I wrote a three-part review of Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies when it came out in hardback last year, which I’ll cannibalize right after this short paragraph, which is lazy, but hey, sorry. Anyway, Bodies is new in trade paperback from Picador, freshly blazoned with the Booker Prize sticker. When Mantel won the award the second time, there was a lot of grumbling and mockery in my Twitter stream—terms like middlebrow and hack were thrown around. I think a lot of this derision comes from 1). the perception that the Wolf Hall trilogy is genre fiction and 2). dare I say it, unreflective sexism. Anway, I thought both books were great and am looking forward to the third. Here is me plagiarizing myself:
Bring Up the Bodies—now seems as good a time as any to point out that, hey, that’s just a great title—Bring Up the Bodies picks up right where Wolf Hall left off. Just as that first book throws its audience into the deep end, with one of the more bewildering openings in recent memory, so too does Bring Up the Bodies begin abruptly in media res. Please forgive me if I begin in the middle of things as well—to be clear, it’s not a good idea to jump into Bodies until you’ve read Wolf Hall. And Wolf Hall is worth your time.
It’s 1535 and our protagonist Thomas Cromwell is 50 and starting to feel his age (he laments at one point that he no longer remembers any of the snippets of Welsh he once knew; he can no longer play tennis). His prince, King Henry VIII, is also quickly aging, his body turning to the fat lump that we tend to picture him as these days. An expanding tummy is the least of Henry’s worries, however—and Henry’s worries are Cromwell’s worries. The major plot arc will likely be Henry’s plans to oust his newish bride Anne Boleyn, a repetition of sorts from Wolf Hall, where Henry and Cromwell (mostly Cromwell) worked to annul Henry’s marriage to Queen Katherine. Obviously though, we can’t accuse Mantel of a lack of imagination in crafting her plots. She’s working from history of course, and what’s most amazing about both Wolf Halland Bring Up the Bodies is how Mantel invigorates that history. Who knew the hoary Tudor saga needed a retelling?
It works here of course because Cromwell is such a fascinating character. Mantel anchors her impeccable free indirect style in Cromwell’s mind, and she channels his intense intellect with sharp grace. Here’s a remarkable passage that somehow summarizes (broadly, of course) much of Wolf Hall and showcases Mantel’s ability to move her prose seamlessly from exterior to interior, from how others might see Cromwell to how he might understand himself:
Thomas Cromwell is now about fifty years old. He has a labourer’s body, stocky, useful, running to fat. He has black hair, greying now, and because of his pale impermeable skin, which seems designed to resist rain as well as sun, people sneer that his father was an Irishman, though really he was a brewer and a blacksmith at Putney, a shearsman too, a man with a finger in every pie, a scrapper and brawler, a drunk and a bully, a man often hauled before the justices for punching someone, for cheating someone. How the son of such a man has achieved his present eminence is a question all Europe asks. Some say he came up with the Boleyns, the queen’s family. Some say it was wholly through the late Cardinal Wolsey, his patron; Cromwell was in his confidence and made money for him and knew his secrets. Others say he haunts the company of sorcerers. He was out of the realm from boyhood, a hired soldier, a wool trader, a banker. No one knows where he has been and who he has met, and he is in no hurry to tell them. He never spares himself in the king’s service, he knows his worth and merits and makes sure of his reward: offices, perquisites and title deeds, manor houses and farms. He has a way of getting his way, he has a method; he will charm a man or bribe him, coax him or threaten him, he will explain to a man where his true interests lie, and he will introduce that same man to aspects of himself he didn’t know existed. Every day Master Secretary deals with grandees who, if they could, would destroy him with one vindictive swipe, as if he were a fly. Knowing this, he is distinguished by his courtesy, his calmness and his indefatigable attention to England’s business. He is not in the habit of explaining himself. He is not in the habit of discussing his successes. But whenever good fortune has called on him, he has been there, planted on the threshold, ready to fling open the door to her timid scratch on the wood.
Of course, good fortune is not without its headaches, and Bring Up the Bodies quickly establishes the daily grind of being the king’s chief minister. Cromwell has to worry about the uncertain finances of the kingdom; the plots of the Catholic Church; the ever-present threat of Katherine’s nephew, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor; Cromwell also has to worry about scheming at court and gossip in the towns. And yet he keeps a level head, even as he appeals to his memories of the late Cardinal Wolsey, who hangs like an ironic ghost over the early chapters of Bring Up the Bodies. (I’m hoping Wolsey’s ghost will continue to haunt the book). It’s when Cromwell turns his sharp mind to a critique of the cleric class (he’d turn out all the abbeys and seize their coffers), or to a flat rebuttal of the concept of confession (“God doesn’t require an intermediary”), or even when he sniffs at Machiavelli as too conservative that we see in Cromwell the advent of modernity.
Mantel’s ability to express Cromwell’s keen intelligence reanimates the Tudor saga, which I frankly could give a rat’s ass about on its own. Okay, the plot is fascinating, but much of history fascinates. What’s remarkable is the manner by which Mantel channel’s Cromwell’s mind. His brain is always at work, and Mantel shows us that brain at work. It would be a mistake to suggest that Bring Up the Bodies has no prose style, but it’s difficult to describe the style—Mantel elides authorial intrusion; her free indirect style stays close to Cromwell’s perceptions, but she knows when to move her camera out, knows when to show her audience a shot of his face or a gesture of his hand when he receives some piece of information or imparts some command. She rarely tells us what Cromwell is thinking, instead allowing us to go through the cognitive process with him.
And that cognitive process never rests. There’s a remarkable passage near the end of the book that ties together so many of the book’s themes and images. I would quote in full but I listened to the audio, so I’ll have to paraphrase (forgiveness, please). Cromwell is busy making arrangements for the executions of Boleyn and the men accused of sleeping with her, and his mind turns somehow to imagery of gristle and bone and fat—and he wonders what the ancient Greek pagans and Hebrews of the bible did with the meat from their sacrifices—Surely they didn’t waste the meat, surely they gave it to the poor, he thinks. Cromwell figures Boleyn as a sacrifice and then converts that sacrifice into a concern for the common people of the commonwealth.
Of course, it’s a mistake to see Cromwell’s motivations as absolutely pure. The revenge plot of Bring Up the Bodies unfolds so smoothly that the reader (okay, this reader) is slow to catch on, to see how delicately and expertly Cromwell snares those who brought down his beloved mentor Cardinal Wolsey. His control is so precise (Mantel’s control is so precise) that he refuses to tip his hand to himself, let alone the schemers around him, let alone the reader.
Still, Bring Up the Bodies concludes with an uneasy Cromwell, a man already looking for solace in grandchildren, in some kind of futurity, in a life (in a rare metatextual gesture on Mantel’s part) on paper, a figure marked in ink and words. He’s too perceptive—too sharp a reader—not to see the writing on the wall, even if that wall is some years out, even if that writing is still malleable and undefined. Cromwell has controlled the myriad political, familial, and personal circumstances that surround the wishes of his prince, King Henry, but he knows that it’s only a matter of time before his favor falls.
Bring Up the Bodies is a fantastic sequel to Wolf Hall, picking up the reins in media res, yet never resting on that first book’s tropes (“Choose your prince”; “Arrange your face”), but rather absorbing them and then adding to them. Mantel has given those of us not particularly interested in historical fiction a great reason to read some, although dithering about genre seems silly here. Ultimately, she gives us a powerful, character-driven story, a story that we think we already know, but understand anew in her retelling. Recommended.