As everyone knows, this book, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2012, is the sequel to Wolf Hall, which won it in 2009. I loved Wolf Hall, but for some reason, I have found Bring UP The Bodies much harder to get into. Is it Mantel or me?
Thomas Cromwell, Master Secretary to King Henry VIII, has done what his master desired by arranging his divorce from his wife Katherine, leaving him free to marry Anne Boleyn. She has given birth to a daughter but has so far failed to provide him with the desired son. And Henry is getting tired of her, turning his attention instead to the demure young Jane Seymour. Was there something wrong with his marriage to Anne that is revealed by the failure to conceive a son, he asks? It’s up to Cromwell to engineer the end of this marriage, and to make possible the next one. There would hardly be any reader who doesn’t know how this turns out; Mantel’s skill is in getting us to share every step of a journey Cromwell doesn’t know the end of. And of course he doesn’t know his own end either, though there are hints of it throughout.
The Cromwell of Wolf Hall is striving for wealth and power. Here he has achieved it, though he knows it is all dependent on the King’s favour. Somehow his striving made him a more attractive character than he appears in this book. Of course Cromwell – both in reality and in fiction – must have been both ruthless and callous to get where he did, but it was less obvious in Wolf Hall, where his more honourable side was on show. Here his coldblooded agenda to bring Anne down is to the fore. He is a skilled conspirator; he has had a lifetime’s ‘education in hypocrisy’. He is generous to his household, diplomatic or manipulative to people he can use, but unrelenting towards his enemies – of whom there are many, as he well knows. And can his ‘strange and sudden friends’ be trusted? How far is he carrying out Henry’s agenda, and how far does he have one of his own? He is, as someone says, ‘without false compunction’. ‘He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged.’ I can see that I am coming dangerously close here to saying I like the book less because I like the main character less – a very silly response. Mantel’s skill surely lies in showing us all sides of her creation. But I can’t help feeling more anxiety and less delight when reading about him than in the previous book.
Mantel adopts a number of stylistic devices in making this story intimate and compelling. The first is the use of the present tense. This gives wonderful immediacy to events, and is important in carrying the reader down Cromwell’s tortuous paths. The conversation is sharp and modern. Then there is the almost universal use of ‘he’ for Cromwell. The story is told in the third person, but entirely through the prism of Cromwell’s perceptions. The absence of his name seems to make it more thoroughly his story – though I found it occasionally confusing, and Mantel has at times to resort the rather clumsy ‘he, Cromwell’. He also sometimes confides in the reader as ‘you’: ‘You can be merry with the king, you can share a joke with him. But … it’s like sporting with a tamed lion. You tousle its mane and pull its ears, but all the time you’re thinking, those claws, those claws, those claws.’ I guess this is an example of the use of free indirect speech, where there is ‘a blurring of the subject’s first-person experiences with a grammatically third-person narrative perspective.’ Whatever it is, it mostly works really well.
Then of course there is the historical appeal. Alongside the superb historical detail, there is the enduring mystery: what was the truth of Anne Boleyn’s conduct? No one really knows. Mantel doesn’t pretend to; hers is an imaginative recreation. ‘In this book,’ she writes in the author’s note, ‘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 it’s one that despite my reservations, I was happy to take up.
The award of the Man Booker Prize to Mantel for this book was treated with almost universal acclaim; certainly most critics don’t seem to have had any doubts. Here’s an example. But the award to Mantel of the 2012 Costa Prize (formerly the Whitbread Prize), occasioned one rather venomous response. This prize is awarded to ‘well-written, enjoyable books’. And this critic thought the book a ‘middlebrow triumph’, much too reassuring, a crowd pleaser and likely to be nothing more than ‘a fascinating curiosity’. I have been trying to work out why, despite all the good things I can see in it, I still prefer Wolf Hall; here is someone saying it’s too easy to like. I’d really like some other opinions.
You can read a bit more about Hilary Mantel here; she doesn’t seem to have her own website. She’s working on the third in the trilogy, Mirror and the Light. Oh – and make sure you read Wolf Hall first if you haven’t already.