Review | Monday 28 May 2012
There’s a story in the historical character of Thomas Cromwell, or several. But one only needs to read the Wikipedia version, eyes glazing over with boredom, to grasp what a significant achievement Hilary Mantel has wrought with her gripping, complex Cromwell novels: first Wolf Hall, and now its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies.
Of course, we know what history has to say about Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith who made his way into the service of Henry VIII. Wolf Hall, however, was a hugely successful exercise in garnering sympathy for a man whom history has often painted as a villain.
Bring Up the Bodies begins where Wolf Hall left off. It is the summer of 1535. Henry VIII has not long been married to Anne Boleyn, but his gaze has already strayed to quiet, unassuming Jane Seymour; he wishes to have his marriage to Anne annulled. Anne, changeable and increasingly wary, is plotting, threatening Cromwell’s life and also England’s tenuous peace – for the royals are losing standing with the nobility and the English public, and there are others who want to rule.
It is a delight to return to Mantel’s Cromwell, whose quick mind and giant intellect are wonderfully framed by the novel’s present-tense narration. As Secretary to the king, Cromwell is hardworking and incisively strategic, but he can also estimate a man’s wealth by looking at his clothing and he’s good with his fists. His assessments of others are always sharp and illuminating: through his eyes we see a childlike and increasingly deluded Henry, and multiple dissolute courtiers who trade insults and secrets.
There are no tedious attempts to recreate the language of the era: instead, the fresh, direct prose Mantel used to such effect in Wolf Hall again carries the action here. Dialogue is pointed and often surprisingly funny, and its content is always the basis for some new stratagem (‘I am not a man with whom you can have inconsequential conversations,’ says Cromwell at one point). Thanks to this masterful treatment of language, the characters are so vital it seems their actions could alter history, that the march towards Cromwell’s fall from Henry’s favour (to be chronicled by Mantel in a future novel) could possibly be diverted by these versions of themselves.
Despite the short timeframe covered in the novel – just nine months – Bring Up the Bodies does drag in its middle section. And although she is never opaque about Cromwell’s more brutal decisions and actions, Mantel’s overtly sympathetic portrayal of her subject occasionally feels overstretched, particularly when set against his extreme political pragmatism.
Still, this is likely to be one of the most accomplished novels you read this year. Mantel has said of writing these books: ‘I felt such a burst of energy being lent to me by the character.’ Like Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies is patently enlivened by the author’s passion for Cromwell. As a result, he will be remembered not only as one of the great political figures of England’s history, but also one of the great fictional characters of this decade.