When I closed Bring Up the Bodies, the last word and the final page read, I felt bereft. During the first half of 1536, the Tudor court is shaken to its core as Henry VIII seeks to rid himself of his second queen, Anne Boleyn. The job is given to Thomas Cromwell, the untitled son of a blacksmith and now Secretary to the King. The court watches and shifts, some are related to the Queen, some are her friends, her admirers, and many are her enemies. The ground isn’t steady beneath the feet. Foreign emperors and kings look on from the edges, royal children are kept in the wings, and there, in its very midst, is the reader. For three days, I was in the heart of Thomas Cromwell’s world, privy to all his thoughts, witness to what he saw, thanks to Hilary Mantel.
Wolf Hall, Booker winner for 2009, was no doubt a difficult act to follow but Bring Up the Bodies, tighter, shorter, more focused, more than matches its predecessor.
In Wolf Hall, the name of the family home of the Seymour family, we witness the rise of Cromwell as well as the rise of Anne Boleyn. There is a complicated and uneasy relationship between the two. Each appears to aid the other but it is at the cost of Cardinal Wolsey, Cromwell’s beloved master. Throughout, Cromwell keeps a reckoning. We also watch the growth of Cromwell’s family, his marriage, his daughters, the women he covets and the servants he patronises. Wolsey isn’t Anne’s only victim, Wolf Hall follows the path of Thomas More, Henry’s Chancellor, to the scaffold.
Henry VIII’s inner court is small, incestuous, self-seeking, split between followers of Queen Katherine and Queen Anne. All whisper in the ear of the King. Henry flitters, seeming to believe he is ruled by his heart. An outsider, Thomas Cromwell knows exactly what is going on, not least because he has ears everywhere and his hands firmly on the strings.
Bring Up the Bodies focuses on the early months of 1536. Katherine awaits death while Queen Anne is pregnant, uncomfortable and bad tempered. She has so far failed to give Henry the son he craves, with Elizabeth the sole surviving child. The King is surrounded by Anne’s relatives – not that any of them (except perhaps her brother) would raise a hand to support her – and he finds refuge in the company of Cromwell and his new favourite, Jane Seymour. The very antithesis of Anne, Jane is meek and, to Henry, quiet. Undemanding. It isn’t too long before Cromwell has another task on his hands and he sets to it. Events move fast.
I know a little about these years and to me, and I’m sure to other people, Thomas Cromwell has always seemed a monster, second only to the grotesque ogre of the king himself. He was the tool of the king, turning his thoughts into deeds, using instruments of torture and execution to fulfil Henry’s desires and shape his policy. Feared by everyone until finally he paid the price due to him.
But, however true or distorted this image is of Thomas Cromwell, Hilary Mantel achieves the seemingly impossible by managing to bring us inside Cromwell’s mind while, at the same time, still allowing us to see him from the outside in. She juggles perspectives as if it were the easiest way to write. We are never far from Cromwell’s shoulder and yet we are given little glimpses of how Cromwell is seen outside the walls of the court. Rumours are rife surrounding Cromwell’s use of torture or his cruel measures to rid himself of nuisance husbands. Here we have the hints but it’s almost as if Cromwell hides it from himself – or is he just hiding it from us?
There were at least a couple of moments while reading Bring Up the Bodies that I actually felt shocked and had to re-read sections. The spark produced by the clash of perspectives.
There is intense drama in Bring Up the Bodies, but it doesn’t take the shape of battles, of monasteries being robbed or rebellious subjects marching. Jousts are reported but we don’t go to them. Violence is imagined and even acted out in a mime but we don’t see it. What happens to those who are interrogated is left ghostly. In this novel, lives are lost with careless words, with the glance from a lady, the lusty smile of a king, the mockery of a dangerous man.
With the drama largely confined within walls, it is expressed with the most heightened imagery. Animals stalk the court of Henry VIII while birds fly through it, picking off the weak. Angels and ghosts watch on.
While Thomas Cromwell is the subject of Bring Up the Bodies, Anne Boleyn is a mesmerising figure. Sometimes she is an exciting, witty woman but much of the time she is barely human, angular, old before her time, with dark shadows, friendless, mimicked by her fool, loved by fools. It’s difficult not to feel sorry for her and, when the inevitable comes, it is tragic. Henry, meanwhile, is becoming a shadow of what he once was, he falls asleep, drooling at the dinner table, he has an ulcerous sore on his leg, he feels less of a man, guilty for wasting his seed. Cromwell looks on, nothing is too menial. He even rushes to the Queen’s fiery bedchamber to put out its flames.
You don’t need to read Wolf Hall before Bring Up the Bodies, it stands well alone as the telling of these last months in the life of Anne Boleyn. It benefits from this focus. But in order to realise fully what is happening to Anne and what has shaped Cromwell, I’d suggest you’d want to read Wolf Hall.
The Mirror and the Light, will complete the story.