'His children are falling from the sky,' is the arresting opening sentence of the second novel in Mantel's trilogy, exploring the life of Thomas Cromwell at the court of Henry VIII. Hawks at the king's hunting party in Wiltshire have been named after Cromwell's dead daughters, an odd memorial, but one that immediately reminds us of Cromwell's loss of those dear to him, and the cut-throat world in which he is now a key player. 'When they look down they see nothing but their prey, and the borrowed plumes of the hunters; they see a flittering, flinching universe, a universe filled with their dinner.'
As has been observed by others, Mantel is writing at the height of her powers and her language is full of delights. She doesn't burden us with her research, which effortlessly provides the structure to her novel - it is her sensory description which allows us to think we know what it is to inhabit the world of Henry Tudor. She conjures up - with even more skill perhaps - the workings of Cromwell's mind and the political machinations required to serve his king and to remove and execute a queen, according to the law of England. Cromwell has read Machiavelli and clearly thinks he could write better if he had the time - but there are always papers, always business to be attended to if the kingdom is to prosper.
Wolf Hall is an extraordinary novel, fully deserving of its prizes and the praise it gathered; Bring Up the Bodies is its near equal. If Wolf Hall was very much about the fall of Wolsey and the rise of Cromwell to high office, Bring Up the Bodies is about Cromwell holding on to power while Anne Boleyn loses it, and the cost of that to both. Mantel is writing a trilogy and this makes sense for the second act. Wolsey is still a character in this novel; his spirit guiding Cromwell, his loyalties and actions. Anne Boleyn loses her influence when she fails to provide Henry with a son and heir. Cromwell and Anne Boleyn supported each other in their rise to power but Cromwell notes the signs that the king's interest is moving and determines not to repeat Wolsey's mistake of not fulfilling the king's wishes quickly enough. The long-standing fascination with the Tudors is such that most of us know the plot - but Mantel triumphs in creating suspense and pathos for Anne and in keeping us strongly aligned with Cromwell's point of view, even as he schemes and orchestrates the evidence against her.
About halfway though the novel there is an pivotal scene where Henry is believed dead after a jousting accident. Mantel describes Cromwell's thought processes as the court panics and the country is on the brink of chaos. One moment he is caught up in emotion as he gazes at the king, 'Henry is waxen, and he sees the shocking tenderness of human flesh evicted from steel. He is lying on his back, all his magnificent height stretched out on a piece of ocean-blue cloth. His limbs are straight. He looks uninjured. He touches his face. It is still warm. Fate has not spoiled him or mangled. He is intact, a present for the gods. They are taking him back as he was sent.' The next moment he is thinking how he will pre-empt a civil war. It is a tour de force which both informs us of Cromwell's character, allowing us to make sense of his later actions, and gives us some insight into the fragility of the peace the Tudor reign has brought.
Henry's fickleness is clear throughout this novel, the renaissance prince is shown to be increasingly narcissistic and Cromwell has to draw on all his powers to manage him. It was part of Hilary Mantel's genius to tell this story from Cromwell's viewpoint. He is a man who has gained power through merit and hard work rather than by birth and privilege - and that appeals to our age and sensibilities. He is powerful and yet he knows that his power is vested in the king and in the value he brings him. Later in the novel Henry convulses with rage and says 'I really believe, Cromwell, that you think you are king, and I am the blacksmith's boy.' Cromwell is able to avert Henry's rage - whilst thinking that Henry would not have survived the smithy and the need for a cool head around fire and molten metal - but he knows that he will only survive if he gives the king money and the possibility of peace and an heir and so he goes to work.
Mantel has a mischievous way of inserting lines into her narrative that seem to come from Elizabethan plays not yet written - just one more enjoyable part of this rich and exciting novel.
If you read nothing else this summer - read this
on 14 August 2012
After the superbly crafted Wolf Hall no one could have expected the sequel, Bring Up The Bodies to extend and develop the stylistic writing and brilliantly realized imagery- and yet it does, triumphantly so that as a deliberately shorter 'middle book' of a trilogy the story of Cromwell and the fall of Ann Boleyn, is both dark and totally gripping. This is no filler middle book but a brilliant tour de force of daring and beautiful writing. Whilst in Wolf Hall the narrative imagery and establishment of characters/setting seemed to dominate here it is the dialogue sequences that stand out with wonderfully crafted confrontations between Cromwell and Boleyn and as her world implodes the supposed "lovers" that Cromwell entraps. The daring also comes in Cromwell's thought world as he occasionally lapses into fantasy reverie about the situations that he both creates and is entangled in. His increasing isolation (as he works late and almost constantly) is offset by endless summonses and orders from the king to deal with Boleyn and engineer the marriage to Jane Seymour. In the background there are constant references to Wolsey and More as victims of the kings capricious whims or Boleyns supposed scheming. Within all this Mantel finds time for dark humour (call me rizly) and the wonderful mangling of his name in mock affectionate terms (Henry calls him crumb, Boleyn mangles his name in pseudo French pronunciation) so that he appears to be a shapeshifter- Cromwell uses a protean and prodigious energy to serve all his "masters" whilst himself remaining the master of his own destiny, yet enemies remind him of his probable fate under Henry if he puts a foot wrong. Mantel is highly skilled, sincere and totally in control of her material. Originally this was never intended to be a trilogy but as a reader I am grateful for one more volume that will see Cromwell meet his maker- for now mantel is his maker and overall she has produced a stunning piece of work- worthy of the booker longlist and a good tip to win overall. Its a mesmerising read in what will be Mantels tour de force- her finest body of work.
on 11 June 2012
Had Amazon given me the option, I think I would have given this 3.5 stars. It's a beautifully written book which is, at times, touching, funny, tense and always intelligent. I certainly devoured it. Nevertheless, I found it a lesser novel to Wolf Hall for several reasons. (Minor spoilers below if you are not familiar with Tudor history).
Firstly, whilst it carried on the tale of Cromwell, I didn't feel that it added much thematically to what had already been explored in Wolf Hall. There were additional considerations on statecraft and age but so much territory had already been covered that it felt like an addendum to the previous novel rather than a discreet work. Compare it, for example, to "I, Claudius" and "Claudius the God", which tell two halves of a story but use the two halves to explore quite distinct themes; consequently, both Claudius novels feel fresh in a way that Bring up the Bodies doesn't.
I also found the plot less rewarding - I think because it deals with a difficult transitory period concerning the pomp and fall of Anne Boleyn. Therefore, the actions lend themselves less easily to a novel than the passage of Cromwell from Putney bruiser to Master of the Rolls and Secretary to the King as told in Wolf Hall. There is a less clear direction of travel for our main protagonist and he has less agency in the journey he goes on, at times seemingly 'going through the motions'. This sets up some nice comparisons with the fall of Wolsey but I couldn't escape the feeling that the interrogation of Boleyn's lovers, for example, was a less brilliant literary execution (pardon the pun) than that of Thomas More in the first novel. It just seemed more pedestrian and, I think, that is because Mantel had less juicy historical ingredients to play with.
I can't help but feel that this is a bridging novel (I believe there is a third novel en route?) and, consequently, is largely designed to get the main characters from the end of Wolf Hall (the 'rise of Cromwell') to the beginning of the next novel (the 'fall of Cromwell'). That is not to say that it isn't good - it is very good - but whereas Wolf Hall was a book that functioned wonderfully as a self contained exploration of plot, character and theme this novel lacks both the internal coherence of those three factors and the excitement of so much novelty and invention.
I can't help but wish that Mantel had cleansed her pallet with another project between Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies so she could come to the material fresh. Sadly, I imagine that the effort of holding the life of Cromwell and the constituent themes of the book is too taxing to break it up like that!
on 6 June 2013
This sequel fails to deliver the interest and and colour of Wolf Hall, and overall is pedestrian and boring.
Mantel persists in her strange narrative style: third person, with Cromwell often only referred to as 'he', with a first person's perspective. A new innovation is the awful phrase 'he, Cromwell', rather than just 'Cromwell' which makes the English appear worse, rather than better. As well as confusing the reader (with no gain in terms of more sophisticated understanding), this clumsy form of expression can lead to daft writing, such as "The earl is on his feet. He remains seated."
The readability of the novel is further diminished by the poor use of paragraphs, extraordinarily long chapters, and the lack of clear breaks between different scenes. I expect that everyone reads for a limited period at a time - certainly not for 150 pages without a break. Without obvious breaks in the text, and the tendency to segue directly from one event to the next, there is no logical place to stop reading, and when starting to read again, I often had to back track to find the thread of the narrative again. The novel has a 'stream of consciousness'feel to it, without the depth or insight that usually accompanies this style of writing, and gives no consideration to how the reader might respond to the text.
I've read many, many novels in my time, some quite long and demanding, eg Tolstoy's 'War and Peace', and 'Anna Karenina'. I don't mind thinking hard to get full value from the text, but in this case, I felt that maintaining the concentration required was more akin to understanding a tedious tax form, rather than appreciating literary depth.
on 2 April 2013
Having read `Wolf Hall', I was chomping at the bit to read `Bring up the Bodies'. This book is large, heavy; it appears a challenging read from the outset, yet I was hooked. I work an hour away and I carried this book with me on the train everyday if only to capture a quiet moment to indulge myself in Thomas Cromwell's world. When I completed it, I read it again.
Mantel is an incredible writer; her prose brings the court of Henry to life in a manner other writers can only dream of. The characterisation of Cromwell is compelling. Thomas is often portrayed in other volumes as a devious, scheming bully, instrumental the fall of Anne Boleyn, betraying his former mistress when the tide turned against her. Mantel takes the facts of 1536 and puts forward an alternative; Cromwell's motives are understood and I even found I sympathised with his plight, a balancing act of humanism against the impenetrable will of a disillusioned king.
The characters of Anne and Henry are fascinating. For one moment, Cromwell can see Anne's attraction and the next he cannot; the moment has past and therein lays his power against her, she cannot charm him as she does others. Anne acknowledges this and it grates on her; her vanity is wounded and this is her eventual undoing. Henry is the big love in Cromwell's life as the king was to Wolsey previously; yet the king's character is cleverly constructed to imply a deeply flawed individual, spoilt and sulky, yet somehow charismatic. He is neither deserving of devotion nor despicable as a tyrant; his character portrays what we dislike most in present-day politicians etc. - an inability to engage with life in a real world to which they have never been party. Somehow one feels pity for Henry, his privileged upbringing has left him utterly isolated, yet he is surrounded by false friends. Cromwell is his only true ally yet Henry is often too short-sighted to appreciate his worth.
`Bring up the Bodies' is an interesting, stimulating read; the story of Anne's fall is tragic and thought provoking. The text is exceptional; the description rich and captivating, not a cliché in sight. Mantel even makes policy readable! There is moments of extreme emotion, despair, and yet humour in the oddest places; much as in reality.
I cannot wait for the next book to be released; HM please hurry!!
On reading this, I came to the conclusion that Mantel's Cromwell is a man who cannot endure hypocrisy; each man and woman must, in Cromwell's view, remain true to his or her own colours. And Cromwell has, in his opinion, remained true to his own. He has remained loyal to his family and his true friends, and he has remained loyal to Cardinal Wolsey, long since dead, but not forgotten; at least not by Cromwell. And so while Cromwell knows that the King must always be given what he wants, Cromwell has reconciled it with his conscience to be able to fulfil that demand while remaining true to his own beliefs. Hypocrisy in others must be stored up and played off, and that is what he does, when it is time to give Henry what he now wants; release from Anne.
I must admit that I had wondered how the author would treat Cromwell's part in these episodes while remaining empathetic to Cromwell (as the story is written from Cromwell's perspective, and so must show Cromwell in his own honest light); but this was brilliantly done. The author's character portrayal remains true, and Cromwell sails through his life on his even keel. But even as Anne is destroyed, Cromwell is at his most powerful, and yet most vulnerable; if Anne's enemies can remove her from the Court and the world, can they not remove Cromwell also?
A brilliant book, and a brilliant follow-up to Wolf Hall; can't wait for the final book in the trilogy when Cromwell must reconcile his life to his own fate. In this story, at least, he cannot remain a watcher on the sidelines, but must surely have to fully participate in a close investigation of his own moral and ethical values.
Sophie Elmhirst has recently written a long piece in the New Statesman about Hilary Mantel in which she says that "her Cromwell books are a combination of wild imagining and unimpeachable accuracy".
Could anyone put it better?
Wolf Hall tells the story of Thomas Cromwell's unlikely rise to prominence from humble beginnings and an abused childhood to his position as Cardinal Wolsey's 'right hand man' where he comes to the attention of Henry.
The wonderfully entitled Bring Up The Bodies (the call from the Tower of London to bring the accused to trial) continues the saga of Henry's overarching quest for a male heir. Anne Boleyn's meteoric rise and catastrophic fall from grace is a familiar story. But in Hilary Mantel's hands it fairly crackles with electro-charged excitement. Writing in the present tense gives the reader such a sense of immediacy, as though Henry's demand for a mate who will comply with his increasingly desperate mission to acquire a son is hot news. Indeed, as Sophie Elmhirst says in her New Statesman piece, it is almost as though history might be re-written: could it possibly be that Anne will knock out a boy and hold on to her head? Or will Thomas Cromwell have to use his prodigious wiles and innate ability for deadly intrigue to rid Henry of this duff and disappointing baby-making machine? There is one particular dialogue scene, about a third of the way through the book, between Anne and Cremuel (as she calls him) that is so good that it gave me - literally - tingles of pleasure and I had to put the book down for a few moments and just take a little time out to enjoy the thrill of reading such exceptional writing.
Hilary Mantel's use of the pro-noun "he" for Cromwell is controversial; once you attune yourself to it though, you will see it for the magnificent master-stroke that it is. For the Cromwell "he" is, in fact, the Mantel "I". Mantel inhabits the very mind, heart, soul and body of Thomas Cromwell. And this, I believe, is what makes this author the outstanding British writer of her generation.
If Hilary Mantel wins the Booker on 16th October, she will be the first British author to win twice. Do it, Booker panel. Bring up the accolades.
on 18 October 2013
I can now understand the look of delighted incredulity on the authoress's face when she was awarded a major literary prize for this pseudo-historical farrago. I too find it unbelievable. Although she appears to have taken the advice of some perfectly reputable Tudor historians (no: not David Starkey, which was probably wise) she writes with palpable unease and insecurity about an unfamiliar world, striking wrong notes on every page and exuding a miasma of falsely imagined "period" details which I found totally unconvincing. What jars with me most of all is that over 50 years ago another lady - H.F.M.Prescott - with genuine historical understanding (but a Roman Catholic axe to grind) wrote a superb historical novel about roughly these same Henrician times (i.e.the 1536 "Pilgrimage of Grace"), called "The Man on a Donkey" which is now sadly forgotten, but in imaginative and literary terms worth ten of this. Nonetheless, for a generation brought up on Barbara Cartland there is probably a lot of edification to be gained from a conscientious trudge through this mediocre saga.
on 2 September 2012
Having absolutely loved Wolf Hall, my impatience got the better of me and I ordered the hardback of Bring Up the Bodies. And it did not disappoint in any way. Mantel is at the height of her powers and the continuing story of the fascinating Thomas Cromwell enthralled me. But this is far more than a simple narration or historical novel. Underlying it is a complex analysis of humanity, humaneness, cruelty and frailty. I couldn't stop reading it, slowed down towards the end because I didn't want it to end, then started over again immediately. A rich experience.
on 29 September 2012
Having greatly enjoyed the Booker-winning Wolf Hall, I avidly awaited Bring Up The Bodies, and was not disappointed. Whereas Wolf Hall takes us on a longer narrative centred around the evolving power of Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII, Bring Up The Bodies is a more concentrated novel which deals primarily with the intrique and powerplays of various noble families during the time of Anne Boleyn's fall from grace. Like Wolf Hall, it's a page-turner, lovingly crafted and full of witty observations, conveying a real sense of life at court in the 16th century. Hilary Mantel expertly describes the suspicion and paranoia which abound as Cromwell orchestrates the arrest and execution of a series of men - including Anne's own brother - who are alleged to have bedded the queen, a woman of immense sexual magnetism for many. It's a different novel from Wolf Hall, and whilst it continues many of the same themes, it is much more focused on a short period of nine months in 1535-36, with most of the action in fact taking place in a three-week period in mid-1536; as a result, Cromwell's power and control are clearly evident, though even he is shown to be vulnerable to some of the intrigue and to Henry's mood swings. Apparently, Ms Mantel plans at least one more novel in the series, and I look forward to it.