Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2012
Winner of Hilary Mantel’s second Man Booker Prize. Wolf Hall, the first book in Mantel’s proposed trilogy, won the Booker in 2009. My first Long-Awaited Reads novel and the first book for the 2013 Historical Fiction Challenge. If you were to ask me right now I would say that Hilary Mantel is my favorite author.
Katherine of Aragon is shuttled off to the country. Anne Boleyn is Queen. King Henry grows distant from his second wife and, when Anne fails to give him a son, the King’s minister, Thomas Cromwell, senses change. It is Cromwell’s knowledge of the past that brings the future into focus.
Bring Up The Bodies is not as densely written as Wolf Hall , but that doesn’t take away from the power of Hilary Mantel’s writing. This is the second book in the planned trilogy about Thomas Cromwell’s life and the interweaving of dialogue and description bring all of her characters vibrantly to life, almost as if I were watching them on stage and not curled up reading with a cup of coffee. There is drama, action and an almost physical sensation of movement.
Duke Charles Brandon approaching King Henry in front of Eustache Chapuys, ambassador of Emperor Charles V:
He, Cromwell, follows on the duke’s heels. If he had a net, he would drop it over him. ‘Leave what you’re doing, Majesty. You want to hear this, by God. You’re quit of the old lady. She is on her deathbed. You will soon be a widower. Then you can get rid of the other one, and marry into France, by God, and lay your hands on Normandy as dowry…’ He notices Chapuys. ‘Oh, Ambassador. Well, you can take yourself off. No use you staying for scraps. Go home and make your own Christmas, we don’t want you here.’
Henry has turned white. ‘Think what you are saying.’ He approached Brandon as if he might knock him down; which, if he had a poleaxe, he could. ‘My wife is carrying a child. I am lawfully married.’ from page 128.
I can hear the bumbling Brandon and feel King Henry’s fury. Many biographic and fictional accounts of this time period, including A Man For All Seasons and The Tudors (which I have not seen), Thomas Cromwell is portrayed as an evil figure. Mantel has given him swift intelligence and a conscience, even if he does not hesitate to destroy those the King finds standing in his way. He had traveled widely in his youth and learned much from what he’d seen and heard. He constantly applies this knowledge to the changing political environment around him.
He had met an old knight once, in Venice, one of those men who made a career of riding to tournaments all over Europe. The man described his life to him, crossing frontiers with his band of esquires and his string of horses, always on the move from one prize to the next, til age and the accumulation of injuries put him out of the game. On his own now, he tried to pick up a living teaching young lords, enduring mockery and time-wasting; in my day, he had said, the young were taught manners, but now I find myself fettling horses and polishing breastplates for some little tosspot I wouldn’t have let clean my boots in the old days; for look at me now, reduced to drinking with, what are you, an Englishman?
…How shall I improve, he said to the old knight, how shall I succeed? These were his instructions: you must sit easy in your saddle, as if you were riding out to take the air. Hold your reins loosely, but have your horse collected. In the combat à plaisance, with its fluttering flags,, its garlands, its rebated swords and lances tipped with buffering coronals, ride as if you were out to kill. In the combat à l’outrance, kill as if it were sport. Now look, the knight said, and slapped the table, here’s what I’ve seen, more times than I care to count: your man braces himself for the atteint, and at the final moment, the urgency of desire undoes him: he tightens him muscles, he pulls his lance-arm against his body, the tip tilts up, and he’s off his mark; if you avoid one fault, avoid that. Carry your lance a little loose, so when you tense your frame and draw in your arm your point comes exactly on target. But remember this above all else: defeat your instinct. Your love of glory must conquer your will to survive; or why fight at all? Why not be s smith, a brewer, a wool merchant? Why are you in the contest, if not to win, and if not to win, then to die? from pages 165/167.
A perfect lesson to take into the court of King Henry the Eight.
Bring Up The Bodies follows Cromwell through the death of Katherine of Aragon, the King’s developing fascination with Jane Seymour and the trial and execution of Anne Boleyn, on of the most chilling scenes I have ever read. Chilling and beautiful, if that is possible. I can not wait for the third novel in this trilogy, and anything else Mantel writes in the future.
There is a wonderful column about Mantel’s process of writing Wolf Hall in the Guardian and a fascinating profile of the author in The New Yorker.