For centuries, authors and filmmakers have been retelling the saga of Henry VIII and his many wives. Few writers, however, have managed to make the subject as fresh, fascinating and suspenseful as Hilary Mantel’s 2012 Man Booker prize winner Bring Up the Bodies.
In vivid and daring prose, infused with exciting historical detail, Mantel delves into the heart of the Tudors through the eyes of the manipulative Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s chief adviser.
Unlike most popular fiction, Mantel wanted to move beyond the negative portrayal and prejudices of Cromwell. She appears to have successfully achieved that, with critics praising the British author for making a historically unlikeable character seem humane, witty, amiable and even tender.
Bring Up the Bodies is the second volume of Mantel’s trilogy (the first, Wolf Hall, also won the 2009 Man Booker Prize), which tracks the rise and ultimate downfall of Cromwell.
The historical novel opens in 1535 with Henry VIII becoming weary of his second wife, Anne Boleyn, who has failed to supply him with the male heir he so desperately craves. The King orders Cromwell to get rid of Boleyn to enable him to marry the new object of his desire, the demure Jane Seymour.
What follows is the dramatic and dizzying downfall of the Queen, in which Cromwell organizes her arrest, trial and execution for adultery and treason. Among some of the strongest scenes in the book are those of the interrogation of the doomed Boleyn.
Unlike Wolf Hall, which spanned more than 30 years, Mantel’s latest novel takes place over less than a year; even though most readers know how the story ends, Mantel’s writing remains utterly engaging, with a sense of urgency and suspense.
Boleyn’s execution is described to readers: “There is a groan, one single sound from the whole crowd. Then a silence, and into that silence, a sharp sigh or a sound like a whistle through a keyhole: the body exsanguinates, and its flat little presence becomes a puddle of gore.”
Bring Up The Bodies (the title refers to the four men executed for supposedly sleeping with Anne Boleyn) is by no means the end of the Cromwell story. A new wife for Henry is to be introduced and Cromwell’s downfall plotted in the last book in Mantel’s trilogy, The Mirror & The Light.
Photo: Man Booker Prizes