Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel-Bring up the Bodies

“Where to begin with Cromwell? Some start with his sharp little eyes, some start with his hat. Some evade the issue and paint his seal and scissors, others pick out the turquoise ring given him by the cardinal. Wherever they begin, the final impact is the same: if he had a grievance against you, you wouldn’t like to meet him at the dark of the moon.” – Hilary Mantel, Bring Up The Bodies

It’s not often I enjoy the second book in a series better than the first. But Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel has left its predecessor Wolf Hall in the dust.

When I reviewed Wolf Hall in March, I confessed that it had “the tendency to put me to sleep” and that reading it “felt like running a marathon”. I encouraged people to read it if they were “up for a literary challenge” or had “an interest in Tudor history”. What a bland review!

Now I want to eat my words. Stop what you’re doing and read Wolf Hall. Persevere through the detailed descriptions and fight your way, one sleepy page at a time, to the end. Because Bring Up The Bodies is well worth the effort.

Synopsis

Picking up where Wolf Hall left off, Bring Up The Bodies starts in the depths of Thomas Cromwell’s mind. As readers, we are forever perched on the shoulder of this elusive Tudor lawyer, shown snippets of his brilliance and malice.

Setting the tone for the novel, the first chapter opens with ghosts and omens, as Cromwell rides through the English countryside, on yet another errand for King Henry VIII.

“His children are falling from the sky. He watches from horseback, acres of England stretching behind him; they drop, gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze. Grace Cromwell hovers in thin air. She is silent when she takes her prey, silent as she glides to his fist. But the sounds she makes then, the rustle of feathers and the creak, the sigh and riffle of pinion, the small cluck-cluck from her throat, these are the sounds of recognition, intimate, daughterly, almost disapproving. Her breast is gore-streaked and flesh clings to her claws.”

Here is he, Cromwell, cantering forward, with England “behind him”, his own wretched past a constant companion, no matter how much ground he covers. Cromwell, the blacksmith’s son, the Putney-born, now Master Secretary to the King of England.

Anyone familiar with Tudor history knows Cromwell does not have a happy ending. It makes for interesting reading then, to follow his life knowing what fate lies ahead. Each page is marred by a sense of foreboding, each word uttered tinged with risk. The roll of a dice, a high-stakes game where the rewards are dazzling and there are no second chances. But Cromwell knows no way but forward.

“The things you think are the disasters in your life are not the disasters really. Almost anything can be turned around: out of every ditch, a path, if you can only see it.”

Bring Up The Bodies is set during the reign of Queen Anne Boleyn – or La Ana, the concubine, depending on which team you play for. Anne is one of history’s most famous figures. Like Cromwell, she is elusive, much of her character having evaded historians for centuries.

Historians have used much creative licence when depicting Anne. There has been much literature about her rise and fall. The majority of historical fiction from the Tudor period is filled with sex, romance and war – as if one has to ‘sex up’ history to make it interesting.

But Mantel chooses to portray Cromwell, the lawyer. It says a lot about Mantel’s commitment to character, that she manages to make Anne look dull and Cromwell dazzling. In her two books about the Tudors, there is barely any sex or battle, just words and whispers.

In doing this, I believe Mantel gets closer to the heart of Henry VIII’s reign. What happened during this period was not driven by romance or lust, but by law. Henry could not simply act as he pleased – all of his whims and desires had to be framed in legal terms. It was Cromwell’s task to legalise and justify his King’s demands.

“We are not priests. We don’t want their sort of confession. We are lawyers. We want the truth little by little and only those parts of it we can use.”

There is nothing simple about the way Henry dismissed his wives. Behind the scenes was Cromwell, pulling the puzzle apart and piecing it together again. Bring Up The Bodies is a masterpiece of political brilliance and calculation. It’s offers unique insight into one of the most turbulent times of British history; I won’t bore you with the plot, it is already well-known. Instead this book is worth reading for its fresh perspective.

My thoughts

I was completely blown away by Bring Up The Bodies. The time Mantel put into building Cromwell’s character in Wolf Hall shows, as in Bring Up The Bodies he is as familiar as an old friend. You know his character and his ambition. You might not know what he is going to do next, but you have a fair idea of how he is going to do it; with deliberate precision and care. You find yourself respecting him, even if the outcome is bloodshed.

“Look, he says: once you have exhausted the process of negotiation and compromise, once you have fixed on the destruction of an enemy, that destruction must be swift and it must be perfect. Before you even glance in his direction, you should have his name on a warrant, the ports blocked, his wife and friends bought, his heir under your protection, his money in your strong room and his dog running to your whistle. Before he wakes in the morning, you should have the axe in your hand.”

The book makes it feel as though you, the reader, are Cromwell’s shadow. You follow him from the warmth of his home to the coolness of the court, and everywhere in between. Cromwell sees and hears everything, and therefore so do you. Mantel has managed to find a way of condensing the complexity of Henry VIII’s court into one man’s mind, and then opened a window so the world can look in.

When I finished Bring Up The Bodies I had goosebumps, a huge smile on my face and I think I may even have whooped with satisfaction. Well played, Mantel, well played.

Bookmarked Quotes

“But chivalry’s day is over. One day soon moss will grow in the tilt yard. The days of the moneylender have arrived, and the days of the swaggering privateer; banker sits down with banker, and kings are their waiting boys.”

“Truth can break the gates down, truth can howl in the street; unless truth is pleasing, personable and easy to like, she is condemned to stay whimpering at the back door.”

“He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged.”

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel Book Review

“Some of these things are true and some of them are lies. But they are all good stories.” – Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

If you love a good literary challenge, add Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel to your reading list.

Published in 2010 and winner of the Man Booker Prize, this piece of historical fiction is brilliantly crafted and extraordinarily well-researched.

That said, it did have the tendency to put me to sleep.

Hence why I referred to reading Wolf Hall as a challenge. Mantel’s masterpiece is too good to be light entertainment; you must prepare to engage your brain.

I was warned this mammoth 650-page tome would require some commitment to see through to the end. Many people have started Wolf Hall with good intentions, only to see it gathering dust on the bedside table.

I first heard about the book when I was listening to a BBC History Podcast. Peter Kominsky, the director of the television dramatization of Wolf Hall, was being interviewed. The BBC series sounds dark and dramatic, everything I look for in historical drama. I was hooked.

But I wouldn’t be a true bookworm if I watched the series before reading the book…

Synopsis

Wolf Hall is set in Henry VIII’s England. It follows the life of Thomas Cromwell, a prominent lawyer from this period.

The novel opens during Cromwell’s childhood, to him being physically beaten by his volatile father, Walter. Cromwell grew up in Putney – very much the wrong side of the Thames in those days – and was the son of the town’s brewer and bully.

The story then leaps forward several years, to when Cromwell is working as Cardinal Wolsey’s right-hand man. Cromwell’s adolescence, spent mostly abroad in Europe, is shrouded in mystery. Everyone wonders how this commoner rose to such prominence in Wolsey’s entourage.

“It is wise to conceal the past even if there is nothing to conceal. A man’s power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face. It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fantasies, fears and desires.”

Highly intelligent and intuitive, Cromwell continues to rise well above his rank and eventually becomes one of Henry VIII’s closest advisors and most cherished friends.

But you know what they say about kings. “Kings have no friends, only subjects and enemies” (A Game of Thrones).

In his proximity to Henry, Cromwell is one of the most feared men in the kingdom, but his position is fragile. His success depends largely on the whims of one woman: Anne Boleyn.

Wolf Hall offers an extraordinary glimpse of Henry’s courtship with Anne through Cromwell’s eyes, painting the reader a different picture of this well-covered storyline.

Mantel does an excellent job of providing insight into Henry’s character, while at the same time bringing Cromwell – one of the most under-celebrated personalities of this period – to life.

My thoughts

Firstly, I am glad I consulted Goodreads before picking up Wolf Hall. I remain immensely grateful to the reviewer Teresa Tumminello Brader, who shared an incredibly useful tip for approaching the book.

“The thing to remember when starting this book is that 99% of the time the pronoun ‘he’ refers to Cromwell, even at times when the sentence structure makes it seem like ‘he’ would be someone else. It took me a short while to realize this, but once I did, I was fine.”

I think the use of ‘he’ to refer to Cromwell works very well. It creates an illusion of overhearing Cromwell’s thoughts. It almost feels like you are listening in on a conversation you shouldn’t be privy to.

The effect is the same when Cromwell is talking to other characters. The whole time I was reading, I felt like I was listening with a glass to a wall, or illicitly eavesdropping on a secret conversation. This was especially pronounced during Cromwell’s visits with Anne Boleyn.

Although confusing at first, I grew to appreciate this style. I feel it is perfect for historical fiction, where the line between reality and embellishment is always blurred. To tell the story using ‘I’ would be to assert Cromwell’s identity. Mantel’s use of ‘he’ leaves much more room for interpretation.

Nevertheless, you get a strong sense of Cromwell’s character – or at least how Mantel imagines him to be. He is equal parts cold and warm, remorseless and generous, calculating and spontaneous. At first men dismiss him, then they respect him, but at all times they are wary.

If Cromwell is your man, he will be loyal to the end. If he is not, you face an inexhaustible adversary.

“Lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning,” says Thomas More, “and when you come back that night he’ll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks’ tongues, and all the gaolers will owe him money.”

I grew to admire and empathise with Cromwell, but even after 650 pages of reading his thoughts, I remained unsure as to what he would do next. I knew his eventual fate, which made observing his decisions feel bittersweet.

I expected the book to end when Cromwell’s life ended, but to my surprise I discovered there was a sequel upon finishing the last chapter. Reading Wolf Hall felt like running a marathon – I am drumming up energy to tackle Bring Up The Bodies.

Although tiresome in parts, and written with such dense prose that it often put me to sleep, I am glad I saw Wolf Hall through to the end. I would recommend it to anyone who has an interest in Tudor history.

Bookmarked quotes

“He sees it; then he doesn’t. The moment is fleeting. But insight cannot be taken back. You cannot return to the moment you were in before.”

“Why are we so attached to the severities of the past? Why are we so proud of having endured our fathers and our mothers, the fireless days and the meatless days, the cold winters and the sharp tongues? It’s not as if we had a choice.”

“You mustn’t stand about. Come home with me to dinner.”
“No.” More shakes his head. “I would rather be blown around on the river and go home hungry. If I could trust you only to put food in my mouth – but you will put words into it.”