Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies

Bring Up The BodiesWe are now two books into Hilary Mantel’s trilogy on the life of Thomas Cromwell, with a third scheduled to arrive next year, and if neither the widespread acclaim (including two Booker prizes) nor the robust sales have led you to read them thus far, it’s doubtful what I have to say will sway you.

Bring Up The Bodies begins where 2009’s Wolf Hall left off: Anne Boleyn has supplanted Katherine of Aragon; England is in disfavor with the Pope, whose Catholic Church prohibits divorce; renowned scholar and politician Thomas More has been beheaded, and Thomas Cromwell has risen from the ashes of the disgraced Cardinal Wolsey to become the second most powerful man in England, thanks entirely to his finesse in orchestrating all of the above. But when Henry proves fickle and Anne cannot deliver a male heir, his romantic interest shifts, placing Cromwell in the uncomfortable position of having to work against his own interests: he is duty bound to serve the king, but in replacing Anne Boleyn he would make himself vulnerable to his enemies, many of whom are agitating for Henry to return to the Pope’s good graces. Should that happen, Cromwell would surely be burned as a heretic or hung as a traitor.

It is to Mantel’s infinite credit that she manages to take a well-known history and imbue it with suspense. She plays the part of historian, storyteller and psychoanalyst, irrevocably altering our perception of Thomas Cromwell and giving us a glimpse of 16th century English life and politics in the process. It defies comprehension, for example, that the affairs of an entire nation could be held hostage to the romantic feuding of the royal family, or that the fecundity of the queen should be a matter of national security, but such were the times, and to have them described by Mantel is to participate fully in their logic.