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.
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.
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.”