Each time I dip into Bring Up the Bodies, I feel as if I’ve taken a vacation from my own existence to live for a while as Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s secretary, business manager, and general man-who-gets-nasty-things-done.
Author Hilary Mantel presents us with the intrigues of the English court, 1535-1536, through Cromwell’s shrewdly analytical, cynically political eyes. We know what’s coming; it’s not a surprise: the drawn-out death of Catherine of Aragon, the bloody ouster of Anne Boleyn (and her supporters) and the ascendancy of bland (but not unintelligent) Jane Seymour (and her supporters). It’s how Mantel tells this story that’s so addictive: the insider’s point-of-view (Cromwell is the consummate strategist); the exquisite and quotidian details of place, players, and posessions (Cromwell is expert in all that can be measured and recorded).
I’ve been fascinated with English history since I was twelve, so this book is a delight—as was its prequel, Wolf Hall. Indeed, I indulged in some pleasurable cribbing from Rebecca Fraser’s The Story of Britain to catch up on the period’s history. Over the years, I’ve read more histories, biographies, and historical fiction about this era than I can recount; one of my favorites is Ford Madox Ford’s fictional trilogy, The Fifth Queen, first published in 1906-08. Another memorable novel is Vanora Bennett’s Portrait of an Unknown Woman, told from the point of view of Thomas More’s adopted daughter, Meg Giggs. (I also liked her Figures in Silk, set in the Richard III era.). I’ve wallowed in some of the Phillipa Gregory pot-boilers (The Other Boleyn Girl, etc.)—but I’ve also read more serious histories by Alison Weir, such as The Six Wives of Henry VIII and The Children of Henry VIII. The Tudor era, so different from our own, is clearly a source of continual interest for both authors and readers.
Bring Up the Bodies is filled with many beautifully imagined passages; I especially admired the frequent interior monologues in which Cromwell reflects on his checkered, always upwardly mobile past as a way to steel himself for the painstaking dirty work in his present. While being interrogated by Cromwell, William Norris—chief of the king’s privy chamber and a favorite of the queen—says: “If you intend to kill me in public, and mount a show, be quick. Or I may die of grief alone in this room.” But:
[Cromwell] shakes his head. “You’ll live.” He once thought it himself, that he might die of grief: for his wife, his daughters, his sisters, his father and master the cardinal. But the pulse, obdurate, keeps its rhythm. You think you cannot keep breathing, but your ribcage has other ideas, rising and falling, emitting sighs. You must thrive in spite of yourself; and so that you may do it, God takes out your heart of flesh, and gives you a heart of stone.
Mantel manages to give us both Cromwell the caring and Cromwell the cruel, weaving the many facets of his character together in such a way that we almost see that what he did, had to be done.
I loved this book: so dense and delicious. My favorite book for 2012, to date.
More for my reading list
Katherine Swynford: The Story of John of Gaunt and his Scandalous Duchess, by Alison Weir
The People’s Queen, by Vanora Bennet