I read Wolf Hall and was blown away by the quality of the writing, depth of characterisation and vivid worldbuilding – see my review here. Would I enjoy the sequel as much?
Bring Up the Bodies unlocks the darkly glittering court of Henry VIII, where Thomas Cromwell is now chief minister. With Henry captivated by plain Jane Seymour and rumours of Anne Boleyn’s faithlessness whispered by all, Cromwell knows what he must do to secure his position. But the bloody theatre of the queen’s final days will leave no one unscathed…
I called this a sequel, but Mantel has written this in such a way that it stands alone and prior knowledge of Wolf Hall is completely unnecessary. Although I suppose if you come to Bring Up the Bodies without accessing Cromwell’s earlier life, you may find the present tense and confusion between his internal dialogue and spoken words a slight obstacle before you completely relax into this book. This time around, it didn’t remotely bother me – I already knew that Mantel was far too adroit a technician to mishandle fundamentals like tense and viewpoint.
Once more, I was impressed at the speed and ease with which I was drawn into this hectic, cagey world of Henry VIII’s court. I studied this period of history at O level, A level and as a major component of my History degree – in addition I also played Margaret in Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons at the Brownsea Island Open Air Theatre longer ago than I care to remember. So I’m not going to be seduced by any ‘shocking’ twists in this cat’s cradle of political and romantic intrigue – I already thoroughly know who the main players are and how it’s all going to end. And yet, Mantel still had me beguiled by Anne’s mood swings as she tries to produce the much-needed male heir in the face of Henry’s increasing intolerance for her smart mouth and sharp-edged brilliance.
Mantel’s depiction of Thomas Cromwell is mesmerising. He is wearier, more cynical and bitterly aware of just how precarious his position is – and still determined to see certain people in Henry’s court suffer for a particular insulting piece of court buffoonery at Wolsey’s expense just after his fall from grace. Despite seeing the world through our protagonist’s intelligent viewpoint, there were times when I shivered at Cromwell’s cold determination to be revenged on those who so publically disrespected his former patron – and recalled that in most accounts of this period, Cromwell is depicted as the main villain of the piece. A role he is only too well aware he is playing – and why. Henry needs someone to blame for his more unpopular policies when he is busy being ‘good king Hal’. Anyone who is in any doubt about his ruthlessness, however, can ponder at his personal decision to mark Catherine of Aragon’s death by wearing yellow in celebration, or his determined pursuit of Jane Seymour even as Anne is languishing in prison.
It is fascinating watching events unfold through the prism of Cromwell’s viewpoint – and feel the jolt as the list of names of those reputed to have shared Anne’s bed grows ever longer… It is a testament to Mantel’s writing that for the first time in a very long while, I shared Cromwell’s sense of horror when the fragile Tudor dynasty teeters, thanks to a faithless queen. As the book came to an end, I was sorry to leave the brutal, knife-edged world Cromwell inhabits – and delighted to realise that Mantel is intending to write the next instalment in this complicated character’s life.
If you have ever enjoyed any of the many fictionalised accounts about Henry VIII’s reign, then track down both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Both are a tour de force and thoroughly deserving of the Man Booker prize – and if I was asked to choose between them, then it would have to be Bring Up the Bodies – for the sheer brilliance in braiding the historical facts amongst the created characterisation of Cromwell. For once, the hyperbole splashed across the cover is merited when the Sunday Telegraph critic declares, ‘This ongoing story of Henry VIII’s right-hand man is the finest piece of historical fiction I have ever read.’ Which neatly sums up exactly how I also felt about this particular book.