Chronologically, this a sequel to Hilary’s superb Wolf Hall, to which I gave five stars recently. Wolf Hall traces the separation of Henry VIII from the pope and the Roman church in a dispute over the dissolution of his marriage to Katherine of Spain. We see the events through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, who rises from the gutter to become Henry’s “Master Secretary,” perhaps the equivalent to our president’s “chief Counsel,” and Attorney General combined, though there is no proper 16th Century equivalent for what Cromwell does.
Bring Up the Bodies takes up as the relationship between Henry and Anne is deteriorating. Elizabeth is a young girl, but Anne has still failed to deliver a proper (i.e., male) heir, which Henry needs to stabilize the dynasty and the realm. Anne’s hold on the throne has been tenuous from the beginning among blue-bloods and commoners alike. Depending on who’s speaking, she’s still considered a heretic, witch, adulteress, and usurper.
Overall, Bodies lacks the dramatic tension of Wolf Hall, a book which is taut and involving throughout. Its terrific opening scene where Cromwell is being beaten by his blacksmith father is a shocking prelude to the compelling tale of a common man’s rise from the gutter to royal counselor. How uses his native shrewdness, learning as he goes how to handle men, women, and paperwork, enthralls us on every page. When, eventually, he becomes the lead legal honcho in all the negotiations involved in the complex and intense maneuvering required to separate the king from his wife and England from Rome, and to bring Anne Boleyn to the royal bed, we’re as much taken with Cromwell’s personal involvement as with all the affairs of state and the royal heart. Bring Up the Bodies suffers somewhat from starting at a point at which Cromwell has already made it. In fact, his main struggles at the beginning are how to best suck the wealth of the Abbeys the king has “decommissioned” into the royal treasury and take a cut for himself in the process. All of this is interesting, but lacking somewhat in theater.
Where things get going is when it becomes time to move against Anne and usher in her successor, Lady Jane Seymour. Now we see that Cromwell has become something more than a sharp guy from the streets with lofty ambitions. As he moves against the accused adulterers, the men who will be executed for fornicating with the queen, he focuses on the spoils, the houses and fortunes that will be vacated by their executions and thus become available in part to him. In short, he’s become more than a little corrupt and venal. He protects one man he finds useful and can call friend, for example, even though the evidence against him is as good (or lacking) as that against the others. The rest get the ax. In all this last third of the novel we get the electricity of Wolf Hall. The rest is every good, carried by Mantel’s unique and often delicious literary style, but none of it has the juice of the last 150 pages. And they’re well worth waiting for.