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Bring Up the Bodies: The Fall of Anne Boleyn

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He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged.
Bring Up the Bodies

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel is her follow-up novel to her previous breakout work Wolf Hall. While Wolf Hall (which took place over a number of years), charted how its main protagonist Thomas Cromwell rose to new prominence under King Henry VIII with his promotion of Henry’s divorce to Queen Katherine and subsequent marriage to Queen Anne, Bring Up the Bodies (a more chronologically compact book—everything important takes place within a single year), chronicles how a chance meeting with Jane Seymour in the autumn of 1535, prompts King Henry to once more beg his most useful advisor Cromwell to free him to marry Jane. We all know the means Cromwell used there; Mantel’s genius is trying to get into Thomas’s psychology while doing so.

This makes Bring Up the Bodies an extraordinarily well-written, sometimes repelling, but always fascinating exploration of self-rationalization. We have the monstrously egocentric and cruel King Henry himself always seeing “god’s hand” in whatever new whim strikes his fancy and willing to execute these whims with actual executions. We have the greedy, ambitious, Boleyn family oblivious to their coming downfall, Anne’s enemies motivated by a mixture of self-righteousness and spite, and of course Cromwell himself. In Mantel’s books Cromwell is a far more sympathetic figure than he’s otherwise been portrayed. He truly believes in the rightness of Reformation. He’s a loyal and faithful friend, a loving patriarch, and almost absurdly competent. But his competency and skills are matched by his ruthlessness; unlike other enemies of the Boleyn family there’s no suggestion that Cromwell enjoys the butchery but he nonetheless masterminds the executions of a woman he helped lift up to the highest peaks, her brother, and three other men as well on charges that, deep down, he knows are false. And try as Cromwell does to explain it to himself or to others (or as Mantel tries to explain it to her readers), it’s a very ugly picture.

Then again, everything at the Tudor court in those days was ugly, wasn’t it? Once you strip away all the gorgeous period outfits, the glamour, and opulence of King Henry’s profligate court, it’s a true nightmare as Mantel chronicles. In one particularly brilliant passage of the book, Henry VIII falls during a joust, and is falsely presumed dead for a couple of hours until Cromwell revives him. Literally around the “dead” King’s feet, his various councilors and courtiers start to argue amongst themselves over who will now take power. Multiple factions exist for the throne—Mary Tudor, the King’s illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy, or possibly a Boleyn appointed as Regent, but the one thing Cromwell and everyone else is completely certain of is that there’s no way Anne’s little daughter Elizabeth could possibly rule—with Anne Boleyn’s uncle the Duke of Norfolk, calling “Me! Me Me Me!” This same uncle of Anne’s will be there at her arrest where his gleeful mockery of his soon to be dead niece is positively grotesque.

Cromwell finds himself in the ridiculous position of trying unsuccessfully to get Henry Percy, who he once made swear he had never been betrothed to Anne, now reverse himself and say they were betrothed. George Boleyn when arrested immediately points out the obvious fact that there’s no reason to think Henry VIII won’t turn on Cromwell as well someday. And of course hovering over all this is Cromwell’s growing realization, represented by the mental conversations he finds himself having with the dead Thomas More, that it is all going to get even bloodier and uglier on a national scale. The very fact he keeps seeing More in the first place suggests that for all his confident assertions that his old colleague brought his execution upon himself, Cromwell’s own conscience doesn’t lie easy. Hilary Mantel stops the narrative before the Peasants Rebellion in the North and four years before Cromwell’s own execution, but both these specters haunt the narrative. Bring Up the Bodies works spectacularly well, both as an independent novel in its own right and as a sequel to Wolf Hall, while hooking the reader for the inevitable third part of the trilogy.

Bring Up the Bodies
Hilary Mantel

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