Bring up the Bodies (2012): Hilary Mantel

★★★★ ½

Like many other people (the vast majority of the British public, it seems), I thoroughly enjoyed Wolf Hall and was thrilled when I heard that Hilary Mantel was writing a sequel. I’m pleased to report that Bring up the Bodies offers another satisfying dose of Elizabethan intrigue and treachery, told in Mantel’s strikingly pared-back prose. She focuses not on sets, costumes and locations, but on the events that unfold, the relationships that form and fade between the members of the court, and the man who stands to one side, watching and weighing them.

Mantel’s writing is refreshing and pacey; her language is never inappropriately modern, but it nevertheless feels like dialogue that could actually be spoken. Once again the book is entirely written in the present tense, which works amazingly well and keeps the story bowling hurriedly along. And a sense of speed – of events almost careening along out of control – is especially significant in this book.

It is 1535 and we plunge back into the mind of Thomas Cromwell, as he attempts to keep Henry VIII happy and his court loyal – a far from easy task.  Henry is beginning to tire of Anne Boleyn and his eye creeps towards the meek and modest Jane Seymour. Cromwell must judge which way the wind is blowing, and do what he judges best for the realm – and for himself, of course.  Mantel’s character is delightfully complex: he’s always conscious of his humble roots in Putney, but he’s no less conscious of the skills he’s picked up from his unorthodox youth as a mercenary in Italy, a banker in Florence and a student of the human psyche. He is not a good man, in a moral sense, but he is loyal, honest and amazingly sharp.  Like all the most engaging fictional characters, he lives in shades of grey. He cares about what makes people tick, how you can rule, and how to apply just the right pressure at just the right time to make someone behave. And he is prepared to sacrifice those who are no longer useful or who start to cause difficulties for him.

Mantel creates a very plausible practical mind – which is all too prepared to put sentimentality aside.  She also shines in her depiction of Cromwell’s ‘family’, which is a vivid Renaissance household, made up not of a modern nuclear family, but of relatives, servants, informants, wards and general hangers-on; his house is a blend of home, office and fortress.  Similarly, court life is shown in all its claustrophobic detail: parted from their families, confined in a hothouse atmosphere, the ladies and gentlemen have little to fill their time but rumour, temptation and jealousy.

The story of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn has been rather over-exposed recently, thanks to The Other Boleyn Girl (in book, TV and film form) and The Tudors.  I enjoyed the first two seasons of The Tudors, although I didn’t bother with later seasons, and admittedly I find it hard to imagine Anne Boleyn as anyone other than Natalie Dormer. Similarly, the Cromwell in my mind is James Frayn’s calculating manipulator rather than Holbein’s stout, jowly politician. But although her path is well-trodden, Mantel makes the story seem fresh and new, not least in showing how breathlessly quick was Anne Boleyn’s fall. Her characters live and breathe, seen through Cromwell’s unforgiving and unrelenting scrutiny. The only false point for me was Mark Smeaton’s confession: I didn’t believe that the character would start boasting about the queen to Cromwell, of all people. But otherwise it’s wonderfully-written and ferociously readable.

This was one case where my Kindle came into its own: had I bought the hardback copy, I’d have been rather less keen to lug it around with me and so it would have been much harder to lose myself as entirely as I did. I understand that Mantel plans to continue Cromwell’s story – and I’ll definitely be queuing up for the next instalment.

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