Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Recommended by Sarah Kennedy

If you love the Tudors, you will probably like Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies. The sequel to her Wolf Hall, the book continues the story of Henry VIII’s secretary Thomas Cromwell. Mantel now focuses on the fall of Anne Boleyn, and though this story is well known, she hopes to make it new by using Cromwell as her main character.

Mantel has been criticized before for disregarding period diction in her historical novels, especially in her dialogue, and the writing in Bring up the Bodies is no exception. Although she sprinkles in a few Renaissancey-sounding terms like “kinsman” and “napery,” the writing, for the most part, uses the same expressions and locutions that she used in A Place of Greater Safety, her novel about the French Revolution. The language in all these novels is not much different than what you would expect to find in a contemporary work of fiction. Characters refer to liquidating assets; someone’s time at court is called a “tour of duty.” Sometimes, too, her metaphors get a little out of control, as when an ambassador “fizzes across the room.”

But the quirk that is likely to annoy most readers is the constant clarification of pronouns that refer to Cromwell. The novel is written in third-person limited point of view, and novelists using this perspective usually use the main character’s proper name when necessary. Mantel, however, has adopted the habit of using both pronoun and proper name, as in “He, Cromwell, sees Chapuys” or “he, Cromwell, was trying to break down Thomas More.” It’s frequent and distracting. Worse, it’s usually unnecessary, and in a writer as skilled as Hilary Mantel, it’s also baffling.

All that acknowledged, why did I tear through this four-hundred-plus page novel in half a day? I’m fascinated by the Tudor period, for one, but the writing is also compelling. Cromwell, who is often characterized as monstrous and unfeeling, reveals, in Mantel’s hands, how easily contradictions between religious belief and political action sit in the human mind, and descriptions like this, that use sustained metaphor beautifully, kept me reading:

[Anne Boleyn] orders her women out: a vehement gesture, a child scaring crows.  Unhurried, like bold corvines of some new and silky kind, the ladies gather their trains, flap languidly away; their voices like voices from the air, trail behind them: their gossip broken off, their knowing cackles of laughter. Lady Rochford is the last to take wing, trailing her feathers, reluctant to yield the ground (106).

The passages featuring Anne are, for me, the strongest in the book. From her early appearance, with her “dark glitter, now rubbed a little, flaking in places” (36) to her death, when her “flat little presence” on the scaffold “becomes a puddle of gore,” Anne Boleyn is, despite the presence of Cromwell, the dramatic center of this story.

Don’t read Bring up the Bodies for its plot. If you are interested enough in Tudor England to have picked it up, you already know what’s going to happen. There is no suspense, and there are no unexpected twists or turns. Read the book if you want original character study and insight into the complex, often violent, events that governed Europe during the Renaissance. The Tudors still loom large in the Western imagination, and Hilary Mantel has made good use of that continued fascination.

P.S. Stay away from Secrets of the Tudor Court, which tells the story of Mary Howard, Anne Boleyn’s cousin. The novelized account of this poor woman’s life makes such frequent use of popular psychology (such as “cycles of violence” and “projection”) that it is almost unreadable. There are no “secrets” revealed, except, possibly, that Mary Howard was even more insipid and stupid than we feared.