May 7 2012 11:30am

First Look: Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies (May 8, 2012)

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel
Bring Up the Bodies
Henry Holt and Co. / May 8, 2012 / $15.oo print, $12.99 digital

Though he battled for seven years to marry her, Henry is disenchanted with Anne Boleyn. She has failed to give him a son and her sharp intelligence and audacious will alienate his old friends and the noble families of England. When the discarded Katherine dies in exile from the court, Anne stands starkly exposed, the focus of gossip and malice.

At a word from Henry, Thomas Cromwell is ready to bring her down. Over three terrifying weeks, Anne is ensnared in a web of conspiracy, while the demure Jane Seymour stands waiting her turn for the poisoned wedding ring. But Anne and her powerful family will not yield without a ferocious struggle. Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies follows the dramatic trial of the queen and her suitors for adultery and treason. To defeat the Boleyns, Cromwell must ally with his natural enemies, the papist aristocracy. What price will he pay for Anne’s head?

In Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel accomplished the extraordinary task of making Thomas Cromwell a sympathetic (if not exactly heroic) protagonist. Bring Up the Bodies is not a title you’d expect to find on the night table of a Romance writer and reader. But when I’m not immersed in Romance, historical fiction is one of the genres that draws me in.

Bring Up the Bodies is the second book in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall Trilogy, this time telling the tale of  the fall of Anne Boleyn from Thomas Cromwell’s perspective. You might find Hilary Mantel an acquired taste. It took me a little while fall into the rhythm of her prose when I read Wolf Hall, but the reader is amply rewarded for staying with her singular style. Beginning Bring Up the Bodies, I was immediately drawn again into Thomas Cromwell’s world and the world of Henry VIII who, after tearing his country apart in the pursuit of Anne Boleyn, finds himself ready to move on to the quiet and virtuous Jane Seymour.

It is obvious from the beginning that Thomas Cromwell is driven by self-interest as much as he is driven by loyalty to his sovereign. However one cannot help but understand how important self-interest is within the machinations of the Tudor court.

His relations with the queen, as the summer draws to its official end, are chary, uncertain, and fraught with distrust. Anne Boleyn is now thirty-four years old, a dark woman with a refinement that makes mere prettiness seem redundant. Once sinuous, she has become angular. She retains her dark glitter, now rubbed a little, flaking in places.

The stage is set early in the  book, and Mantel’s extraordinary language paints, in three sentences, the portrait of a queen past her power and a servant of the king on his guard. The book chronicles Cromwell’s part in Anne’s demise, with the same uncanny choice of word and turn of phrase evidenced in these three sentences. The language reflects not only the story but the people and the time. And it does it in a way that is not easy to define.

One of Cromwell’s conversations with Jane Rochford (Anne Boleyn’s sister-in-law and a member of her household) ends with this:

“You are usually such a good listener. You always attend to what I say. And I will say that this summer he wrote her love letters, and send them by the hand of Harry Norris.”

He is moving too fast to make much of much of her last sentence, though, as he will admit later, the detail will affix itself and adhere to certain sentences of his own, not yet formed. Phrases only. Elliptic. Conditional. Anne blossoming as Katherine fails. He pictures them, their faces intent and skirts bunched, two little girls on a muddy track, playing teeter-totter with a plank balanced on a stone.

Yes. Later, the name Harry Norris will play a large role in the accusation which causes Anne Boleyn’s end of the teeter-totter to hit the ground. As the maneuvering continues to inch forward, Cromwell has yet another conversation with Jane Rochford. After she implies some knowledge of the goings-on in the queen’s  bedchamber, Cromwell responds.

“Jane,” he says, “if the time comes when you wish to disburden your conscience, do not go to a priest, come to me. The priest will give you a penance, but I will give you a reward.”

And then he thinks,

What is the nature of the border between truth and lies? It is permeable and blurred because it is planted thick with rumour, confabulation, misunderstandings, and twisted tales. Truth can break down the gates, 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.

The book balances Cromwell’s manipulation with Anne’s own scheming.

He has always rated Anne highly as a strategist. He has never believed in her as a passionate, spontaneous woman. Everything she does is calculated, like everything he does. He notes, as he has these many years, the careful deployment of her flashing eyes. He wonders what it would take to make her panic.

As it turns out, nothing makes Anne panic, but, as we all know, that does not deter the wheels of state from making her dead. And Cromwell, as an agent of the king and, therefore, the state, has his hand in all of that.

He rests his eyes on the prisoners, he takes his seat. He says softly, “I think I have been training all my years for this. I have served an apprenticeship to myself.” His whole education has been an education in hypocrisy. Eyes that skewered him now kindle with simulated regard. Hands that would like to knock his hat off now reach out to take his hand, sometimes in a crushing grip.  He has spun his enemies to face him, to join him: as in a dance. He means to spin them away again, so they look down the long cold vista of their years: so they feel the wind of exposed places, that cuts to the bone: so they bed down in ruins, and wake up in cold.

In Bring Up the Bodies, every word, like every one of Thomas Cromwell’s moves, is carefully calculated. Every description precisely evokes the tenor of the time and the political realities within the Tudor monarchy. Each phrase points to the next and each paragraph moves the story inexorably toward its bloody end. I eagerly await book three.

Intrigued? Listen to a sample of the audio book of Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, also available May 8:


Myretta is the co-founder and current manager of The Republic of Pemberley, a pretty big Jane Austen web site. She is also a writer of Historical Romance. You can find her at her website, and on Twitter @Myretta.

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1 comment
1. EvangelineHolland
I'm not usually into all of those Tudor historicals, but I've heard so many fantastic things about this book.
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