Mantel’s research has obviously been very extensive. Food, drink, Christmas decorations, clothes, letter-writing and a whole lot more are all introduced into the text in considerable detail, while at the same time the characters’ feelings are presented cogently and credibly. People in 16th century England were no more insensitive to beheadings than we would be today, and Mantel makes sure we realize the fact.
Henry’s character is largely kept in the background. He was the man you might, if you were Cromwell, find yourself sitting next to at dinner, observing the gravy dribbling down his beard even as he takes a catnap after the main course. But even so his word was law, and the penalty for unsheathing a weapon in the royal presence was, according to Mantel, the amputation of the offending hand. In these circumstances, the apparent facts that this physically massive man had a high voice and, reputedly, a small penis were generally left unremarked on.
It’s easy to see how post-structuralists and the like would view Mantel as a dangerously conservative figure. She makes comments such as women’s charms vanish with age, and that men enjoy sexual variety, without, as it were, batting an eyelid. Business, she also remarks, has always been accompanied by the payment of facilitating gifts. And there are few proletarian characters in evidence in the novel. But many, even most, creative writers adopt these or similar positions, and revolutionaries usually have more urgent things to do than devote their talents to the writing of fiction.
This is a gripping novel, though it’s interesting to note that, of the 47 writers who contributed to a recent round up of the most memorable books of the year in the UK’s Times Literary Supplement (TLS), none opted to include Bring Up the Bodies. The TLS editor, Peter Stothard, however, presumably judged it the best of the 145 novels he claims that, as chairman of the Man Booker committee, he had to read. Anyway, those with less time on their hands than Stothard could do a lot worse than read it, and anyone with a particular interest in Henry VIII and his court will no doubt have already rushed out to get their hands on a copy.
The historical Thomas Cromwell was himself beheaded four years after this novel ends. Mantel is currently working on a third and final volume in the series, apparently to be called “The Mirror and the Light.”