“Bring up the bodies,” the constable of the Tower of London is ordered. The bodies are the prisoners to be tried for treason. It is 1536. Their convictions will lay the groundwork for the subsequent trial and conviction of Queen Anne, née Boleyn. Having been advised to wrap her skirts around her legs when she kneels so that she will not inadvertently display her womanly parts to the gathered crowd, she is beheaded.
Only three authors have won the Man Booker Prize twice. It is possibly the most important international book prize; and only Hilary Mantel has won it for both a book – Wolf Hall — and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies. She certainly deserved it for Wolf Hall, and if Bring Up the Bodies is a lesser achievement, that takes nothing away from it, for Wolf Hall was simply stunning.
In ambition, scope, and style, in its vast erudition and deftness of – so to speak – execution, Wolf Hall is an absolute masterpiece. Tracing the career of Thomas Cromwell from the moment he escaped his violent blacksmith father, to his becoming one of King Henry VIII’s closest advisors, engineering the installation of Anne Boleyn as queen of England, it is a dense and vivid tapestry illustrating both the life of one extraordinary man and an exceptional period in British history.
In Bring Up the Bodies, Mantel pulls the camera away from the panoramic, cast-of-thousands perspective of the earlier work and focuses on a period of several weeks, during which Cromwell, whose wealth, power, and abilities are at an all-time high, uninstalls the queen. She has given birth to the Princess Elizabeth, but has not borne Henry a son, and he has fallen in love with someone else.
Everyone knows that Henry VIII had six wives and that Anne met an untimely end. So no one should be surprised by the story of Bring Up the Bodies. What is gripping about the book is the way Mantel succeeds in animating the entire series of events on the most minute level. This is a woman who sees history as the sum of many small acts by many people. She is passionately interested in what people do and why, and powerfully effective at communicating that passion, leavened with plenty of salt and wit.
In many ways the events of Bring Up the Bodies are the outcomes of the rich and darkly complex story told in Wolf Hall, and the character of Cromwell, which we saw being formed by the circumstances of his earlier life, is less dynamic and less interesting in the later book. As a younger man we saw him use his very quick mind, prodigious memory, and other gifts to actively create himself, using his increasing power sensitively and with fine skill for the common good (as well as his own). Now he is brutal. He displays an unreflective cruelty and his use of power is blunt; he does not hesitate to use the law to punish those he considers guilty, even if he knows they are not guilty as charged. It is a detailed lesson in the abuses of politics and power.
Mantel has a great gift for bringing history to life. She is a brilliant creator of character and has the capacity to lay out extremely complicated situations clearly. She does not claim to be making a definitive historical argument; she is, she says, merely making the reader “a proposal” as to what might have happened. The reader cannot help but bate her breath in anticipation of the third book in the trilogy which, if it follows historical events as closely as the first two volumes, will consider the ascent to the throne of Jane Seymour, at least. This reader fervently hopes Mantel will stick with her project long enough to write the reign of one of the world’s greatest heads of state, whose mother’s head Thomas Cromwell condemned to roll.
Elise Moser’s second book will be called Lily and Taylor. A novel for young adults, it will appear from Groundwood Books in 2013.
IMAGE: “Life-sized Queen Anne Boleyn” found on Etsy.