Historical Fiction Roundup 5: Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Bring Up The Bodies is an appropriate title for the second book in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy of novels about Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith’s son from Putney who rose to become King Henry VIII’s chief minister and one of the principal architects of the Church of England. The people who Cromwell lost over the course of the first novel, Wolf Hall, continue to shape his worldview as he negotiates the rise and fall of Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn. Cromwell’s falcons are named for the wife and daughters he lost to the sweating sickness, and the late sisters who cared for him as a child.

Thomas More has been executed for refusing to sign the Act of Supremacy but Cromwell still finds himself imagining debates with his old adversary. Even the political events surrounding the King’s first marriage are informed by the dead. The question of whether Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, consummated her first marriage with the King’s late brother, Arthur, Prince of Wales informs the debates regarding the validity of her queenship. Catherine’s own death will change the fortunes of her successor Anne Boleyn so dramatically that the more superstitious characters in the novel wonder if she reached out from beyond the grave to smite her rival.

While Wolf Hall covered Thomas Cromwell’s rise from blacksmith’s son, to soldier to fortune, to prodigy of the powerful Cardinal Wolsey, to successful lawyer, to royal chancellor, Bring Up The Bodies is the tightly focused story of Anne Boleyn’s fall from grace and the rise in fortune of the Seymour family of Wolf Hall. Mantel draws heavily on the research of scholars Eric Ives and G.W. Bernard in the crafting of her narrative, recreating a political conspiracy to remove the Boleyn faction from the court and replace them with the seemingly more tractable Seymours.

Cromwell recognizes the conflicts emerging in the King’s second marriage and fears he will experience the same disgrace as Cardinal Wolsey, another deceased figure who shapes the action in the novel, if he doesn’t ensure his master’s happiness with a new wife. The question of whether Anne Boleyn was actually guilty of adultery, the chief accusation leveled at her trial is left open, particularly her relationship with Henry Norris. The charge of witchcraft receives less attention, and historian Retha Warnicke’s theory that Anne might have sealed her fate by miscarrying a deformed male child does not influence the events of the novel.

In all her novels, Mantel has a gift choosing the perfect turn of phrase to summarize the essence of a character. Cromwell percieves Anne Boleyn as a woman so stylish and elegant that beauty is beside the point while Jane Seymour “looks upon men as though they are an unpleasant surprise” Both Henry VIII’s second and third wives are presented as calculating figures responsible for advancing the fortunes of their families. Anne may appear confident and Jane may appear meek but they are both persuing the same goal as Anne’s success has emboldened other English families to imagine their own daughters as potential wives for the King. The reminisenses of Catherine of Aragon in her last months form a touching counterpoint to the scheming at court as she remembers the first years of their marriage when he brought her silk roses to celebrate the birth of her son. Cromwell finds himself wondering how English history might have been different if that baby had survived.

Bring Up The Bodies is a compelling dramatization of the fall of Anne Boleyn. The use of Thomas Cromwell as the narrator and Mantel’s gift for bringing her characters to life with wit and telling details makes this novel stand out from all the other retellings of the famous collapse of Henry VII’s second marriage. It will be interesting to see how Mantel handles Cromwell’s own fall from grace in the final novel of her fascinating trilogy.

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