Monday, July 18, 2016

Hilary Mantel’s “Bring Up the Bodies”

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel won the Man Booker Prize in 2010. The sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, won the prize in 2012. Both books deserved the recognition.

I began Bring Up the Bodies with some trepidation. How could Mantel equal or surpass Wolf Hall? Could she sustain interest in the story of Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, and Henry’s chancellor Thomas Cromwell through a second book.

Yes, she could. And she did.

Wolf Hall is the story of the rise of Anne Boleyn, and what Henry VIII (and Cromwell) had to do to set Henry’s first wife Katherine of Spain aside, manage if not avoid the inevitable diplomatic issues, and stay with the good graces of the Pope. Cromwell did manage to find a way to set aside Henry’s first marriage, but the next two objectives were more elusive. Anne was expected to produce what Henry wanted most – a male heir.

What happens when she cannot produce that heir is the story of Bring Up the Bodies. (Both books, incidentally, were used to produce the BBC television series Wolf Hall, starring Damien Lewis and Mark Rylance.) Henry’s attention begins to turn elsewhere, primarily in the direction of Jane Seymour. Anne continues her role as queen as if nothing can affect her, including flirtations which may or may not have been innocent but will be made to look like treason.

Thomas Cromwell
The story, like that of its predecessor, is told from the viewpoint of Cromwell, the man who first served as the right-arm of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who fails to get the annulment Henry wants from the Pope and is eventually cast aside as chancellor. Cromwell was one of the very few Wolsey supporters who remains true to the cardinal, and in Mantel’s story, he will ultimate wreak revenge on those who helped to bring Wolsey down. Including the queen.

Henry the VIII by Joos Van Cleve
Mantel does at least three remarkable things with her story. She captures both the broad spirit and the fine details of the time. She interprets the main events of what actually happened, using both exhaustive research and educated guesses (the historical record is not complete). And she takes the reader inside the head of Thomas Cromwell, so that we see the events unfold as he sees them, helps shape them, and sometimes directs them.
Hilary Mantel

The title, Bring Up the Bodies, has something of a double meaning. Officially, it was the phrase used to have prisoners at the Tower of London transported to Westminster for trial. But it also, in this story, refers to the ghosts which continue to haunt and even shape events – Cardinal Wolsey, the executed Thomas More, Cromwell’s own wife and daughters (who died of what was called the sweating illness), and many others. The past is always with us, the story says, and it can be ignored only at great peril.

Bring Up the Bodies is a stellar accomplishment by itself. Coupled with Wolf Hall, it is an accomplishment achieved by very few writers.


Top photograph: The White Tower at the Tower of London.

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