Readers new to British author Hilary Mantel’s work through her 2009 novel, Wolf Hall, were introduced to a writer who can turn the oldest of stories into a spellbinding tale. What schoolchild doesn’t know the story of King Henry VIII and his six wives? Especially wife number two, the doomed schemer Anne Boleyn? But reading Wolf Hall, knowing the outcome didn’t mean a thing — Mantel’s story of Henry’s early reign, told through his right-hand-man, chief fixer and henchman Thomas Cromwell, lit up the early 16th century in such a way that for this reader, it was a rude shock to pause and realize that the early 21st was right outside the window.
Mantel’s portrait of Cromwell was a revelation, and won her the Man Booker Prize for literature.
For students of the era, Cromwell’s story was familiar — the commoner who rose to advise and control access to the king, the henchman who did the king’s bidding, the closet Protestant who sent the Catholic Sir Thomas More to the executioner for blocking the king’s divorce and remarriage to Anne Boleyn. In her incandescent prose, Mantel showed a different side of Cromwell: a family man, a brilliant businessman and even a philanthropist of sorts, always looking out for those on the bottom rung of the ladder in need of a leg up.
But always, a fighter: “He had been fighting since he could walk,” Cromwell thinks of his childhood in Mantel’s new book, Bring Up the Bodies.
In Mantel’s new novel, the sequel to Wolf Hall, death has diminished Cromwell. His wife is dead. His beloved daughters are dead, all wiped out by the plague. As he confronts a member of the king’s chamber about Anne’s alleged infidelities, the man, facing certain death, says he may die of grief. Cromwell shakes his head:
“He once thought it himself, that he might die of grief: for his wife, his daughters, his sisters, his father and master the cardinal. But the pulse, obdurate, keeps its rhythm. You think you cannot keep breathing, but your ribcage has other ideas, rising and falling, emitting sighs. You must thrive in spite of yourself; and so that you may do it, God takes out your heart of flesh, and gives you a heart of stone.”
This transformation makes Bring Up the Bodies a grimmer book than its predecessor. Cromwell’s world is narrowing, and his motives are threefold: 1. Survival. 2. Pleasing the king (see number one). 3. Revenge on the scheming aristocrats who brought down his mentor, Cardinal Wolsey.
Events are set in motion when Henry tires of Anne Boleyn. He falls in love with Jane Seymour, a quiet, enigmatic girl for whom the phrase “plain Jane” was first coined. In one of many simple and eloquent summations, Mantel writes of Jane: “She is a plain young woman with a silvery pallor, a habit of silence, and a trick of looking at men as if they represent an unpleasant surprise.”
Anne was aggressive. The king wants demure. Anne was a schemer. Henry wants simplicity (though the Seymours scheme nearly as well as the Boleyns). Most important, Anne has borne a daughter, and Henry ardently desires a son.
Cromwell sets out to do the king’s dirty work.
The hardest part for Wolf Hall readers to swallow in Bring Up the Bodies may be the fact that in the first book, Cromwell was a sympathetic character. In Bring Up the Bodies, he is an understandable character, but that understanding requires a considerably darker view of human nature.
Cromwell’s job is to help the King dissolve his marriage, and the strategy is to prove that Anne was unfaithful multiple times — even with her brother. As Cromwell interrogates doomed members of the court who may or may not have slept with Anne, he is a wonder and a terror to behold. Cajoling, prevaricating, entrapping, he sets them on the road to the executioner, with actual guilt strictly a side issue. The men who brought Wolsey down are particular targets for Cromwell, and he dispatches them without mercy.
Cruel work. But there’s something about these books that makes you feel that we live in a paler time, that something vital has washed out of the world. “These days are perfect,” Mantel writes of the summer the king courts Jane. “The clear untroubled light picks out each berry shimmering in a hedge. Each leaf of a tree, the sun behind it, hangs like a golden pear ...
“In this part of England our forefathers the giants left their earthworks, their barrows and standing stones ... War was their nature, and war is always keen to come again. It’s not just the past you think of, as you ride these fields. It’s what’s latent in the soil, what’s breeding; it’s the days to come, the wars unfought, the injuries and deaths that, like seeds, the soil of England is keeping warm. You would think, to look at Henry laughing, to look at Henry praying, to look at him leading his men through the forest path, that he sits as secure on his throne as he does on his horse. Looks can deceive.”
Anyone can go online and find out what happened to Anne Boleyn; also Cromwell, whose fate will almost certainly play out in the third book in this projected trilogy. Never mind. This wonderful, terrible novel does an awful story full justice. You won’t be able to tear your eyes away.