Hilary Mantel: Bring up the Bodies
Hilary Mantel’s follow-up to Wolf Hall takes up the story of Thomas Cromwell again. Anne Boleyn is now married to Henry VIII after his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Mantel’s stock in trade has often been to portray those who are somewhat marginalised form mainstream society and, while no-one could say that Cromwell, as the adviser to King Henry VIII, was marginalised, he is a commoner (as he is frequently reminded) dealing mainly with the aristocracy. In addition, history has often condemned him as a ruthless schemer, while Mantel, though definitely not ignoring his scheming, shows an essentially decent and loyal man, trying to do his best for his king and country. His transgressions, e.g. the hanging of some Irish people (Not many: just the right ones), are passed over. Only towards the end, when he needs to”prove” Anne Boleyn’s infidelity, does his more ruthless side appear but, even then, he is not ferocious, just a man doing his duty. One of the key issues of Wolf Hall is the execution of Thomas More, whom history has judged far more kindly than it has judged Cromwell. Similarly, in this book, Mantel certainly does not take the conventional view.
Apart from Henry VIII and Cromwell, the main character is Anne Boleyn. History has generally judged her kindly but Mantel is more critical. Anne comes across as scheming, selfish and vindictive. Understandably, she hates her predecessor, Catherine of Aragon, and Catherine’s daughter, Mary, the future Queen Mary. They, too, do not come out too well in this book, both shown as being overly pious. Anne’s job is, at least in the eyes of her husband and his courtiers, very simple – to bear a male heir. While she does have a daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth I, she has several miscarriages and does not produce a male heir. During the course of the book, we gradually see Henry moving towards favouring Jane Seymour, daughter of the owner of Wolf Hall, and away from Anne. Much of the plot is Henry’s gradual wooing of her – will he take her as his mistress or his wife? – and how will he dispose of Anne – sending her to a convent is a favourite option.
But Henry has other problems – his finances (helped by raiding the monasteries, which are shown as rich and run by lazy and greedy abbots and monks), his relations with the rest of Europe, not least because Catherine of Aragon is the aunt of the Holy Rome Emperor Charles V and those English Catholics still loyal to the Pope. But, though we do see these problems and how Cromwell deals with them, particularly in his relations with his next-door neighbour Eustache Chapuys, ambassador to the Holy Roman Empire, the main issue is how Henry (with the aid of Cromwell) will get rid of Anne (who has powerful relatives, including the Duke of Norfolk) and replace her with Jane Seymour. As in the previous book, the focus is on Cromwell and, as Mantel says in the afterword, this book is not about Anne Boleyn but about Thomas Cromwell. But though Cromwell is the main focus, Mantel’s skill is to show many other characters, often relatively minor in her story, who stand out clearly, from the gruff Duke of Suffolk to the seemingly meek Jane Seymour, who may not be quite as meek as she comes across, from the arrogant George Boleyn to Gregory Cromwell, who had his father’s decency but not his father’s guile or single-mindedness.
When I started reading this book, I felt that, while still an excellent novel, it was not as good at its predecessor. However, as I got into it, it very much grew on me and it clearly does stand besides Wolf Hall. Even though we know full well what will happen to Anne Boleyn (who is possibly the wife of Henry VIII who has had most written about her), following Cromwell’s moves and the reactions of the other characters – from Anne’s uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, who is more concerned with protecting the good name of his family than protecting the life of his niece to the various accused who think that their (in their view) innocence will protect them from Cromwell’s wiles and determination – is what makes this novel so fascinating. We can only look forward to the final novel in his trilogy, which will take us, as Mantel has already said, to the death of Cromwell.
First published 2012 by Fourth Estate