Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel [A Review]

Having survived the downfall of his master, Cardinal Wolsey, and effected Henry VIII’s separation from Rome, marriage to Anne Boleyn and trial of Thomas More; Thomas Cromwell has risen far. Though, in such a fluid and dynamic environment, in England and abroad, Cromwell must balance taking his opportunities to further himself and his agenda with watching his back. In this second part of her Cromwell Trilogy, Hilary Mantel’s telling of Cromwell’s story is evolving too.

Cover Image of Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

It is 1535 and Henry VIII’s Master Secretary, Thomas Cromwell, now past middle-age, is growing rich and fat. Much has worked out well for Cromwell; Thomas More has been eliminated, the King is married to Anne Boleyn, the process of dissolving monasteries is underway and new opportunities are always arriving. One of those is an alliance with the Seymour family who reside at Wolf Hall. Henry has taken a fancy to Jane Seymour and Cromwell can see the advantage of Henry taking Jane as a mistress as Edward Seymour would make a useful ally.

When Wolsey fell, you might have thought that as Wolsey’s servant he was ruined. When his wife and daughters died, you might have thought his loss would kill him. But Henry has turned to him, Henry has sworn him in; Henry has put his name at his disposal and said, come, Master Cromwell, take my arm; through courtyards and throne rooms, his path in life is now made smooth and clear.

But the commoner from Putney knows that his rapid promotions to titles and estates does not mean he can rest easy in security. He has plenty of enemies, at home and abroad, who would like to see his downfall. International relations between England, France, the Empire and Rome need to be handled carefully. Henry’s whims remain dangerous and unpredictable, and the King is still without a male heir.

Late one night, the King summons him. Anxious and unable to sleep Henry wonders if his marriage to Anne offended God, wonders about her possible history with other men, in an echo of conversations Henry previously had with the late Cardinal Wolsey about his first wife, Katherine. Cromwell tries to reassure the King, tries to remind him he is master of his house, country and church but also learns his long-time rival, Stephen Gardiner, has been advising Henry with the aim of pushing him back towards his first wife and Rome.

Gardiner continues to look into Cromwell’s past, trying to find anything that could discredit and destroy him. There are rumours that Katherine is busy writing letters, urging the Pope to excommunicate Henry and the Emperor to invade England. Cromwell though, is not too concerned. He seems confident Gardiner will not find anything and, anyhow, Gardiner is soon dispatched to be ambassador to France. He doubts the Emperor would invade and risk leaving himself exposed to the French. And he knows Katherine is dying and mostly harmless, though he worries what may happen to her daughter, Mary, if she continues to defy her father.

Though he stays well-informed, with his hands in much of the realm’s business, things are already underway that even Cromwell is slow to pick up on.

That night he says to Richard Cromwell, ‘It was a bad moment for me. How many men can say, as I must, “I am a man whose only friend is the King of England”? I have everything, you would think. And yet take Henry away and I have nothing.’

Bring Up the Bodies is the second novel in Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell Series. It was awarded the Booker Prize in 2012, as had its predecessor, Wolf Hall, in 2009, making Mantel one of only a handful of writers to have won the prestigious prize twice.

I feel I do not have a huge amount to say about Bring Up the Bodies. Some things I want to keep to myself until I read the final book in the series, The Mirror and the Light. The rest I have already brought up in my review of Wolf Hall – aspects that continue in Bring Up the Bodies.

Among these is the fact that, for historical novels, Mantel does not include a lot of historical description to create a feeling of time and place in the reader. What she does provide is more specific yet elusive and difficult to describe and, if anything, I noticed a little more of it in this novel than in Wolf Hall. An example of this method comes early in Part 2 of Bring Up the Bodies. Here, a tournament is underway and Cromwell’s son Gregory is taking part. Cromwell asks Henry to go easy on his son and the King tells Cromwell not to worry. It spurs in Cromwell a memory, from his time in Italy, of meeting an old knight in Venice who regaled him with his stories of tournaments.

Elsewhere, I found the writing a little less tightly structured than in Wolf Hall. The style is sometimes casual, nostalgic, the reader drifts along with Cromwell’s thoughts and memories. I don’t really have a preference one way or the other, but it was a noticeable change.

Like Wolf Hall, the best parts of Bring Up the Bodies was, for me, the scenes with Cromwell in meetings with other characters – Henry, Anne, Katherine, Mary and others. Characters with multiple agendas, known and unknown, striving for power or trying not to lose it, dancing around each other, being careful and deliberate with their choice of words – it is why we enjoy stories of this type.

[Anne Boleyn] leans forward in her chair, hands clenched on her knees. ‘I will advise you, Cremuel. Make terms with me before my child is born. Even if it is a girl I will have another. Henry will never abandon me. He waited for me long enough. I have made the wait worth his while. And if he turns his back on me he will turn his back on the great and marvellous work done in this realm since I became queen – I mean the work for the gospel. Henry will never return to Rome. He will never bow his knee. Since my coronation there is a new England. It cannot subsist without me.

Henry is, of course, the centre of everyone’s purposes. Not just because he is King, but his unpredictability, his deference of his best interests to his whims and passions, his quickness to forget years of loyalty, sacrifice and service; make him dangerous to those around him. The contrasts of those who have tried to deal with Henry become clearer in Bring Up the Bodies. From Cardinal Wosley, who could not appease or gratify Henry in the end. Thomas More who perhaps could, but would not if it meant betraying his principles. Cromwell can, for now, yet is in danger of the same fate if he should find himself on the wrong side of Henry.

You can be merry with the king, you can share a joke with him. But as Thomas More used to say, it’s like sporting with a tamed lion. You tousle its mane and pull its ears, but all the time you’re thinking, those claws, those claws, those claws.

I wondered sometimes if Mantel went too far in championing her protagonist. Cromwell sometimes comes across as unimpeachable, while his main adversaries, such as Gardiner and the Duke of Norfolk seem excessively churlish in their prejudice against him.

The issue I had with Wolf Hall, where it was a little difficult to follow the dialogue because of the frequent omission of Cromwell’s name, was less of a problem in Bring Up the Bodies. Mantel seems to have changed her method; where before we had a lot of “he said”, we now have a lot of “he, Cromwell, said”. Whether this change was in response to feedback, I do not know.

‘Just come with us,’ he says: he, Cromwell.

In the end my feelings about Bring Up the Bodies were similar to Wolf Hall – I liked it, it was good, but not great. While certain key scenes and moments were enjoyable experiences, they were too few and far between and, overall, it did not grip me or engage me as I hoped it would. Given that these two novels each won a Booker Prize, I am somewhat surprised I could not like them more. In fact, now that I look over the Booker Prize Winners I have read, I found most to be quite middling. There are four exceptions but these two novels have put the ones I found ‘just OK’ in the majority. I am a little disappointed, but I defer forming an opinion on the series as a whole until I have read the final novel – The Mirror and the Light.

You can find my review for the other novels in Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell Trilogy here.

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