Book Review: Bring up the Bodies by Hillary Mantel

Unlike Wolf Hall which was a humunguolicious book, Bring up the Bodies seems almost small in comparison though at four hundred pages small is a relative term.

It is concerned with a smaller sequence of events though – the trial and end of Anne Boleyn (more in the nature of a sophisticated witch hunt) and the rise of Jane Seymour in Henry the Eighths’ England.

Mantel’s skill is not downsized by the scale of the book.

Everything is filtered through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall’s main protagonist. Somewhere in the middle of the book we hear a passing reference to Katherine Howard. Just a flutter in the breeze but we know she will take centre stage in the next book.

While politics and continuing reformation are still the backdrop things are less frenzied in England circa 1536. Plague has receded, the king’s enemies and traitors are dead, and an ill first wife dutifully dies. Thomas Cromwell has left Tomaso far behind and reigns supreme as the King’s right hand.

Cromwell’s remarkable ability to see things and people for what they are himself included makes us like him forgetting for a moment that his own blurring of right and wrong , good and evil have cost innocent men and women their lives. But Thomas knows he is morally culpable. At Anne Boleyn’s trial he reflects, “I have done what I thought I could never achieve. I have taken adultery, incest, conspiracy and treason and I have made them routine.”

Bit players are vividly evoked. Edward Seymour, Rafe, Richard Rich, the innkeeper’s wife, Archbishop Cranmer, the courtiers Norris and Smeaton, George Boleyn’s wife Lady Rochford play their parts to perfection. Some will take centre stage in history later; some will disappear by the end of the book.

There is a masterstroke in presenting us human machinations when the King ‘dies’ briefly.

In actual fact he is knocked out in a joust and does recover but for a brief moment everyone shows their true colours. Political plans and machinations begin; claims are staked for succession, side’s taken and ambitious intent flashed. It is like seeing a hologram reveal its three dimensional nature only to blur back into a flat surface later.

Anne does not get the author’s sympathy – I would have preferred a more spirited Anne at the end. Jane Seymour is interesting as a character but not riveting as yet.

The term ‘Bring up the bodies’ refers to the order to bring prisoners up for trial from the Tower. It is ironic that they are already seen as mere bodies before the trial, a precursor to the judgment that will follow.

Now we will wait for the last book of this series when we will say goodbye to Thomas, himself a victim of the politics and policies he unleashed. We know he will be dead in four years, beheaded. We know the speech he will make before he dies.

What we don’t know is how Mantel will show us the workings of his mind as his last days approach. That will make it worth the wait.

Cromwell’s portrait by Hans Holbein from Wikipedia

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Claire Ady says:

    this one was so much easier to read than Wolf Hall. both fabulous though. and in case people are interested to know – that painting you’ve chosen to illustrate the post – it’s in the Frick collection in Manhattan

  2. geeta's list says:

    thanks claire for pointing out this portrait of thomas cromwell hangs in the frick gallery.Is this the one that hangs opposite a portrait of thomas moore? i got this off wiki. there is a mention in the book about how thomas views this portrait by hans holbein

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