Bring Up the Bodies

Maybe you’ve already read the history of the mercurial Henry VIII and his wives? Maybe you’ve watched the Showtime series – the Tudors – and have met the villain Cromwell? Maybe you read Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize winner, Wolf Hall, and discovered a different Cromwell? Maybe not, but the power of Mantel’s continuation of Thomas Cromwell’s influential life will still overwhelm you in her sequel – Bring Up the Bodies.

So many well-written reviews have been posted and published, that you can easily find the summary of this tale and praise for Mantel’s character invention:

“Historically, the royal adviser is considered an unscrupulous bully. In Mantel’s books, he is — like any other man — much more than his reputation”…from NPR

But Mantel’s gift is not in the rehash of history or even her humanizing of a man often seen as a manipulator yet a great statesman who changed the course of history. It’s in the details of daily life, secret dreams, unsure emotions, and the pieces of a mind that the outer world never sees. If you missed the background in Wolf Hall, Mantel graciously revisits Cromwell’s common beginnings (the son of a brewer and blacksmith) – important to understanding the disdain of nobility who were jealous of Cromwell’s influence with the king – and his training under Cardinal Wolsey, his disgraced mentor.

The dead or soon-to-be-dead bodies are everywhere as Cromwell juggles the king’s changing moods, the country’s lack of funds, Queen Anne’s decline into a nervous shrew, and his own ambitions. The focus in this sequel concentrates on Cromwell during the months that Anne Boleyn was Queen, until she fell out of favor and made way for Jane Seymour.

Mantel’s Cromwell is at once despicable and admirable. Revealing Cromwell’s inner soul, as only she can imagine it, Mantel offers a little compassion for a man who is ruled by logic in a world consumed by emotion. Above all, Cromwell is alert to his precarious position – please the king or fall to the scorn of the nobles. Cromwell keeps a Black Book on how to proceed.

What a man would do to maintain power has not changed over the centuries – although the chopped off heads have become more figurative than literal. As I read, I fought an overwhelming inclination to identify Cromwell with an ambitious contemporary man I knew – a number cruncher who rose to power by his talent for logical decisions – unafraid to abandon allies when they were no longer useful, even destroying them when necessary, and like Cromwell, taking revenge at any slights. “His whole career…an education in hypocrisy.” Maybe that is part of Mantel’s magic – discovering ways to identify with a public persona and revealing the man beneath the surface. You still may not like him, but you might be able to better understand his motivation.

Although you know the ending, Mantel still maintains the suspense; as Anne Boleyn walked to her execution, I almost expected a last minute reprieve – as Anne herself hopes. The humorous asides and personal agonies flesh out the historical characters, especially Cromwell. And who knows, maybe that’s really how it all happened behind closed doors.

Cromwell is coming back in the third book of Mantel’s series – I can’t wait.

Related Post: Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall

If you like the Tudor saga and all those Phillipa Gregory novels, you will savor Wolf Hall.  Immediately, you’ll see the difference in quality from Gregory’s historical fiction bordering on pulp romance to Hilary Mantel’s well-researched story with Thomas Cromwell as the focus.

Thomas Cromwell, a commoner, self-made man with up-by-his-bootstraps success, was the ultimate politician – eyes open, ears listening, and ready to tell you what you want to hear – in this case, the most famous audience being Henry VIII.   Mantel showcases Cromwell’s shrewdness and intelligence in a time of fools and conniving noblemen, but Cromwell’s humanity – the side we usually only see of politicians when they are involved in ludicrous or humiliating activity – shows a man with common sense and the talent for getting ahead.

If you are wondering if you really need to read yet another novel about the machinations of Henry VIII’s appetite for a new bride every now and then, it’s really Cromwell’s historic influence at the forefront here.   This is the Cromwell who engineered the Reformation and the installation of Anne Boleyn as Queen; not Oliver, who later managed to overthrow the monarchy.

The story dates from Thomas Cromwell as a boy, through Cardinal Wolsey, and finally Thomas More.  Mantel shows the human side – warts and all – as these men interact and try to one-up each other. But it’s Cromwell, the man, who will keep you reading.   Mantel uses his frank asides and private comments  to show Cromwell as the one who can see the king has no clothes, but is smart enough not to say so.

Navigating politics is dangerous, and Cromwell wonders at first if he should have made his fortune in law, and avoided all the pitfalls of court. In Mantel’s portrait, it’s not only the power that draws him in, but also the possibility of making a difference – a change. Cromwell’s reputation for getting things done gets him noticed, by promoters as well as enemies. As today, competition is tough, and friends become expendable as he makes his way up the ladder.

Thomas More doesn’t seem as saintly as history later paints him; he does make the right decision for eventual canonization when he favors the church over the king – and opens another niche for Cromwell, whose political savvy keeps him on the right team – through this novel anyway.

This is a long book that cannot be read lightly. Mantel conveniently provides charts of the English line of royalty, and lists of players for each venue; they help, and you will find yourself referring back to them frequently – if only to keep all the Thomases straight.
Cromwell’s world is full of meetings – small and large – within and without the family – with those who can help him in his ambition and with those on the wane. It’s complicated; the drama and intrigue mixed with survival and everyday incidents.

If you slept through European History 101, or if you just can’t keep all those dukes and wives clear, you might want to check on the English Tudor site for Cromwell, Boleyn, More, and Seymour. I did – about halfway through. The story is well-known, so no surprises, but it did give some perspective on the conversations. …

In Wolf Hall, Mantel takes Cromwell as his star is rising and ends her novel with the death of Thomas More. Seems she is working on a sequel that continues with the Seymours.   You

remember Jane Seymour? Next wife in line after Anne Boleyn. The title takes its name from the Seymours family estate, known as Wolf Hall, and according to the author, it’s a connecting point to the book’s sequel.

The book gives yet another perspective on that time in English history that continues to fascinate, and humanizes the flat stereotypes usually relegated to the players in the Tudor Rose court, especially Thomas Cromwell.