Bring Up the Bodies picks up where the excellent Wolf Hall left off, both in terms of plot and brilliance. Henry VIII is now divorced from Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn is on the throne, soon to be pregnant with a much-hoped for son. Thomas Cromwell, the central character of these books, is positioned as the King’s right-hand man. He is no fan of Anne and her family and sees the danger she poses to Henry’s England, which he is determined to defend. Henry, meanwhile, already has is eye on the plain Jane Seymour and becomes as eually determined to have her as he was Anne before her. Rumours abound as to the Queen’s infidelity and when the son is stillborn, Henry becomes determined to cast her aside and Cromwell must find the way to do it.
Although I have studied and taught History for a number of years, Tudor Britain is “not my period” so I could not tell you how historically accurate this story is. Clearly, the divorce, lack of a male heir and beheadings featured here are a matter of record but the motivations and actions of the principal agents are far from clear. Hilary Mantel, in her author’s note, tells the reader that she is “making the reader a proposal, an offer” as to what might have happened and why. I am satisfied with that, and I find her offering entirely convincing. Like other accounts Anne Boleyn is cool and calculating, but unlike most narratives Thomas Cromwell is both principled and pragmatic, he is driven by a desire to do what is best for the King, the country and, in fact, the Church or at least the Church he wants to create. Although he does fear his own fall from grace, it is not his primary motivation and is caused in part by a need to protect his family.
I found Bring Up the Bodies harder to get into than Wolf Hall which I devoured quite quickly. Indeed, I even stopped to read two shorter novels on my iPad in between. That is largely because not a lot “happens” plot-wise in the first part of the book but once events start to develop it becomes a real page-turner. The writing is beautiful and witty, although I still find the “hes” and “hims” (always meaning Cromwell) when there are several male characters in a scene confusing.