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.