This is the sequel to Wolf Hall, which I read shortly after it won the Man Booker Prize. The fact that I thought I would be reading a book featuring Cavaliers and Roundheads indicates that (a) I hadn’t been paying much attention to book reviews and (b) I don’t really know much about the Tudors. Luckily it only took a paragraph for me to realise the novel was about Henry VIII’s Cromwell and not the other one, or else I would have been a very confused reader. In terms of the history, I had to rely on knowledge I'd acquired many years previously, when I had a teenage passion for the television series The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Elizabeth R, saw the film Anne of a Thousand Days and read a biography of Elizabeth I and a few Jean Plaidy novels. My interest in the Tudor period passed with my teens, never to return.
However, my relative lack of knowledge of Tudor history was no impediment to enjoying either Wolf Hall or this novel. In general, I prefer to read non-fiction or biography rather than fiction which deals with real historical figures. This is because I like to be told the facts and see references to primary sources in footnotes, rather than have historical information mediated through the imagination of a novelist. However, Mantel converts me to historical fiction and I neither know nor care whether the history she tells is accurate. Mantel’s writing is so good that I'm prepared to believe her version of Cromwell and her version of the historical events which this novel relates.
While Wolf Hall tells the story of Cromwell’s background and rise to power, this novel tells the story of Cromwell’s role in the fall of Anne Boleyn. It's shorter than Wolf Hall and covers a much shorter time period: months to Wolf Hall’s decades. Stylistically, it’s similar to Wolf Hall. This is probably the time to mention Mantel’s use of the third person singular pronoun: that is, the use of “he” to refer to Cromwell. Mantel has been criticised for this and the device is almost inevitably mentioned in reviews of Wolf Hall. When I was reading that book, once I understood that when Mantel writes “he”, she almost always means Cromwell (and it is fairly obvious), I had no difficulty understanding to whom she was referring. In this novel, Mantel provides clarification from time to time by using the phrase “he, Cromwell”. In that context, the “he” may be unnecessary, but it keeps the style consistent. For me, the use of “he” rather than “Cromwell” creates an intimacy with the central character. The reader sees the narrative from Cromwell’s point of view and is able to really get inside his head.
Mantel’s version of Cromwell is masterly. She contrasts the devoted family man who is loved and respected by the members of his household with the public figure, a consummate politician who takes whatever steps are necessary to serve his political master, all the while keeping his own interests firmly in sight. He is intelligent, cynical, funny and at times frightening. Mantel manages to make a man who has been portrayed as a one-note villain into an utterly fascinating and complex character.
One of the things I love most about this novel and Wolf Hall is that Mantel has not just written novels about the life of a long-dead historical figure. One of the Man Booker judges referred to Wolf Hall as a contemporary novel "which happens to be set in the 16th century”. The same can be said of Bring Up the Bodies. This is a novel about power, about the dichotomy between the public and the private, about the price paid for political success and the cost of political failure. It is compelling, entertaining, thought-provoking and moving.
I loved reading this novel and right now I'd be prepared to read Hilary Mantel’s shopping list. It’s going to be a long wait until the third novel in the trilogy is published. In the meantime, I plan to read more of Mantel’s work. I’ve loved sharing the experience of reading Bring Up the Bodies with my friend Jemidar.