“I mean nothing but good to our master the king. I am bound to obey and serve. And if you watch me closely you will see me do it.” And in Bring Up the Bodies, we do watch Thomas Cromwell closely as he serves his king by bringing down the queen. In this sequel to Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel paints Cromwell as even more complex; while he is, as he claims, “bound to obey and serve” Henry VII, he is also man both suffering from grief and craving revenge. He is haunted by the deaths of his beloved wife and daughters, and he seeks retribution against the men who brought down his mentor, Cardinal Wolsey.
In the fall of 1535, Henry, estranged from his second wife, Anne Boleyn, and without a legitimate male heir, finds himself taken with Jane Seymour. It falls to Cromwell to disentangle the king from his queen. The path to simple annulment appears to be closed off, so a more brutal approach must be taken, and using the myriad rumors about Anne he has stockpiled since she first captured the king’s heart, Cromwell constructs charges against Anne and “all four [men] who carried the cardinal to Hell; and also the poor fool . . . who made a ballad of their exploits,” enabling him to end Anne’s short reign, serve his own vengeful ends, and free the king to remarry.
As Mantel explains in the “Author’s Note,” “The circumstances surrounding the fall of Anne Boleyn have been controversial for centuries. The evidence is complex and sometimes contradictory; the sources are often dubious, tainted and after-the-fact. There is no official transcript of her trial, and we can reconstruct her last days only in fragments.” Mantel has mounted a masterful reconstruction brimming with details about how Anne may have sowed the seeds of her own demise. Yet the closing pages, covering Anne’s last days, give us a painfully sympathetic rendering of a young woman who, for all her early political promise, failed to foresee her downfall.
Wolf Hall was so good, I had to wonder whether Mantel could sustain her fine writing through another volume. Bring Up the Bodies is even better than Wolf Hall (and both won the Man Booker Award). Mantel says in the afterword, that Cromwell is “sleek, plump and densely inaccessible, like a choice plum in a Christmas pie; but I hope to continue my efforts to dig him out,” which she will do in the final volume of this trilogy. I can hardly wait!