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Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

This is the sequel to the excellent Wolf Hall.  I had not ever intended to read Wolf Hall – I felt like Philippa Gregory had “done” the Tudors for me.  But I kept picking it up and putting it down in bookshops and so I decided just to give in and read it.  Wolf Hall deals with the breakdown of Henry VIII’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon and the rise of Anne Boleyn.  Bring up the Bodies is the next instalment in a trilogy, and this deals with Henry’s burgeoning doubts about Anne Boleyn and her eventual fall.

Like Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies is told from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, who is generally portrayed as a pretty unsympathetic and much reviled character.  Hilary Mantel’s version of Cromwell is anything but – she really makes him human and above all a survivor.  His affection for his family and his household is touching, but he is also a man who will get the job done and make himself rich in the process.

Mantel writes in the third person present tense and I think that is part of the genius of her writing – everything is very intense and alive, but at the same time you barely notice the writing and techniques she uses to suck you in, which is the mark of a truly great writer.  It is quite different from Wolf Hall – that was all about Thomas Cromwell on the rise and Bring up the Bodies is about him maintaining his favour with the King.  From Cromwell’s point of view, Anne Boleyn has to go, for if she doesn’t he will meet the same fate as Cardinal Wolesy – he has to strike her before she can strike him.  But throughout the book, the subtle seeds are sown which will eventually lead to his own downfall in the next instalment.

One of the things that had put me off reading Wolf Hall originally was the size – I was worried about becoming bogged down in dull legal details about Henry’s struggle for a divorce.  Bring up the Bodies is also quite a hefty book.  However, at no point in either book does the story every get bogged down in tedium or in providing too much detail.  You can tell that Hilary Mantel really knows her character and the time period well, but she steers clear of any temptation to make this a pseudo-biography of Thomas Cromwell and maintains it as an excellent work of fiction.

Like Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies won the Booker Prize.  When the next instalment comes out, I find it hard to believe that it will not also be a prize winner.

For anyone with an interest in Tudors, a love of Philippa Gregory or a love of reading good books and world class writing will enjoy Bring up the Bodies.  I would recommend starting with Wolf Hall though.  Most people are familiar enough with the Tudor story that they will know what has happened before and so could read out of sequence.  However, I think to really appreciate the character of Thomas Cromwell then you should start the story from the beginning of his rise.

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30 day book challenge – day 18 – A book you wish you could live in.

I don’t want my answer to every one of these questions to be Harry Potter, so I’m going to set aside the fact that I am still waiting for some big hairy guy to come and tell me that I am a witch….

… so my next choice would be Henry VIII’s Tudor Court from Philippa Gregory’s Tudor series (and specifically, The Constant Princess, The Other Boleyn Girl and The Boleyn Inheritance).

I know this doesn’t make a lot of sense.  After all, Henry VIII’s court was a dangerous place after he separated from Katherine of Aragon.  This was a King who was prepared to tear up everything that his country had ever known to marry the object of his obsession, Anne Boleyn.  It was a game changer – nothing was sacred any more and no one was safe.

But Philippa Gregory just brings this time period to life so vividly.  All of the darkness, the sexiness, the games, the politics, the high stakes and the manoeuvring for favour are brought out in spades.  I can picture myself living in that court, gossiping in dark corners about the King, living with the danger and uncertainty.  There is something exciting about that.

And from a historical point of view, Henry VIII’s actions in separating from the Catholic Church have resonated through the ages.  To this day, a monarch is still forbidden from marrying a Roman Catholic (although I believe that there are proposals to change this).  To live at that time would be to witness history in the making.

Henry VIII and his six wives are well known tales, taught to every child in school learning British history.  However, Philippa Gregory really brought these stories to life in a way that a history lesson in school never could.  I really enjoy her focus on the female characters, and her portrayal of Katherine of Aragon standing at the head of the English army to quell the rebellious Scots is a one of my favourite moments in these books.  Just to clarify, that is because she is a woman leading an army, not because she is quelling the Scots!

Perhaps they are not 100% historically accurate all the time, but she has done her research well and uses what she has learnt to create something that feels tangible and real, and makes me feel as if I am part of it when I read her books.  I have never attempted historical fiction myself although I would love to give it a go – I think it would be a real challenge to strike the right balance between letting your research provide detail and context to the story, without allowing it to dominate the story so that it reads like a textbook.  Philippa Gregory strikes this balance absolutely perfectly – for me she is really the Queen of historical fiction.