books and arts
Bring Up the Bodies.By Hilary Mantel.
HILARY MANTEL'S Man Booker prize-winning novel, “Wolf Hall”, was a momentous work about the court of Henry VIII, as seen through the lens of Thomas Cromwell. A blacksmith's boy, Cromwell claws his way up to become Henry's ruthless fixer and one of history's great villains. The book captured the upheavals of the Tudor period and was a critical and popular hit that rescued historical fiction from its bodice-ripper reputation.
“Bring Up the Bodies”, Ms Mantel's sequel, takes up where “Wolf Hall” left off, and it is an outstandingly good read. The year is 1535 and Henry is in middle age, “a massive man, bull-necked, his hair receding, face fleshing out”. His “carriage, his person, are magnificent; his rages are terrifying”. In the first book Henry casts off Catherine of Aragon for Anne Boleyn. Here he tires of Boleyn—who has failed to produce a male heir—and sets to luring Jane Seymour, “modest as a drift of green-white hellebore”.
Fans of “Wolf Hall” will relish this book, but “Bring Up the Bodies” also stands alone. Covering a shorter period and with fewer characters, it demands less of the reader than the earlier instalment, in which significant historical figures walked on with little introduction. And the story of Boleyn, a glittering queen tamed to a “small voice, empty of everything except politeness”, provides a better narrative arc than Cromwell's clamber to the top, and a more grimly dramatic conclusion.
Like much historical fiction, the pages of this novel are full of lust and splendid outfits. But Ms Mantel achieves much more than that. Her characters are real and vivid people who bring to life the clash of ideals that gripped England at the time. She makes the past present and vital. Boleyn's dreadful end is known before the book is even cracked opened, yet her contemplation of her last moments—“I have only a little neck”—is lonely, sad and shocking.
Cromwell's thirst for power, meanwhile, has continuing resonance. He finds the product of his scheming less satisfying than the work that went into its contrivance; his whole career, he reflects, “has been an education in hypocrisy”. “Those who are made can be unmade,” Boleyn notes, an idea that echoes through the book. His hard-won power and riches earn him neither love nor succour—he is a man whose only friend is the king of England. As in “Wolf Hall”, Cromwell draws the reader's admiration, but never envy.