Review: History: Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Fourth Estate, £20,hbk, 608 pages
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350
Hilary Mantel's Booker winning Wolf Hall, about statesman Thomas Cromwell's role in Henry VIII's break from Rome and the English Reformation, terminated abruptly at the point where the next chapter in Henry's affections and Cromwell's sinuous realisation of them begins. But the button was only tantalisingly on pause.
In Bring Up the Bodies, the Reformation is under way, despite threats from Europe with Cromwell, now Master Secretary, as its chief architect.
The transition is evolving -- the king and subjects still follow the Mass while papist effigies burn.
Wolsey is dead, and Thomas More, but their shades persist, part of the book's dramatis personae, along with Cromwell's deceased wife and daughters. To the fore come Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and Imperial ambassador Chapuys, with whom Cromwell has fluctuating, but purposeful relationships -- he is, after all, the king's canvas.
Henry has achieved some resolution of his "great matter" -- the annulment of marriage to Katherine of Aragon -- now she is dying, separated from their daughter Mary, both under house arrest in different inclement parts of the country.
In place is the Frenchified, arrogant court of the Boleyns (whom no one likes "except the Boleyns themselves"), shot through with histrionic ferocity and icy, jittery intrigue.
Yet already, in Mantel's compressed timescale (the novel stretches barely a calendar year), Anne, whom Henry petitioned for so long to marry, is doomed; her brittle "dark glitter" and "black anger" soon to be exchanged for Jane Seymour's "snowdrop"-like equanimity.
On publication of Wolf Hall there was some uneasiness that Mantel used "fictory" to rehabilitate Cromwell's villainous reputation.
In actuality it was, and is, a brilliant portrayal of the complex pragmatism of this multi-tasker extraordinaire -- due to his low origins as the son of a blacksmith, ambitious, horrifyingly adaptable, his status forever in flux.
Upon the unveiling of Holbein's squat, greedy likeness of him -- giant vole springs to mind -- Cromwell's irreverent household knowingly applauds their master's exclamation that he resembles a murderer.
When Henry, credulous, petulant, though still somehow reeking of charisma, first broaches the topic that his son-less union with Anne might be illegal, Cromwell's initial response is weary alarm, then a swift expediting of the king's wishes so that within the three weeks Anne and her alleged lovers, including her brother, are dismally dispatched.
Their shocking undoing is where the court's -- and Mantel's -- skill at verbal chicanery comes darkly into force. Like its predecessor, the novel is rich in its descriptive immediacy, but it is the dialogue which propels it.
Graven with Diamonds, Nicola Shulman's recent biography of the pre-eminent poet of the era, Thomas Wyatt (temporarily arrested as one of Anne's paramours) neatly delineates how a person could live or die by the interpretation of a single word.
Cromwell's introduction of the thought-crime of wishing the king dead as an act of treason in 1534 means that for Anne and her "suitors" there is simply no escape.
Their demise is as much to do with Cromwell's furthering the Protestant cause as to Henry's change of heart; with the shifting power of the Seymours over the Boleyns at court; with the fight for the entire body politic.
Even as he is "cross-examining" Henry Norris, the king's oldest friend, Cromwell is calmly siphoning off the soon-to-be-posthumous Norris's land and houses in his mind.
As for Anne herself, his ambivalent attitude towards this wretched yet pitiless little figure, is one of the mysteriously perverse facets of Cromwell's character.
His own downfall will doubtless be documented in Mantel's final book in the series. In the meantime, we can marvel at how, like the swooping falcons to whom Cromwell gives the names of his departed loved ones, she again breathes new life into biographies we thought we knew by heart, enlarged and contemporised to mirror our own gains and losses.