‘Bring Up the Bodies’ is the sequel to ‘Wolf Hall’, the story of how Thomas Cromwell helped engineer King Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon so he’d be free to marry Anne Boleyn. In ‘Bring Up the Bodies’, we find Henry tiring of Anne, her continual demands and her inability to deliver a live baby boy- the longed for heir to the kingdom. Cromwell must now undo what he has helped Henry do, no matter the human cost, and fix it so Henry can marry the next in his series of wives.
While many, many books have been written about the Henry VIII and his wives, Mantel has approached the story from a different angle; in both ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring Up the Bodies’, Mantel has taken the point of view of Cromwell. Usually considered a horrible villain, Cromwell emerges here as brilliant, hard working, capable of love and a servant to the king alone. Not servant to the Boleyns, the Seymours, the queen that was, the foreign ambassadors, the Pope; just the king and England. That is why he had so many enemies; he did not care who was discommoded in his efforts to please the king and keep England together. And pleasing Henry was not an easy job; Henry was monstrously egotistical and his moods and loves were fickle. He could love and favor someone one day and the next, after some poorly worded comment or even a lie from someone else, that person could end up banished from the court, stripped of their wealth or dead. And no matter how many times Henry changed his mind, his ability to feel himself innocent of wrong doing is astonishing. No matter what he said or did, it was always because he was deceived or bewitched, not because he simply got tired of someone and wanted them gone. Yet, despite these faults, he was also an intelligent and passionately curious man who cared about running the country. He just happened to care about himself more.
Here is what makes Mantel’s writing rather brilliant; despite the fact that you know what’s going to happen to Anne, there is still an awful feeling of suspense. I found myself hoping that she and the men executed with her would find a way out!
While this is a stand alone novel, it is probably best appreciated read after ‘Wolf Hall’ unless you are already familiar with the politics of the time and the story of Henry, Katherine of Aragon and Anne. And even if you are, seeing the story from Cromwell’s point of view casts a different light on it. This isn’t ‘The Tudors’ where lust reigns supreme; this is about political machinations and spinning spider webs of doom around those the king wishes to rid himself of. It’s about a man who accumulated much wealth, but didn’t have the time to enjoy it because his master wanted him available 24/7. Mantel manages to make Cromwell a human, but not a likable one. The writing is rich and creates the Tudor world before our eyes without getting bogged down in description.