Bring Up the Bodies

By Hilary Mantel

Among the great soap operas of Western Civilization, two timeless families stand unmatched for their abiding popularity: the Julio-Claudian Roman emperors and England’s Tudors. Their trials and tribulations have delighted audiences for centuries, with larger-than-life characters mixing it up in domestic squabbles full of sex, violence, political backstabbing, and vigorous social climbing. Material this good has shown itself adaptable to tastes both high and low (from Bob Guccione’s Caligula to Oscar-winning costume dramas), and forms as varied as the gossipy lives of Suetonius, Shakespearean drama, pornographic comic books, and (something it has shown itself especially well suited for) television miniseries. Old-timers will remember I, Claudius and The Six Wives of Henry VIII, while Rome and The Tudors have both just finished successful runs.

The latest chapter in the inexhaustible flood of Tudormania is Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, the second part of a projected trilogy on the career of Henry VIII’s omnicompetent enabler Thomas Cromwell (naturally, a miniseries is said to be in development). The first volume of the Cromwell trilogy, Wolf Hall, introduced us to all the major players, and went on to win the Man Booker Prize in 2009. Bring Up the Bodies is a shorter book, focusing on the fall of Anne Boleyn and her court followers, and it deepens Mantel’s portrait of the poker-faced, unreadable, and “densely inaccessible” figure who dominates the action.

We all know the story of how Anne lost her head. Mantel’s version is exceptional on two counts. First of all, it’s very well written. The story moves along at a sharp pace, with an emphasis on the intense drama of personal relations that constituted the politics of the day. Historical novels often sink under the weight of their author’s research or get preachy with safe moral judgments (Nazis were bad people!), but here the reader is in better hands.

The other aspect of the story that breaks new ground is in Mantel’s bold reinterpretation of Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell has always been regarded as one of English history’s heavies, and this is not just a bum rap from revisionist historians. It’s unlikely Henry’s enforcer has ever been less popular than he was with his contemporaries. In the face of all this negative baggage, Mantel has her work cut out for her rehabilitating Cromwell’s reputation and offering us a sympathetic portrait of a political fixer.

This is accomplished partly by having the story told from his vantage point, but there’s more to it than that. We also like “Crumb” because he’s a family man and a fellow whose attitudes are in tune with our own. When, for example, he considers that chivalry is dead, that “soon moss will grow on the tilt yard” and “the days of the moneylender have arrived” when “banker sits down with banker, and kings are their waiting boys” he seems to be describing our world more than the England of the 1530s.

That said, it’s also clear that Mantel’s Cromwell is indeed a monster. In particular he is a recognizably modern kind of political monster: cynical opportunist, sycophant and bully, ardent proto-nationalist, Machiavellian plotter and Utopian social planner. Paranoid and with a massive chip on his shoulder due to his being a jumped-up nobody despised by the courtiers and nobility, he carries about an oversized sense of vengeance while making it clear that he’s prepared to sacrifice any individual or group as ends to his own means. He can be charming, but only to deceive. By the time we get to the end of this book we realize we’re in the presence of one of the scariest villains in any recent fiction.

Historians may raise an eyebrow or two at what Mantel has done. That her Henry VIII is a spoiled and sentimental meathead is one thing (and probably not far from the mark), but the absence of religious feeling in what was still a demon-haunted world is surprising. Anne Boleyn, for example, was by most accounts an intense evangelical, but there is nothing of that here. Indeed, Mantel can’t seem to imagine a genuinely devout or spiritual being. In the end, it’s all about power. In Wolf Hall, Thomas More was a religious thug who happened to end up on the wrong side of a legal debate. For his part, Cromwell, despite having memorized the Bible, is cynical when it comes to church matters. Even the clergymen we meet, right up to Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer, are just hypocrites mouthing cant. It seems there’s a gap separating twenty-first century religious attitudes from late medieval world views that’s too wide for even a novel of this high a caliber to jump.

But none of this stops Bring Up the Bodies from being a great read, an example of historical fiction at its finest. Just because Cromwell is a bad man doesn’t make him any less complex or interesting a figure. He is not a caricature of bureaucratic evil but a well-rounded, psychologically convincing antihero. And the hook is well set for the finale, as we know he’s heading for a fall.

Review first published in the Toronto Star June 3, 2012.

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