Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies won the 2012 UK Man Booker Prize for fiction. It’s the sequel to the author’s Wolf Hall, which won the same prize in 2009, making Mantel the first female writer ever to win it twice.
It continues the story of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s right-hand man and general enforcer. The subject this time is the downfall of Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, condemned for adultery after she had failed to provide the king with a male heir.
The novel begins with the king’s progress through rural southern England in the summer of 1535, hunting with hawks by day and sleeping in a series of noble houses at night. While staying at Wolf Hall itself, seat of the Seymour family, Henry begins to flirt with the notably plain and unambitious Jane Seymour. With the idea of making her his third wife now lodged in his head, the removal of Anne Boleyn moves to the forefront of state policy. Thomas Cromwell’s job is to make sure this comes about.
First, however, there is the question of Henry’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon, now living under house arrest in the east of England. After being married to the king for over 20 years and producing a daughter, Mary, but no son, she is now ailing fast, and dies during the time covered by the novel. Anne Boleyn also had a daughter, Elizabeth, and both these young girls are destined to rule England in their own right in the future, following the rein of Edward, Henry’s son by Jane Seymour.
Mantel’s method is to follow affairs largely as Cromwell sees them. She uses a form of stream-of-consciousness (following the unspoken thoughts and impressions of a character), interspersed with acute observations and incisive remarks. The result is a text that’s vivid without being judgmental, that is crammed with the sights and smells of Tudor England but is skeptical, at least on the surface, about motives and moral responsibility in general.
BRING UP THE BODIES
By Hilary Mantel
The traditional view of Thomas Cromwell (indirectly related to Oliver Cromwell via his, Thomas’s, sister) has been routinely hostile. This was the man who organized the dissolution of the monasteries and the dispersal of their lands and wealth to the king’s friends, and who set in train various acts of brutal statecraft that Henry himself preferred not to contemplate too closely. Mantel, however, by and large leaves his character open, asking us, as it were, to judge him by his acts. It’s an interesting procedure. When at home he appears kindly and congenial, but when we listen to him trapping the courtiers who are to be accused of being Anne Boleyn’s lovers the blood runs cold.
The novel ends with Anne’s execution. Henry had brought in a special executioner from France and he slices her head off with a long sword as she kneels in an upright position on the scaffold. His plan, he explained beforehand, was to surprise her, so that she didn’t realize who her executioner was to be until it was too late.
Five male courtiers have earlier been beheaded on suspicion of having been Anne’s lovers. This takes place in more conventional fashion, with the fifth nearly slipping over in the mass of blood from the execution of the previous four on the stones of the Tower of England. Mantel has commented in an interview that we know nothing for certain about Anne’s guilt or otherwise; she may have had 100 extra-marital lovers, as some maintained at the time, or possibly none at all.