Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
So, I’m really into historical fiction now. Yeah, that’s a thing. I liked Wolf Hall a lot, although I found the prose a bit frustrating at times and the pacing a little off, it was nonetheless a supremely enjoyable book. The sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, improves on Wolf Hall in almost every regard, with irritating writing tics smoothed over and a tighter narrative.
Where Wolf Hall was, through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, mainly the story of the rise of Anne Boleyn, Bring Up the Bodies is the story of her downfall and the rise of Jane Seymour. Thomas Cromwell is at the peak of his power, with the title of Lord Chancellor of England, his common roots still earn him mockery and plenty of enemies. An increasingly capricious and deluded Henry VIII has fallen for Jane Seymour, an inscrutable and plain young woman and, just as he had before with Katherine, he sets Cromwell to search for a way out of his marriage.
Where Wolf Hall was a bit listless in it’s pacing, Bring Up the Bodies is a tighter, leaner novel with a stronger focus. We all know that Cromwell isn’t going to be able to negotiate a bloodless end for Anne, but the manner of her death is still shocking. Everything in the novel is racing towards it’s inevitable conclusion, with almost every element of the story somehow tying into the eventual beheading. Although Cromwell is a maligned figure in history, we didn’t really get to see much of why in Wolf Hall, but Bring Up the Bodies begins to explore the darker side of Cromwell, suggesting that he is a man with a long term plan who counts the names of all who have wronged him.
The pronoun problem of the previous book is remedied in slightly clunky, but undeniably effective fashion. Now, I looked online and some people liked the confusing use of the word ‘he’ in Wolf Hall, arguing that it reinforced that this is Cromwell’s story. Whilst I appreciate that this likely was a stylistic choice rather than poor writing and see Mantel’s reasoning for doing so, the simple fact was that it made the book less enjoyable to read and now Mantel frequently says ‘he, Cromwell’ when describing an action. It’s a tiny change but one I noticed immediately and made lengthy scenes of dialogue much less frustrating.
As I mentioned earlier, further facets of Cromwell are revealed, but he remains a sympathetic and enjoyable protagonist. Whether the real Thomas Cromwell was like this I don’t know, but nor do I really care. Anne Boleyn is a fascinating figure, loathsome in some ways but difficult not to feel some sympathy for later on. Henry devolves further, with a favourite moment being where he writes a tragic play about his own life and then reads it to himself. Utterly delusional and repulsive, Mantel gives a fascinating insight into a historical figure known primarily in caricature.
I can proudly join the hordes thronging for the final book in the trilogy, with Bring Up the Bodies leaving me completely sold. Historical accuracy doesn’t matter; I don’t care if the real Thomas Cromwell was the monster history has painted to be or if Thomas More was a principled martyr. At the end of the day, I like this story and I can’t wait to see how we get to the inevitable grisly end.