Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel

bodiesThe year is 1535. Thomas Cromwell has put aside his lowly origins as the son of  a blacksmith and is now chief minister and leading statesman within the court of Henry VIII.  He’s fast approaching the height of his career, having found a way for Henry to extricate himself from his childless marriage and uncovered a rich source of new income for the King through sequestration of monastic lands and buildings.

Most books featuring Cromwell concentrate on his work and achievements as lawyer and statesman. What makes Hilary Mantel’s novels about this period different is the way she reveals the man behind the titles and the legislative actions. The Cromwell she shows us, first in Wolf Hall and again in her sequel, Bring up the Bodies, is a complex character. He’s an astute business man with a thriving cloth trade with Flanders derived from relationships built during his years in that country. He’s a politician par excellence, nimbly navigating the myriad jealousies and jostlings for position amongst the gentry and aristocracy that surround the King. But in Mantel’s text he is also a loving and devoted father with a touch of humanity that extends to opening his home to the poor and needy who require food. The man who manipulates young, impressionable men into confessing they committed adultery with Henry’s new queen (Anne Boleyn) is the same man who is moved to tears when he finds the angel wings his dead daughter once wore at Christmas time.

cromwell

Thomas Cromwell as portrayed by Hans Holbein

It’s that duality of character that Mantel brings to center stage in Bring up the Bodies, conveying it in a third person narrative style that simultaneously has the intimacy of a first person narrator. Often those moments of character revelation come through short comments made almost en passant.

One such passage occurs when Cromwell is despatched by Henry to see the woman he divorced (Katherine of Arragon) in order to marry Anne Boleyn. Katherine is a problem that will not go away for this royal couple – she refuses to acknowledge the validity of the divorce, refuses to give allegiance to the new queen and is a focal point for Catholic plots against Henry. they need to know whether reports she is dying are true. What Cromwell sees is a shrunken figure of a woman  swaddled in an ermine fur cape.

She is jaundiced, and there is an invalid fug in the room – the faint animal scent of the furs, a vegetal stench of undrained cooking water, and the sour reek from a bowl  with which a girl hurries away: containing, he suspects the evauated contents of the dowager’s stomach.

Noticing the ermine fur coat in which she is swathed, the pragmatic side of Cromwell’s character comes to the forefront. “The king will want that back, he thinks, if she dies.’ But almost immediately the lens is changed to show his more thoughtful nature as he wonders whether Katherine’s dreams are of the gardens of the Alhambra she left as a young girl:

….the marble pavements, the bubbling of crystal water into basins, the drag of a white peacock’s tail and the scent of lemons. I could have brought her a lemon in my saddlebag, he thinks.

Four months after I closed the book, I could still remember that passage and the way Mantel shows Cromwell’s mind leap from the wizened creature he sees in front of him to a simple action he could have taken to remind her of a better life.

Moments like this abound within the novel. For that reason alone, Mantel for me deserved to win the Man Booker Prize 2012.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on December 9, 2012, in historical fiction and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. I also liked it much better than Wolf Hall — I felt she made Wolf Hall way too dense, just plain wordy and obtuse even. As you say, Bring up the Bodies is made up of so many gem-like moments and passages — but all serve a clarity of purpose to illuminate Cromwell’s character. Another good review, thanks!

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  2. It was an excellent book, wasn’t it? I liked it better than Wolf Hall, in fact, but that may have been because by the time I read it I was better acquainted with the characters than I was in the first book. 🙂

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  3. Thanks for this great review. And I really love how the character’s complexity is progressively revealed from one book to the next, maybe until becoming a real monster in the last one??
    here is my own review: http://wordsandpeace.com/2012/06/13/2012-27-review-bring-up-the-bodies/ [audiobook]

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  4. I’m looking forward to reading this after enjoying Wolf Hall so much. I agree that the duality of his character is what makes Mantel’s portrayal of Cromwell so impressive.

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