Prime Edition

Bring Up the Bodies

Hilary Mantel

Fourth Estate

Pages: 608 Rs. 399

The muted tones of a royal conspiracy and betrayal

Charting the decline and eventual execution of Anne Boleyn masterminded by Thomas Cromwell, Hilary Mantel’s sequel to 'Wolf Hall' is murder with a silk scarf, writes Nandini Ramachandran

Nandini Ramachandran  26th Aug 2012

Thomas Cromwell

enry VIII first met Anne Boleyn during a masked ball. The ladies, legend has it, came dressed as the Virtues; Anne, aptly, played Perseverance. Over the next decade, she would become the king's muse, his mistress, and finally his consort. It was not a comfortable journey for either party: she was competing for the king's fickle affections with every lady at court, including her sister (and, gossip insisted, her mother). He, in turn, could only divorce his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, by repudiating the Pope and angering her nephew, Charles V, then the most powerful monarch in Europe. This he did, with the help of the ingenious Thomas Cromwell, the protagonist of Hilary Mantel's Bring Up The Bodies.

The intertwined fates of Thomas Cromwell and Anne Boleyn are at the heart of both Bring Up The Bodies and its prequel, the Booker winning Wolf Hall. As Cromwell observes in that novel, "A world in which Anne can be queen is a world in which Cromwell can be Cromwell". His insight was to prove equally prophetic inverted. Cromwell survived Anne by less than five years, though their combined legacy was carried forward by her daughter, the first Queen Elizabeth.

Bring Up The Bodies begins with Anne installed as queen and concludes with her execution. Ironically, it was Anne's inability to bear a male heir that led to her downfall. For most of book, she is a shadowy celebrity mediated by court intrigue and Cromwell's unforgiving eye. They were uneasy (if necessary) allies, and he's the first to notice the king's weakness for Jane Seymour, whom he grooms into her role as Henry's third queen. This Jane – timid, pragmatic and silent – is as removed from the mercurial Anne as Anne was from the regal Katherine. Henry is terrified of his second queen, Cromwell believes, while he knows he can bully Jane to his heart's content. She is, as Henry once fancied Anne to be, a woman of no importance. It's an arrangement that suits Cromwell just as well, and he watches with silent glee as Anne deteriorates from her motto of "The Most Happy" to a woman who is all "elbows and points and spikes".

It is embroidery, delicate and precise...I marvelled at her willingness to experiment in the light of success: to write, with such exquisite intensity, a different kind of historical novel.

ne of Anne's rare appearances occurs after the death of her dog, Purkoy, and her dismay during the scene is a harbinger of this slick queen's increasing vulnerability. The murdered Purkoy, further, was named after the French word for 'why' (pourquoi). It's to answer this question – Why? – that anyone writes or reads  historical fiction: Why did Cromwell rise so high when he was born so low? Why did England not remain Catholic? Why did Anne Boleyn have to die? Mantel intensifies this symbolism later, incorporating the metaphor into Cromwell's thoughts once rumours about Anne's fidelity start circulating: What is the nature of the border between truth and lies? It is permeable and blurred because it is planted thick with rumour, confabulation, misunderstandings and twisted tales. Truth can break gates down, truth can howl in the street; unless truth is pleasing, personable and easy to like, she is condemned to stay whimpering at the back gates.

Bring Up The Bodies, like Wolf Hall, is a story about profound betrayal. This is, however, a quieter book, and its betrayals are as muted as its epiphanies. This is partially because Cromwell is, here, the person betraying others, while Wolf Hall was about Cromwell's quest to protect his master, Cardinal Wolsey, from the latter's vast host of enemies (including, not least, Anne Boleyn). In this novel, he avenges the Cardinal's humiliating death. Despite the author's deft foreshadowing, her reader hardly notices when Cromwell concludes that the Boleyns must be "laid at his hand to be carved". It's a scene momentous in its subtlety, a new trait in the always shrewd but rarely subdued Cromwell. Once decided, he sets about the matter with typical expedience, inventing charges that span the spectrum from incest to treason.

Wolf Hall is a sprawling tapestry of a novel. It tells tales about everything from Henry's serpentine grandmothers to London's subaltern population of ghosts and ghouls. Bring Up The Bodies is embroidery, delicate and precise. There isn't a redundant sentence or a superfluous word, and what Mantel sacrifices in lyricism she makes up in structure. Reading this novel, especially the second time, I marvelled at her willingness to experiment in the light of success: to write, with such exquisite intensity, an entirely different kind of historical novel. It is this vivid courage, even more than Mantel's dexterity with her people and her words, which has me eagerly awaiting the final book of her Cromwell trilogy. Why, I want to know, can't he live without a queen he martyred?

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