by Hilary Mantel
Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2012
To begin, I would like to note that I was given credit in the last issue of Coastal Breeze for the article on “Killing Kennedy.” In fact, my partner in crime, Diane Bostick, is the author and deserves your accolades for sharing her excellent reflections on the book as well as her reminiscences of the JFK era.
No doubt, many of you are familiar with Hilary Mantel and may have read “Wolf Hall,” her novel published three years ago, which won the prestigious British Man Booker prize. “Bring Up The Bodies” is the sequel to “Wolf Hall,” but you can relish this book without having read the prequel. It definitely stands on its own. If you are wondering about the title, bring up the bodies was the phrase used by the jailers at the Tower of London when taking prisoners to court for their trials.
Hilary tells the story of Anne Boleyn’s downfall from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, the Secretary to the King, Deputy of the Head of the Church of England, and Chancellor Cambridge University, or as Hilary Mantel titles him, “The minister of everything.” Henry VIII, like most English kings, loved to bestow titles and such on those who did his bidding and Cromwell definitely did his bidding. Actually, part of Cromwell’s genius was that he could anticipate the king’s bidding.
It is a very clever technique to use Cromwell as the protagonist rather than Henry VIII. We are all familiar with Henry’s story and have seen it depicted by some great actors on the big screen or on stage, and read about it in the history books and historical novels (but definitely not on Showtime’s The Tudors). By placing Cromwell at the center of this time period, Hilary has given us a wide-angle view of that world instead of the narrow focus on royal characters that we usually get. In her story, we see how Cromwell functions in the purview where he is the lord and master, bombarded by those wishing to ingratiate themselves to him as well as those who want to unseat him.
Covering the span of a year, she begins in September 1535, shortly after Thomas More was beheaded. Anne Boleyn is now Queen, toddler daughter Elizabeth is thriving, the people’s beloved Katherine is on her deathbed, having been exiled to a remote manor north of London, daughter Mary is in protective custody (house arrest) elsewhere, and Henry is still yearning for a legitimate male heir. The bloom is off the rose of his romance with Anne Boleyn and he is making overtures to Jane Seymour at the same time he is doing his duty to conceive a male child with his queen. Hedging his bets, as it appears to Cromwell who is sure Anne will be out of the picture soon if no male heir appears pronto.
Usually when writing this column, it’s a concern not to reveal too much of the book, in order not to spoil the appetite of anyone who might be interested in reading it. That’s not a problem with historical novels. We all know what happened to all the major characters in this story, so there is really no plot to ruin. What Hilary Mantel has done is to make Cromwell a three-dimensional person, not simply the heartless tyrant that was portrayed in say, “A Man For All Seasons,” authored by Robert Bolt. We see his life outside the intrigue of the royal court and the royal chambers.
We learn about his brutal childhood and his life in Europe where he learned several languages and experienced many cultures, actually making him more learned and sophisticated than many of the royalty of his day. He was a widower, father, brother, who was more concerned about the poor and jobless of England than were the members of the Commons. She fleshes out his character by describing his day dreams, revealing his care for the household of Cardinal Wolsey, his mentor, after the Cardinal’s death, and his relationships with his, Cromwell’s, sons. Also, she provides vivid details of jousting, meals, fashion for both the ladies and gentlemen, the routine of their daily lives, and the gossip of the Londoners. With “The Book of Henry,” she employs a technique allowing Cromwell to let the reader know what he really thought about Henry.
But the core of the book addresses the political acumen of Cromwell and his life on the precipice of Henry’s court. He was aware of his great power and influence, but also of his enemies and the volatility of Henry Tudor. One small step in the wrong direction could end everything. All the king’s men led by Cromwell gather forces to bring down Anne Boleyn once Henry has set his mind on Jane Seymour. Anne is accused of sorcery, adultery, and cavorting with her brother. The interrogation scenes in this latter part of the book chilled me to the bone. They are some of the best dialogue I have ever read – I swear I felt I was in the midst of the room with them.
In the course of barely three weeks, they arrested, tried, convicted, and beheaded four men and one queen. Henry spent seven years fighting to marry this queen, barely three years married to her, and once he was disenchanted, he dispatched her fate to Cromwell. Henry spent his days in his chambers and his nights going down river to visit Jane Seymour. Ten days after Anne’s beheading, Henry married Jane Seymour.
Hilary Mantel won an unprecedented second Man Booker prize for this book in October 2012. The last of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, “The Mirror and The Light,” is being written now, publishing date not yet announced.
If you love stories about royal/political intrigue, enjoy historical novels, or you simply delight in a great read, this book will not disappoint. It is written by a master storyteller who has done her historical homework.
Maggie Gust is a life-long avid reader whose career path has included working as a teacher and in the health care field. A native of Illinois, she has lived in Florida since 1993 and presently works from her home on Marco Island.