ruin that ending - leaving us with our own knowledge of history to fill in the gaps - by fleshing it out for us? By the time Bring Up The Bodies arrived in its resplendent crimson and gold cover on bookshelves, my appetite had got the better of me. I couldn’t wait to dive back into Mantel’s version of Tudor England. It didn’t disappoint.
Rising up from his origins as a common London boy, Cromwell is now an established, powerful figure at court. He is the man Henry VIII trusts to get things done, and not without good reason. The only thing Cromwell cannot do is magic up the son Henry is so desperate for. Having rid him of one wife, it falls to Cromwell to rid him of the second. As we all know, this will end with Anne Boleyn on the executioners block, and Jane Seymour on the throne. It is how Cromwell, the Seymours, and the Boleyns get there that is so thrilling.
As familiar as the history is, the novel is about Cromwell. It is told exclusively from his point of view. Unusually, considering this is the case, Mantel does not use first person (I), but rather the third (he). We sit inside Cromwell’s head, and yet we are kept at ever so slight a distance by this choice of voice. It is the same technique used in Wolf Hall, with one slight difference. In the first book some readers found the unrelenting use of ‘he’ difficult to keep track of. For this novel, where Mantel thinks there may be some confusion as to who ‘he’ is, she specifies ‘he, Cromwell’. It does reduce the confusion that, I admit, I found a little distracting at the beginning of Wolf Hall until I got the hang of it. It also adds something to the text. In a sense his name becomes his own epithet. Cromwell becomes this incredibly solid presence, instead of the slippery figure he could be in Wolf Hall. This Cromwell is a powerful figure; his name invokes fear at court. Henry VIII might need his title to invoke his sense of power - Cromwell needs only his name.
Cromwell is a fantastic character: intelligent and cunning. If you are lucky he is a loyal friend; if not, being on Cromwell’s bad side is a dangerous place to be. He is an admirable character, and perhaps just likeable enough, despite his ruthlessness. Mantel does a fabulous job of fleshing him out as a man. His mind wanders throughout his life, flitting to memories of his childhood, his time in Europe, and the wife and two daughters who died young.
The dead hover throughout this novel, haunting Cromwell. Not without reason is the second group in the list of characters at the front of the book ‘The Dead’. It would be impossible to understand without knowledge, not just of his family, but also of the executed Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas More. A particularly beautiful passage at the beginning of the book, regarding Cromwell’s sometime adversary, Thomas More, was for me the moment I sunk completely into the world of this novel
What could he do but splash to the scaffold, on a day in July when the torrents never stopped, except for a brief hour in the evening and that too late for Thomas More; he died with his hose wet, splashed to the knees, and his feet paddling like a duck’s. He doesn’t exactly miss the man. It’s just that sometimes, he forgets he’s dead. It’s as if they’re deep in conversation, and suddenly the conversation stops, he says something and no answer comes back. As if they’d been walking along and More had dropped into a hole in the road, a pit as deep as a man, slopping with rainwater.
Other deaths haunt this novel. Because it is historical fiction, we know how it ends. Two deaths are important to our understanding, the first being the inevitable death of Henry VIII. The precarious position England would find itself in at his death is bought home by a historical occurrence early in the novel: Henry’s jousting accident in 1536. He was badly injured - it is said it was believed to be fatal at the time - and it is known that within days Anne had miscarried a male child. Mantel makes clear, through Cromwell’s frantic mind, that if the King dies, England would be on the brink of civil war. Henry may be verging on the tyrannical at this point, but an England without Henry is unthinkable. Anne’s failure to produce an heir is now unforgivable.
The second death is that of Cromwell himself. I know when his life ends, I can look up the exact date of his death. I know the means, but I don’t really know the how. Nor does Cromwell. He does know that a world without Henry VIII is not one that will be kind to him. His position at court is dependant on Henry’s goodwill. Mind you, this could be said of almost anybody. Cromwell has the advantage - while Henry is alive, if he is clever enough, ruthless enough, he can stay in Henry’s favour. Therefore he does whatever it takes to keep Henry happy. Perhaps the key lines to the novel are these thoughts as the trial of the men accused of adultery with Anne Boleyn approaches
He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged.
Mantel assumes a certain level of historical knowledge, and plays with it. She plants seeds of ideas throughout the novel, hinting at what we know for these peoples’ future. She stays within the facts of history, but it is her ideas of how it unfolds that make it so gripping. The biggest criticism that can be made of this book is that it is so clearly a second book in the trilogy; it just isn’t quite satisfying enough - I immediately wanted the third book to read, which is hardly the sign of a bad book. It may be familiar ground to that covered in Wolf Hall, but it is such an interesting period of history that there are plenty of ideas for Mantel to explore. I enjoyed every page; the prose, the characters and the Tudor world are all beautifully rendered.