Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall was an amazing read. Winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize and the first book in a trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, advisor to Henry VIII, Mantel took an oft-told history in an entertaining manner — how Cromwell helped Henry discard his first wife Katherine of Aragon, marry Anne Boleyn, and break away from the Emperor and Catholicism to create the Church of England.
Along the way we witnessed Cromwell’s personal tragedies — his loss of his wife Liz and two daughters Anne and Grace, to the “sweating sickness,” his idolization of his mentor Cardinal Wolsey and his surviving Wolsey’s fall from the king’s graces, and his hand in the end of Thomas More. One might wonder if there was really that much more to tell, but Mantel’s second book in the series (the 2012 Man Booker Prize winner), Bring Up the Bodies, starts off with a bang and doesn’t let up, as it chronicles Henry’s growing impatience with second wife Anne, who has only been able to produce a female child (who will one day become Elizabeth I) as his attentions turn to the young and pliable Jane Seymour.
“She is very plain. What does Henry see in her?’”
“He thinks she’s stupid. He finds it restful.”
Cromwell’s charge is his King’s desire, and more than political power or religious reform, Henry’s main goal is to produce a male heir and continue the Tudor royal line. Cromwell, as intelligent as ever, looks at every situation from several angles, always trying to serve England. His knowledge of many languages and cultures creates a truly diverse household — in fact his home seems more sophisticated in many ways than the King’s many residences.
Mantel sketches Cromwell’s life at home and at court in fascinating detail. If there is anything to criticize in Bring Up the Bodies, it is the author’s continued insistence of using a device she used in Wolf Hall, writing from Cromwell’s perspective with clunky sentences that start, “He, Cromwell …” But the rest of the book is so spot-on, so involving, that stylistic quibbles soon seem just that — quibbles.
“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.”
Mantel tells her story from Cromwell’s perspective, and at times we are privy to his dreams and memories. But our “hero” is not above using his station to exact revenge. He sees how the inevitable fall of the new queen Anne (over which he shows not much remorse nor pity) can be used to punish men who had insulted his revered Wolsey — the Queen’s brother George Boleyn, Henry Norris, William Brereton, and Francis Weston.
“Look, he says: once you have exhausted the process of negotiation and compromise, one 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.”
Cromwell may be on top at the end of Bring Up the Bodies, but the reader doesn’t have to know all the details of his life to know that he is poised for a fall. Medieval politics were rough and frequently brutal, and a rough man like Cromwell, from the wrong side of London was, for a time, the perfect man to get things done.