When Wolf Hall won the Man Booker Prize I read the reviews and added it to my ‘must read’ list. Then, partly because I thought it was a historical novel and partly because I was daunted by the length, I carried it around unread for quite some time. All that changed about two weeks ago when I was invited to review Bring Up The Bodies on this blog. Since I couldn’t very well review the second part of a trilogy without having read the first, I duly began on Wolf Hall and found, to my surprise and delight, that it is much less a historical novel and much more a timeless human story of people, power and influence — a story of intrigue and passion and breath-taking excitement based around a cast of characters many of whose names will be familiar.
For me, Wolf Hall was a page turner. Despite the length, I read it in just three sittings over a single weekend. Essentially it describes the role played by Thomas Cromwell during the years when Henry VIII was setting aside his first wife Catherine of Aragon and in pursuit of Anne Boleyn who was to become his second queen. It is the story of the waning influence of the Roman Catholic church in England and difficult relations with Rome brought about largely by King Henry’s desire to be rid of his wife. There are obstacles aplenty to be overcome as the King struggles with his conscience and embraces a new faith that more readily accommodates his marital requirements. Henry, of course, is driven at least partly by the pressing need to produce a son and heir to the throne and to protect the realm. Thomas Cromwell is the agent who methodically and ruthlessly clears all obstacles from the path allowing the King to proceed within the law.
As a fictional character, Mantel’s Cromwell has tremendous depth. There is much to dislike in a man who is so driven and ruthless in pursuit of a goal and yet we find ourselves drawn to him. For all his flaws, Cromwell is a family man with a sense of humour, a good companion and a sage adviser — in many ways the kind of man you might wish to have in your corner — all of which makes him surely one of the most fully realised fictional characters of our time.
Bring Up The Bodies finds Cromwell still centre stage as Mantel takes up the tale at a moment when Anne Boleyn is at the height of her powers. With Catherine locked away in a convent, her marriage to the King annulled, the path is cleared for Anne’s ascent to the throne.
Whatever about Cromwell, Anne Boleyn is truly the dark character in this novel — deceitful, manipulative and lacking in mercy — and yet, despite her failings, she wins some sympathy. Her desperation grows when she fails to produce the required heir to the throne and her power begins to fall away. Any school child can recite the fateful order of Henry’s wives — “Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded Survived” — so it does not come as any surprise that Anne’s power wanes when Jane Seymour catches the eye of the King. We get some insight into Henry’s motivation and see him struggle with his conscience but we also see him disengage from Anne and, as the queen moves closer to her inevitable fate, Bring Up The Bodies becomes ever more frightening, culminating in a moment of palpable terror when Anne takes her final walk towards the executioner — a moment, so perfectly described by Mantel that the reader might be one of the assembled crowd.
Meanwhile, and all the while, Thomas Cromwell — the King’s advisor and the main character in both these novels — grows in power and influence, drawing ever closer to Henry VIII and amassing wealth in his own right along the way. Thomas is ruthless, manipulative, power-driven but also efficient, organised and quick witted. He can be charming, he can be cruel, yet he is a family man and, as his father observed, the kind of person who would buy a drink for anyone.
Thomas, being nothing if not a forward planner, is well able to read the lie of the land when the influence of the Boleyns declines and the Seymours begins to rise. So, he smooths the way for the Seymours, positioning himself to benefit just as he had done previously when he cleared for the King’s marriage to Anne Boleyn.
Bring Up The Bodies opens with Cromwell well-established and extremely powerful and influential, a position he still retains at the end of this novel but the reader is left with a sense of foreboding that there are dark clouds still on the distant horizon but drawing closer to Thomas Cromwell all the while.
Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies may have an historical setting but human nature doesn’t change from age to age and there is nothing in these novels that a contemporary reader cannot identify with. Mantel’s language is a joy, her storytelling is engaging, exciting and enthralling, her characters are so strongly drawn they remain in your head long after you have closed the cover on the final page. If, like me, you’ve delayed getting to know her work, now is the time to open Wolf Hall in preparation for Bring Up The Bodies which is scheduled for publication on 10 May 2012.
Great job, Ms Mantel. Keep them coming!
An advance reader’s edition of Bring Up The Bodies was provided free of charge by the publisher for the purpose of this review.
Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel is published by Fourth Estate, May 2012.
ISBN 978-0-00-731509-3. Stg£20.