Hilary Mantel, Bring up the bodies (Review)

Hilary Mantel, Bring up the bodies

Courtesy: HarperCollins Australia

In her author’s note at the end of her second Thomas Cromwell novel, Bring up the bodies, Hilary Mantel writes that:

In this book I try to show how a few crucial weeks might have looked from Thomas Cromwell’s point of view. I am not claiming authority for my version; I am making the reader a proposal, an offer.

And what an offer it is! In my review of the first novel, Wolf Hall, I quote Cromwell’s statement that “…homo homini lupus, man is wolf to man”. This was related to the theme of the book – the machinations behind the scenes that change the world, something that we Australians are more familiar with right now than we’d like to be. (This is, in fact, a very modern book.) Anyhow, Bring up the bodies continues this theme but with a difference …

That difference is Thomas Cromwell’s motivations, but more on that anon. The plot concerns Henry’s desire to replace Anne Boleyn with Jane Seymour as his wife – and we all know where that led! It’s a much tighter plot – and a somewhat shorter book – than Wolf Hall. It takes place over about 9 months, from September 1535 to Summer 1536, and while the political climate is still evident – the continuing struggle to entrench the Church of England over the Roman Catholic Church and attempts at social welfare reform – politics and political change are not so much to the forefront in this second novel. Why? Well, because ….

Mantel wants to propose a motivation for Master Secretary Cromwell’s engineering of Anne’s downfall: revenge. Now, the word “revenge” is not, at least I don’t recollect it, actually used in the novel, though the softer word “grudge” appears a couple of times. But this is the motivation that Mantel proposes. It’s all to do with which men were and weren’t tried for treason (adultery with Anne) and their role in the downfall of Cromwell’s much-loved mentor, Cardinal Wolsey. Why, for example, was Thomas Wyatt never tried despite his professed attraction to Anne, while Henry Norris was? You’ll have to read the book – although you probably already have, given how late I am coming to it – to see Mantel’s proposition.

It is this revenge “take” on Cromwell that unifies Bring up the bodies in the way that the story of the separation of England from Rome and the Acts of Supremacy unified Wolf Hall even though both are ostensibly about the downfall of a queen. However, I don’t want to write a lot more about the plot and subject matter because I’m guessing many of the reviews before me have done that. What I want to write about is her writing. It’s breathtaking – the way she gets us into Cromwell’s head, the way she makes us feel the times, and particularly the way she uses language to drive the plot and themes.

Appealing to the subconscious, being almost subliminal, is common in fiction, I suppose, but Mantel does it with such aplomb. It’s the dropping of words and ideas that you barely notice or first notice and think they mean one thing only to find they are pointing to another. Take Wolsey for example. When he is first mentioned in the novel, it’s logical, it’s part of filling in the backstory that is common in sequels. But, the thing is, he is dead, long dead before this novel starts, and yet his name keeps cropping up. It’s always logical, but it starts to carry some larger weight – which becomes apparent as the denouement draws near. There are other words too – phantoms, spoils, truth, angels – which start to convey more than their literal meaning or which, through repetition, point us to larger meanings or themes. None of this is heavy-handed. You could almost miss it, but it’s there – drip, drip, drip.

If people had one criticism of Wolf Hall, it was Mantel’s use of the third person “he” for Thomas Cromwell. It seems Mantel took this to heart, so in Bring up the bodies she frequently qualifies the pronoun, using “he, Cromwell”. It does the job, though for one who didn’t find Wolf Hall a problem, it did feel a little clumsy to me at times – but I forgave her that. There’s so much to love.

Towards the end, during the process dissolving Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, the Lord Chancellor says

The truth is so rare and precious that sometimes it must be kept under lock and key.

This is deeply cynical (and ironic). The “council” of men has decided to grant the decree annulling the marriage but to keep the reason secret. Why? Because they really couldn’t agree on a valid one – they just knew it had to be done.

Bring up the bodies is a beautifully constructed but chilling novel in which Cromwell’s character becomes murkier and murkier. What’s to admire and what’s not is the question that confronts us every step of the way. Like many, I can’t wait for The mirror and the light, the next instalment of Cromwell’s story – and would love it if Mantel continued with the Tudors after that. What a fascinating time it was – and what a spin Mantel puts on it.

Hilary Mantel
Bring up the bodies
London: Fourth Estate, 2013
ISBN: 9780007315109

30 thoughts on “Hilary Mantel, Bring up the bodies (Review)

  1. I just hope Bring Up the Bodies wins this year’s Booker Prize. I keep recommending this book, and so many people have given me negative thoughts on Wolf Hall. Wolf Hall I enjoyed, and I found it hard going at times but Bring Up the Bodies is a fantastic read. (I have two copies of Bring Up the Bodies, the second copy is one signed by Hilary Mantel), I couldn’t resist buying it. And like you Sue, I can’t wait for The Mirror and the Light.

  2. Lovely review, Sue. I loved ButB too, and thought it better even that Wolf Hall. Like you, I found the he, Cromwell thing a bit fluffy in the sequel… and there were some issues with her use of present tense, when he, Cromwell jumped into the future (how is that possible in present tense?!), but overall it was a joy. John

    • It is Catherine … and the way she manages the plotting. I plan another post including some excerpts as I didn’t really include any descriptive ones here as I often do.

  3. If people had one criticism of Wolf Hall, it was Mantel’s use of the third person “he” for Thomas Cromwell. It seems Mantel took this to heart, so in Bring up the bodies she frequently qualifies the pronoun, using “he, Cromwell”. It does the job, though for one who didn’t find Wolf Hall a problem, it did feel a little clumsy to me at times – but I forgave her that. There’s so much to love.

    WG: Excellent review. Wolf Hall and HM’s style I found stunning – not a problem – although it received some comment at the time – and exactly as you say – that “sense of clumsy” in BUTB (even if possibly not apparent to those who have not yet read WH). Thomas CROMWELL in HM’s interpretation became a very sympathetic historical character – one who understood so much of motivation and of encouragement in order to serve and serve faithfully – in spite of a class structure which viewed him with great suspicion and did its best to sideline him.

    • Thanks very much Jim … glad you agree. I labour over some reviews for hours but this one seemed to almost write itself. There was so much to say but it felt easy to get to the point. The influence of Mantel perhaps? It all seemed so clear.

      I do like the way she presents Cromwell as a complex character — a round not flat one!

  4. I conceived a bit of a prejudice against Wolf Hall because it seemed to partly rehabilitate a (at least traditionally) particularly nasty historical figure and wondered if the novel’s winning every prize going was a bizarre sympton of English nationalism stirring in tough times! Incidentally I have liked some of Mantel’s books very much – particularly Beyond Black which is an extraordinarily dark picture of modern UK. Bring Up the Bodies certainly sounds well worth reading from your very interesting review.

    • Thanks Ian. I’ve been wondering about what other Mantel to read as I have only read these two novels. I’ll add this to my lost. As for Bring up the bodies, it depends on your perspective a bit I suppose, but Cromwell is shown to be a master manipulator and one for whom the end justifies the means particularly if those means serve other purposes on the way. And yet, she manages to retain his humanity as well. I’d be interested to know what you thought if you get around to read it …

      • I will get around to either WH or BUTB sometime this year. Even better perhaps than Beyond Black is her 1988 novel Eight Months On Ghazza Street – again quite a disturbing read.

        • Thanks Ian … I’ll note them both. And let me know what you think about WH or BUTB. You don’t need to read the first to understand the second but of course I liked them both.

  5. Oh you gave me delicious chills! I can hardly wait to read this now. I am sorry to hear Mantel gave in on just referring to Cromwell as “he” but since she made up for it in other ways I guess she can be forgiven 🙂

  6. See? “You could almost miss it, but it’s there – drip, drip, drip.” This Eliot-like tenor to your words is why you should win reviewing prizes.

  7. Great response to the book, such a hard book to actually write about and solidly respond to beyond praising it for the way it reinvents the genre of historical fiction. 🙂

    • Thanks Alex … books like that are hard to write about, I agree. Good point regarding reinventing the genre. It certainly has a different feel to what I think of the genre. A good example of literary historical fiction by that definition.

  8. Terrific review Mrs Gums! Loved both books and can’t wait for the continuation. Her take on the French Revolution “A Place of Greater Safety” is well worth reading too. I almost wept when Danton and Desmoulins go to the guillotine.

    • Oh thanks Anne … I can see that I really need to read more Mantel. Reading her take on the French Revolution would be something I reckon. How I wish there were more hours in the day.

  9. I would especially like to recommend you read HM’s book: A Place of Greater Safety – all the key figures of the French Revolutionary period from just before through to the Terror. And long. One really cares for those individuals: Desmoulins, Robespierre, Danton, Marat et al! And it’s a long book – all the more to savour!

    • Ah thanks Jim, so you agree with Anne S … Mantel’s clearly good at showing the humanity of people, making us see them as people not as devils or angels. BUT it’s long? I’ll have to find a time for that. Maybe I can suggest my reading group does it as a summer read … I’ll add it to our list.

  10. Pingback: Thomas Cromwell and English Protestant history | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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