“What though I am a man of firmness and vigour, fortune is mutable and either my enemies will do me or my friends.”
So muses narrator Thomas Cromwell in Hilary Mantel’s thrilling new historical novel Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel to her Booker Prize-winning hit, Wolf Hall. That book, too, came through the eyes of Cromwell, close advisor to King Henry VIII and chief architect of his first divorce, from Katherine of Aragon, and later of his far bloodier separation from Anne Boleyn. In Mantel’s care, Cromwell is a sensitive storyteller, as conscious of his own motivations as he is of other’s perceptions, accepting that history may paint him as more of a villain than a man of vigor. It is a prescient realization—Henry will later turn against Cromwell and order him executed for treason—but in the world of Bring Up the Bodies, he is still at the height of his powers, shaping the destiny of the king and the women who buzz around the monarch like hungry flies.
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Before Wolf Hall was published, those who followed the bloody Tudor saga could muster little sympathy for Cromwell. He was, after all, the mastermind behind the dissolution of the Catholic church in England and the gory death of Henry’s second queen, all to satiate Henry’s carnal desires and hot pursuit of a male heir. It was Henry who wanted out, but it was Cromwell who found the way. Mantel brilliantly manages to find the humanity in his story; beyond power-grabbing and a killer instinct lies a man of deep complexity and reason, trying to do the best for his sovereign and his family at the same time.
Bring Up the Bodies continues from where Wolf Hall ended; Henry has married the wily, mysterious Anne Boleyn, who has given birth to baby Elizabeth, but no male child. As he has no way of knowing that his daughter will go on to become one of the great English monarchs, Henry is in despair. He is also infatuated, with the young Jane Seymour, a fair girl of gentle breeding who serves as Anne’s lady-in-waiting and first flirts with Henry during his visit to her family’s home at Wolf Hall. Once besotted, the impetuous king wastes no time in making his desires known to his advisors, and it is up to Cromwell to concoct a clever plan to overthrow Anne. Cromwell and his cronies devise a way to accuse Anne of adultery and high treason; where she was once the most powerful woman in England, “she is tainted now, “ Cromwell remarks. “She is dead meat.”
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Anne’s fate is an old and familiar tale, but in Mantel’s hands, the tragedy of the Boleyn girl becomes something new. Mantel flushes out the ambiguities, the dark corners of doubt where Cromwell questions his own actions. In his world, nothing is clear, nothing is certain. When Katherine, Henry’s former bride, finally dies after years of being shoved aside, Cromwell realizes how very close England came to war and ruin on her account. “How close we hold our enemies!” he muses. “They are our families, our other selves.”
The massive popularity of Game of Thrones and its depiction of violent bloodlust for royal power makes Bring up the Bodies an especially culture-relevant read, but Mantel’s novel deals with more than just heads on spikes and lusting in back rooms She moves beyond the gory legends and dives deeper, into the story of a man torn—between what is right and what he knows he must do—and how quickly one’s fate can change. Remembering his dead enemy Thomas More, who was executed for defying the king in Wolf Hall, Cromwell says he thought More would eventually come around to the King’s divorce and Protestant ideals: “He was tenacious of the world, tenacious of his person, and had a good deal to live for.” But More died for his convictions—and someday, Cromwell will as well. In this game of thrones, having something to live for is one thing; knowing how to defend it is another.
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