"The man who commits adultery with another man's wife, he who commits adultery with his neighbor's wife, the adulterer and the adulteress, shall surely be put to death." -- Leviticus 20:10 (NKJV)
In the first book in this planned trilogy, Wolf Hall, we saw the unexpected and adept rise to power of Thomas Cromwell in serving King Henry VIII. At the end of that book, Henry was smitten with Jane Seymour and Cromwell had a sense that this was an opportunity to overcome Anne Boleyn whom he had helped to become queen at the king's request.
In Bring Up the Bodies, we follow the plottings leading up to the death of the former queen, Katherine of Aragon, the failed attempts by Anne Boleyn to provide a male heir, the rise of the Boleyns, continental power politics, and the king's (and Cromwell's) desire to gain income from church lands. The book culminates in the trial and execution of Anne Boleyn and those found guilty of adultery with her. We also see Henry VIII as an aging man, grown more foolish in his desires to stay young. With lots of dialogue and stream of consciousness narration, we see the delicate balance that Cromwell had to keep in all of his endeavors. It was a mighty challenge.
The strength of this historical novel is making the events of a distant past more understandable and emotional for us at this distance in time. I applaud Ms. Mantel again for choosing Thomas Cromwell as her narrator. He is the ideal character to cast these events into a more objective light. She lightly trods the balance between real events and guessing what Cromwell thought of them in a way that seems wholly accurate . . . while making the telling much more compelling by placing us in it as we identify with Cromwell's desire to properly serve the king's and England's interests.
The fall of Anne Boleyn has been told infinite times, certainly more so than any other episode in the reign of Henry VIII. It seems everyone, from scholarly historians to trashy novelists, has given us their version of events. However, Hilary Mantel, picking up right where she left us at the end of her award-winning Wolf Hall, manages to present a compelling and fascinating narrative, capturing the reader as if we were hearing it for the first time. As in her previous novel, events are seen through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, accompanied by a fascinating cast of characters consistently cared for, as their lives intertwine against a backdrop of historical facts. If you have read Wolf Hall, it would come as no surprise that this book is magnificently well written; if you have not, please accept my recommendation and read them both.
Recognized by none other than Time magazine literary critic Lev Grossman as one of the finest novels published this year, Hilary Mantel's "Bring Up the Bodies" is a compelling tour-de-force of a political thriller set in Henry VIII's Tudor Dynasty England, describing in vivid detail, the still mysterious circumstances leading towards the sudden downfall and execution of Henry's second wife, Anne Boleyn; their daughter would become Elizabeth I, the "Virgin Queen", admired by the likes of Sir Walter Raleigh and William Shakespeare. Mantel's latest is that rare breed of historical novel and political thriller, replete with the dazzling, lyrical prose and a most riveting plot that earned the Man Booker Prize for its predecessor, "Wolf Hall". Like its illustrious predecessor, "Bring Up the Bodies" is a riveting character study of Henry VIII's Secretary to the King and Lord Chancellor, Thomas Cromwell, newly appointed head of the Church of England, mere months after the executions of Bishop of Rochester John Fisher and Lord Chancellor Thomas More. In a literary style as compelling as any of John Le Carre's Cold War thrillers, Mantel transforms Cromwell into her George Smiley, compelled to make political alliances with the very enemies he has despised for years, merely to do his King's bidding; he is dealt with the difficult and unenviable tasks of removing the brilliant, sharp-tongued, Anne Boleyn from her throne and terminating the Boleyn family's newly risen prestige and influence at the Court, which have occurred at the expense of the "Old Families" with their valid claims to Henry's throne, and other major figures of English nobility. Like George Smiley, Cromwell has become so exasperated and weary of the Tudor Dynasty's court intrigues, that he advises his son to stay clear of it, offering him opportunities to miss the executions of Anne Boleyn and her closest male friends, falsely accused of treason against King Henry himself. With "Bring Up the Bodies", Mantel demonstrates anew that she is one of the finest historical novelists writing in the English language, a notable prose stylist, and a most compelling spinner of tales. "Bring Up the Bodies" seems destined to become a candidate for the next Man Booker Prize as well as other notable literary honors on both sides of the Atlantic; there are relatively few contemporary English language writers who could match her superb gifts for storytelling and writing prose.
Don't go to the movies, turn off the television, and settle in for one of the most arresting listening experiences to be found. Bring Up the Bodies has everything - intrigue, passion, deception, treason, suspense, and it is a magnificent, richly imagined work. A multi prize winner Mantel is a unique author as her words thrust listeners into the midst of drama and, in this case, Simon Vance's superb voice performance carries us to Henry VIII's court where Thomas Cromwell struggles to fulfill the King's every whim.
In this sequel to Mantel's widely acclaimed Booker Prize winning Wolf Hall we listen to the machinations at court in 1536 when Henry has wearied of the now imperious Anne Boleyn who in addition to boring his majesty has been unable to give him a son. She has alienated many and forgiven few. With the death of Henry's first wife, the exiled Katherine of Aragon, only Anne stands between the king's desire for Jane Seymour.
It is up to Cromwell to satisfy Henry. Thus, over what seems to be a short period of time Anne finds herself the center of a plot to find her guilty of adultery and treason. Mantel examines this in vivid detail so well that it is as if one were eavesdropping on the characters, whether it is Cromwell thinking, remembering his youth or the Boleyns fighting to protect their place or the quiet Jane waiting, waiting.
Simon Vance is enormously talented as is noted by his four Audie Awards, 38 Earphone awards, and other honors. Listening to him is both pleasure and privilege. Don't miss his narration of Bring Up The Bodies!
- Gail Cooke
on September 16, 2013
I was sorry to come to the end of Bring Up The Bodies, sequel to Wolf Hall. Hilary Mantel's narrative style totally absorbs the reader, as you beoome one of the bystanders, listening in on the gossip and intrigues of Henry VIII"s court. Nevertheless, have to concede reading Wolf Hall was a slog at the beginning until I became used to Mantel's style of writing, ultimately seeing the brilliant manner in which she creates the atmosphere and manner of speaking of Henry's time, and how she fleshes out each of the principal characters. It becomes apparent that Henry, while brilliant, was an extremely self-centered and somewhat paranoid individual who made great demands of his courtiers, in particular Thomas Cromwell who is the major and most fascinating character in both these books. I look forward to the third of Hilary Mantel's trilogy, hopefully soon. Both books worth rereads.
on January 6, 2013
With her two volumes Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel has changed the history of England. Humanizing Thomas Cromwell and his relationship with Cardinal Woolsey in the first volume, and adding surprising (but plausible) dimensions to Anne Boleyn, in this second volume were riveting aspects. She engages us with a 'family' of many characters who play out historical circumstances that still reverberate today: the church and the emergence of the state, the rich and poor, power and politics. I await volume three with great anticipation.
on August 2, 2012
This book covers less than a year in the lives of Henry VIII and his facilitator and Master Secretary, Thomas Cromwell. King Henry, after having gone to a great deal of trouble to rid himself of his wife of 20 years, Katherine, in order to marry Anne Boleyn, who has now been crowned Queen Anne, has grown tired of Anne, especially since she failed to provide him with a son and male heir. He now has his eye on Jane Seymour, a plain and timid lady whom he finds restful compared to the volatile Anne and it is Cromwell's task to clear the way for Henry to marry her. The book is told from Cromwell's point of view and it is fascinating to follow his machinations, his attention to detail and the ruthlessness with which he makes people guilty of sins he knows they may not have committed, just as long as his objectives are served. The book also shows his more human side, in the treatment of his household staff and proteges! I would recommend this book to anyone who loves historical fiction and who loved "Wolf Hall" by the same author.
on April 14, 2014
This is a worthy successor to Wolf Hall, and in my opinion, a better novel. The first ends with a marriage; the 2nd with an execution. I much prefer executions to marriages. The intrigue surrounding the elevation of Ann Boleyn and the banishment of Katherine of Arragon from the royal bed, is modest stuff compared with the sexual politics that led to the former losing her head, as well as her crown. Hilary Mantel charts her every false step on the way to the block with intense precision, and a densely textured narrative that skillfully combines clarity and an ambiguity that is essential for an author who attempts to make her fiction match the truth of History. No one can be certain of the absence or extent of Ann’s guilt, and in the context of this novel it is not all that important. It is a foil with which to explore many intriguing issues: the rise of a blacksmith’s son to penultimate power in a court dominated by venal aristocrats busy looking over their shoulders as they stab the back of the courtier in front of them; the brutal clash between Church and State in which the former is stripped of its wealth and the latter of its soul; the initiatives and concessions needed to secure England’s peace with Europe, or a position of unassailable strength through strategic alliances, marriage being the most durable form of diplomatic cement; the gluttonous appetites of newly-promoted families for power and position-------indeed the fall of the Boleyn family is such a satisfying outcome that it almost justifies Anne’s demise for that reason alone.
Every good novel needs a hero, and in Thomas Cromwell, Mantel has found or created one to suit her purpose admirably. As a devoted husband, now widower; an exemplary father who has lost all but one of his children, and whose own childhood was marred by paternal cruelty and brutality; a loyal disciple of his mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, who displays equal loyalty and concern for the disciples whose mentor he has now become; he stands as a beacon of common decency in a world of deceit. Mantel paints him, in biblical terms, as a “Noah in his Generation”: no big compliment in being the best of a generation so evil, that God decided to eradicate human life from the planet he had created only a short time ago. Actually, it is not quite like that. As with the very best novelists, Mantel creates or recruits characters who mix good and evil in varying proportions into different shades of gray. Thomas’ father Walter is about as monochromatic as she will allow in her cast of thousands, apart from whom there is no other that lacks some likable features. Her writing is scholarly; at times pedantic; at others mellifluous to the point of daring the reader to recite it rather than read it so that its sonority will not go unappreciated; but she is not shy about words, ideas, or actions that 50 years ago would have raised the hackles of the censors.
The enormity of the number of characters places a great strain on the reader’s memory, but the task is made easier by a sort of Cast List that precedes the opening of the novel, and also by the fact that we have met most of them before in Wolf Hall. In fact it is pretty senseless to tackle this one prior to the latter, any more than one can start a Play in the 2nd Act. There will after all be a 3rd to follow, that apparently is already written. As in WH, the production standards of this paperback version are very satisfactory: thick paper, clear medium-sized print, and reasonably durable covers. At Amazon’s price, averaging out around 3 cents per page, this is not only great literature: it is also great economics.
Though the novelist is humble enough to not see herself as a historian when it comes to writing historical fiction, she does not demur from offering her special take on the facts that she uses to weave her intriguing tales. "Bring Up the Bodies", her latest foray into the Machiavellian world of Tudor politics, provides one such interpretation of the chain of events that ultimately led to the downfall of the House of Boleyn in 1535. As usual, it is not wise, when trying to follow the many interconnected circumstances of history, to resort to simplification as an expedient way to uncover the truth. Henry didn't have Anne executed simply because she couldn't bear him a male child and was a witch into the bargain. Her proposal, as to a more reasonable take on this fascinating but tragic train of events, includes a cast of political and religious operatives that consists of the best of the who's who in the English court of the day. While the rumor mill and conspiracy theories work overtime in this historical novel, it is the actual gathering of events that makes the narrative come alive. Chief Secretary to the King, Thomas Cromwell, appears to be a man on the rise. As a lawyer, he has wiggled his way into the king's favour at a critical time in the kingdom. A major paradigm shift is underway and Cromwell, a mere commoner, like his reform allies, the grasping aristocratic Boleyns, are for the time being on the right side of history. Henry is on the verge of establishing himself as the absolute head of the Church of England and those who can best serve his capricious will quickly become very wealthy and powerful. While the Boleyns rush to claim the mantle, to the point of trying to monopolize their influence over Henry, Cromwell and his contacts work quietly behind the scenes waiting for that moment when the future falls in line with the present. Thomas, like his previous allies now turned rivals, wants to reap the rewards of his office, be it land, money, or power, and will stop at nothing to make it happen as long it doesn't jeopardize his sense of security. Mantel's rendition of this much hashed-over historical plot centers on the notion that Cromwell managed to find an effective way to destroy the Boleyns before they ruined him: alienate Henry's affections for Anne. Once that thread came loose, the whole cloth of Boleyn aspirations unravelled in rapid succession because they were so full of themselves that they could not imagine Cromwell to be a real threat to their plans. Wolf Hall, the ancestral home of the disarmingly quiet and political circumspect Seymours, becomes the place from which the destructive forces of change are unleashed on those who are blithely unaware of the dangers around them. I found this book able to accurately cover the main incidents in such a deft way as to offer an plausible reason for two of the Boleyn children being beheaded for their roles in a set-up orchestrated by a crafty politician who believed he had everything to lose if he let events overtake him.
In `Bring Up The Bodies', which covers the period from September 1535 to the summer of 1536, Thomas Cromwell has become Master Secretary and is an architect of the Reformation currently under way. Cardinal Wolsey and Sir Thomas More are now amongst the dead but they are still influential in Thomas Cromwell's mind, together with his deceased wife and daughters. In life, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and Emperor Charles V's ambassador, Eustace Chapuys are important: Cromwell's relationship with each fluctuates, depending in part on the King's needs.
`The king gives him titles that no one abroad understands and jobs that no one at home can do.'
Henry's marriage to Katherine of Aragon has been annulled, and she is dying, under house arrest and not allowed contact with her daughter Mary. The Boleyns hold sway at court, but Anne has failed to deliver a male heir. What will happen to Thomas Cromwell, if Anne is doomed? Henry raises, with Cromwell, the possibility that his union with Anne might be illegal. And with Katherine dead, in January 1536, he will be free to marry. Cromwell is alarmed initially, but he has survived by being adaptable.
`What is the nature of the border between truth and lies? It is permeable and blurred because it is planted thick with confabulation, misunderstandings and twisted tales.'
Within three weeks, between the end of April and the middle of May 1536, Anne and her alleged lovers are tried, found guilty of treason and executed. Thoughts are as dangerous as actions in this world: the King's needs must be met.
`The order goes to the Tower, `Bring up the bodies.' Deliver, that is, the accused men by name Weston, Brereton, Smeaton and Norris to Westminster Hall for trial.'
While cross-examining Henry Norris, Thomas Cromwell is re-allocating Norris's houses and lands. The ultimate multi-tasker, is Thomas Cromwell.
We know that Anne is beheaded. But until it happens, Cromwell does not. Anne is beheaded by sword, her women in attendance:
`Then they straighten up, each of them awash in her blood, and stiffly walk away, closing their ranks like soldiers.'
Reading this novel is a journey within Thomas Cromwell's mind as envisaged by Hilary Mantel. We have actions and motivations, a clear sense of why Cromwell acts the way he does and little independent or external sense of the other people involved. And Cromwell himself is a fascinating contradiction. Small things occupy his mind as much as the great affairs of state, his imagined life is as important as the history taking place around him. Thomas Cromwell is the centre of this novel; most others (even the King, sometimes) occupy the shadows. Any description of scenery and of time and place is rare, and almost unnecessary.
I enjoyed this novel immensely: I am rethinking my views about Thomas Cromwell and the first two books in Ms Mantel's trilogy have set the scene for the third in which, surely, Cromwell's own downfall must be central. All that Cromwell knows is the past, and during this novel he often revisits it.
`There are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings. Here is one.'