Bring Up the Bodies
A Novel by Hilary Mantel
2009 / 407 Pages
Off with her head!!!!
Slow down bloodlusty! To get there you’ll have to sit through 400 pages which chronicle the events leading up to the eventual deed that you’re hungrily anticipating. In fact, if you read Wolf Hall, the first book in Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, you might be just a tad bit annoyed by the first seventy pages or so of this second entry, especially if you read the two back to back. There’s a fair amount of recapping and flashbacking about who Cromwell is, how he has risen through the ranks, what happened to his wife and children, and of course the most significant back story involving Cardinal Wosely. In the novel’s defense however, it does pick up the story right where the events detailed in Wolf Hall end.
So can one read Bring up the Bodies if they haven’t read Wolf Hall first? That seems to the biggest question that repeatedly gets raised when it comes to discussing this Booker long-listed title. The answer is yes, you most certainly can read Bring up the Bodies as a stand-alone novel. The better question is should you? The answer to that question is a resounding no.
Even though you’ll have to sit through some repetitive information at the front end of Bring up the Bodies, reading Wolf Hall first will help set the stage clearly for the events that will transpire and help to paint a better picture of just how unforgiving and unrelenting Thomas Cromwell can be, for while the first book is primarily about the split between Henry and Katherine, it’s also about Cardinal Wosely and Cromwell’s deep affinity for him. If you don’t have the building blocks of their relationship in place then it will be hard to relate to Cromwell’s motivations and the calculated series of actions he undertakes.
What surprised me most about Bring up the Bodies certainly wasn’t that Queen Anne lost her head in the end, but rather how ridiculously religious and sexually repressed people living in seventeenth century England really were. Having read this book I never want to get anywhere near a bible ever again. Religion was the root cause of way too many problems back then and sadly that’s true even in today’s society. Though if we all abandoned religion I’m sure we’d have little trouble finding another topic that we’d deem worthy of killing each other over or in the name of.
Still, religion aside, and even though you know exactly what will happen by the novel’s conclusion, Mantel does a perfect job with pacing as she inches ever closer to the sad event, and even if it isn’t all that shocking, when one stops to think about it, it all does seem rather crazy. Henry doesn’t want Katherine anymore so, as chronicled in Wolf Hall, he goes through a lengthy battle to have their marriage annulled, in the process severing all ties with the Vatican and naming himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England. Then after all that wooing, when he finally has Anne, he tires of her as well and actually goes the extreme of allowing the Queen of England to be beheaded so that he can marry his third wife Jane Seymour shortly thereafter. If Cromwell’s such a bad guy for executing on the king’s wishes, then what does that make Henry?
And for all his self-justification Cromwell is a “bad” guy, make no mistake about that, but this fact only serves to further illustrate what a fantastic job Mantel has done at building such a complex, multifaceted, sympathetic character. It’s tough not to root for Cromwell, even when you know the end result of his actions will most certainly spell death for many a person.
Bring up the Bodies is a near perfect historical novel. In fact it’s only flaw may be that the third and final book in the series, The Mirror & the Light, doesn’t exist yet, so when you finish Bodies and you’re clamoring for more there’s nowhere you can turn to get your Cromwell fix.
Well sure, in fairness there are plenty of other places you can turn to, but none of them will be quite as deliciously satisfying as Mantel’s take on the events. You can count on that.
Hilary Mantel’s brilliant sequel to her 2009 novel, Wolf Hall, has once again earned her a spot on the Man Booker Prize shortlist. Bring Up the Bodies is a continuance of Thomas Cromwell’s story as it intersects with Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. As the novel opens, it is the fall of 1535 – Former Queen Katherine of Aragon is on her deathbed and current Queen, Anne Boleyn, is also inching dangerously close to death. She has made many promises in her relentless efforts to become Queen, yet the most important promise – to produce a male heir to the throne – has yet to be fulfilled. In the meantime, rumors have begun to circulate that perhaps Anne has not been faithful to her husband, and that, perhaps their daughter, Elizabeth, was fathered by another man.
Pretty soon, the swirling rumors reach the ears of the King, and although Henry is outraged at the prospect of his wife’s extramarital encounters, he also sees it as an opportunity to rid himself of Anne Boleyn, who has turned out to be more trouble than pleasure for Henry. And of course, “Queens come and go,” so Henry enlists the help of Master Secretary Thomas Cromwell to remove Anne Boleyn of her position so that a new (and hopefully more fertile) Queen can take her place. Luckily for Cromwell, “the affairs of the whole realm are whispered in his ear,” so the process of Anne’s removal is expedited. In fact, it takes just about a month for Cromwell to compile a case against Anne, have her tried in court, and finally beheaded. The crimes against the infamous Queen include treason, incest, and adultery, and her trial and subsequent death prove to be extremely consequential for the Tudors. Many others are sent to their deaths because of what they may or may not have said and done with Anne Boleyn, and Henry’s Court is in disarray after living in the midst of potential conspirators and traitors.
But even before the death of his second wife Henry’s lust has found a new target – Jane Seymour. Miss Seymour is known for her reputation of purity, innocence, and humility, and Henry would love nothing more than to marry her immediately and impregnate her with (fingers crossed!) a son. And Henry is the King, so, with the help of the ever-faithful Cromwell, England has a new Queen less than 2 weeks after the death of Anne Boleyn.
To British history buffs, the Tudors’ story is nothing new. Henry VIII was one of the most infamous and highly-discussed English monarchs, and his relationships with his (count em’) 6 wives have been fairly well documented throughout history. But Mantel isn’t really interested in Henry or Anne or Jane or Katherine. Of course they’re all important players, but none of them compare to the true mastermind of these Tudor events. Thomas Cromwell was always there, quietly listening in the shadows, writing everything down and memorizing every single detail of the King’s personal and private affairs so that he would be prepared for anything and everything imaginable. Thomas Cromwell made things happen before the King even realized he wanted them to happen. He’s been called cold, cruel, calculated, and evil. But he was also probably one of the most intelligent and well-informed men in Tudor history – despite what he may have accomplished or destroyed with such knowledge.
Either way, Bring Up the Bodies offers readers a new perspective on Henry VIII’s relationship with Anne Boleyn – one that focuses on the pragmatic aspect of the surrounding events rather than the emotional or romantic facets. As Hilary Mantel has said, Cromwell “is still in need of attention from biographers,”but even the most skilled biographer may have trouble bringing Cromwell’s story to life compared to Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.
Mantel is currently writing the third installment of this Henry VIII trilogy, which is titled The Mirror and the Light. Bring Up the Bodies is on the 2012 Man Booker Prize shortlist (which she won in 2009 for Wolf Hall), and The Mirror and the Light is probably already nominated for the 2013 prize. I hope so. And I hope she wins!