Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies: some of the best work I've read in a decade!
In Bring up the Bodies, Mantel continues the chronicles she began in her prize-winning Wolf Hall. On its surface an account of Anne Boleyn's downfall as the second wife of Henry VIII, it is simultaneously a peek into the life, personality and machinations of Thomas Cromwell, through whose eyes the tale is told.
I found this second work to be even more engaging than the first, difficult to put down from about 25% in. Cromwell is a bit of an enigma to me. As a reader I'm generally inclined to be sympathetic to the storyteller, and the author is careful to include domestic scenes and instances of kindness and generosity on the part of Cromwell. On the other hand, however, the reader is periodically reminded that as affable a guy he may well be, he's also in a position of power and would undoubtedly do just about anything to remain there.
This sequel may be even better than Wolf Hall.
Bring Up The Bodies was, for me, less interesting than Wolf Hall. What I liked in Wolf Hall was Mantel’s detailed picture of life and politics in an England changing from a medieval world to a modern one. It illuminated themes that are still relevant, such as the relationship between the individual and the state (in the person of the ruler), religion, science and economy. Most of these are shifted far to the background in Bring Up The Bodies, or absent entirely.
What we do have is the story of how a ruthless political operative manipulates the machinery of the state for the benefit of his faction, as well as for reasons of personal satisfaction and profit. This of course remains a current theme and there is some interest in seeing exactly how Thomas Cromwell played the power game in the Tudor court (at least as Mantel sees it). But I find I am less interested in the grimy details of who lied to whom, or how a succession of victims is coerced to acquiesce in their own trials. Wolf Hall had a broader context that made for more interesting reading. Thinking of it now, it seems to illustrate the Stalinist purges and the show trials of the 1930s more than contemporary political manipulation (although no doubt there are contemporary parallels).
It is interesting perhaps that Cromwell struggles so single-mindedly to amass power and wealth at the top of the political pyramid in a world that despised him for his common origins. He thinks frequently about how to protect himself should his political fortunes shift, and how to ensure his son a secure place when he is no longer there to arrange things for his son. (And his son does not seem to have the same strength of character of his father, although it seems that he survived to establish his own aristocratic line.) Yet we know that his predecessor and mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, ended up in the Tower, that the historical Cromwell was also arrested and executed. Mantel opens the book with a dream of Cromwell’s children falling from the sky, an image that recurs from time to time. In spite of this rather poignant perspective, though, Cromwell remains an unappealing character. And it is telling that his only friendly relationships seem to be with the foreign ambassadors whose ambitions he wants to block.
In Wolf Hall, Cromwell was a more sympathetic figure as a man of science and reason, particularly as opposed to the fanatical Thomas More. Here, although Mantel uses personal details to reflect on Cromwell’s loss of his wife and daughter, or his hopes for his son, there is very little to make him likeable, particularly when he is so blatant in his personal and political scheming. And Mantel’s style of writing in the present tense with a third person pronoun, although it implies a very personal point of view, is rather distancing since a reader has to pay careful attention to keep track of who the pronouns refer to. Mantel’s rich and poetic descriptive detail does help to bring a reader into the time and place, but this time it was not enough to overcome the limited perspective.
It appears that Mantel wants to create an iconoclastic portrait, a counter to the usual heroic focus on Henry and More. In this, I think she succeeds. No one who reads her books on Cromwell can think of Henry’s rule without being strongly influenced by the shape she puts on it. She creates a strong and detailed portrait of a dramatic figure from history, which perhaps justifies the awards she has won. It’s just disappointing that the portrait in this volume is not more engaging.
The second entry of Mantel's Thomas Cromwell trilogy maintains the superb quality of writing of the first. Mantel delves deeply into her characters, but lets them reveal themselves through everyday interactions and reflections. Her restrained writing is a welcome relief to the usual soap-opera treatment of this era, and the dramatic events that take place are even more explosive against the background of her particular stylistic tapestry.
Such a stunning novel. Love Mantel's way with words. What a picture she paints of Cromwell and Henry and life at court in the days of Anne Boleyn's waning influence. Despite how sympathetically Mantel paints Cromwell, it is easy to see how others despised him - while at the same time respecting his political savvy. Fantastic read, highly recommend. (Also recommend Wolf Hall, which came first and shows Cromwell's rise to influence in Henry VIII's court and which is also fantastic - don't be put off by the length, you'll be sorry when it's over!)
One of the most interesting historical novels of the last few decades, and a deserving Booker Prize winner.
This one was less challenging than Wolf Hall, perhaps because I’m practiced now in Mantel’s particular Cromwellian style, or perhaps simply because it’s a shorter book. Mantel keeps masterful track of the dozens of players jousting for position throughout the years around Henry the Eighth, and she manages to be fresh about it in a sea of Tudors pop culture. Not only fresh, but powerfully literary. Mantel won the Booker Prize AGAIN for this second book.
The hunting and death of Queen Anne (that’s hardly a spoiler) seemed a little rushed. I only hope that Cromwell’s death at the end of the trilogy isn’t the same. I assume he dies in the upcoming book, anyway. It has been quite a treat to read a book with Cromwell in it where he is still alive at the end.
I enjoyed this book immensely, even more than Wolf Hall. Both books, however, pull you in with their immediacy, which is most unusual in this type of historical fiction. It is so refreshing to read from the perspective of someone who, until now, was usually cast in the company of minor characters, with the focus on either Henry VIII, or one of his wives. I thoroughly enjoyed the different perspective of a much loved and familiar tale. I look forward to the third book in the trilogy
Loved this book almost as much as Wolf Hall. Can't wait for the next one in the trilogy.
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