‘Bring Up the Bodies’ takes up where ‘Wolf Hall’ left off - Anne Boleyn is established as Henry’s Queen – Katherine, the former Queen, is banished and imprisoned, her daughter, Mary, is separated from her and kept distant from court until she will acknowledge Anne as Queen and beg the King’s forgiveness for taking her mother’s side in the quarrel.
‘Wolf Hall’ was high in intrigue and drama, both of the personal and political kind; hence it is not surprising that its sequel should continue the tradition. ‘Bring up the Bodies’ narrates the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn, as seen through the eyes of another character who has grown strength to strength to become all powerful himself – Thomas Cromwell. It is also the story of King Henry’s desperate search for an heir, which Anne is unable to provide.
As always, the personal is juxtaposed with the political – so the petty drama of Anne Boleyn being nasty to Jane Seymour is set against the background of England’s troubles with France and Rome. From the personal to the national from the domestic to the international political scene, Hilary Mantel captures Tudor England effectively with her broad and detailed canvas.
Thomas Cromwell is an interesting figure – a man of humble origins who is despised by his better born peers but is nevertheless essential – because King Henry will listen to him. A man of decisive action, Cromwell even while doing exactly what the King wants, manages to further his own cause as assiduously. Cromwell is sharp and honest in his understanding of himself and as incisive in describing the people of his time. And because Cromwell is everywhere and sees or hears everything, it is but right to present the story of the age through his eyes.
A peculiarly restless time and a king who is for change – both in his personal life and in changing the face of England as it was. There is never a moment of repose - the times between events is merely one of waiting and everyone is watchful of themselves and others. Mantel however does not limit herself to capturing the intrigue of court.
“But look never mind all this. Queens come and go. So recent history has shown us. Let us think about how to pay for England, her king’s great charges, the cost of charity and the cost of justice, the cost of keeping her enemies beyond her shores.”
Running a nation is about finding out who has the money and trying to balance the accounts – a task Cromwell is peculiarly suited to. But it is not just financial accounts he balances in the long run – as the Boleyn family finds out to their cost, Cromwell is not bought by anyone or tied to them by loyalty. He is devoted to his country and to doing what his king wants – people are dispensable and Cromwell will help Henry cut his losses whenever the king chooses.
A ruthless but practical philosophy of life - one completely true to the age it is from. This is a book about larger than life people and their struggle to stay relevant in an age where anyone can fall out of favor with the king – suddenly and irrevocably. No one is safe and there are no guarantees about tomorrow – for there is little to be done if the king decides you are best left to rot in prison or even beheaded.
History as it has happened is an oft narrated story but it is hard to not be swept into and carried away by the sequence of events that Mantel narrates. And that is Mantel’s greatest gift – to take the story of the long gone past and make believe – successfully - that they are new and unfolding in the here and now.