Book review: Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Bring Up the Bodies is the second historical novel in Hilary Mantel‘s Booker Prize-winning trilogy about Thomas Cromwell.

I was delighted to find that the author manages to carve a narrative no less gripping and realistic as that which she achieved in the first book, Wolf Hall, which I reviewed a few months ago. That word “realistic” can be taken to mean many things; but for me, in this context, it signifies (again) a filling-in of the huge gaps in our knowledge about the fine detail of life in and around the court of Henry VIII. Mantel once more employs a wealth of intriguing and convincing suppositions, psychological insight and plausible dialogue. No-one will ever know to what extent her suppositions are correct – but they are always persuasive.

I turned the final page feeling that this was more or less how actual events must have played out in the physical settings, the inter-personal relationships and the psyches of the principal characters who were held in near orbit around this tyrant king.

The story moves on, of course, and in some ways the pace increases. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of Henry’s marital timeline is no doubt aware of the fate of his six wives. Primarily, this book tracks the gradual and terrifying slide out of Henry’s affections by Anne Boleyn (drawing, above right, by Hans Holbein The Younger), towards her doom. Our witness to all the goings-on is again Thomas Cromwell, whose persona is once more used as an on-the-spot notary of key moves by the pieces on this unfolding, life-and-death game of chess. Some are pawns, some, like Cromwell, are more powerful pieces; but there is only one king …

I was just slightly more struck this time around by the richness of Hilary Mantel’s prose. It feels like not a single paragraph, even when the event described is mundane, can go by without the addition of some small but eye-catching gem of literary embellishment. At one point, for instance, the king rises from his place and “His servants eddied about him”. What a lovely choice of verb!

There are innumerable other examples: as when Cromwell pays a visit to Henry Norris at the Tower of London (see below): “Gentle Norris: chief bottom-wiper to the king, spinner of silk threads, spider of spiders, black centre of the vast dripping web of court patronage”.

Another distinguishing characteristic is an increasing resort to a more earthy prose style, with the use on a number of occasions of obscenities and unrestrained descriptions of bodily functions and sexual acts (of numerous kinds). It’s not over-done but is a very telling ingredient in the blunt realism and quasi-documentary feel of the novel.

I say again: this is an imagined account of life and death in the court of Henry VIII which will not be surpassed.

 

 

Image credits: Anne Boleyn by Hans Holbein The Younger: public domain

White Tower at the Tower of London: Padraig.

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Filed under Book reviews, History

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