Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Mantel continues riveting portrait of Cromwell
Following up her 2009 Booker Prize-winning triumph, Wolf Hall, British novelist Hilary Mantel gives her legion of fans more of what they want.
Bring Up the Bodies continues Mantel's study of the enigmatic Tudor power broker Thomas Cromwell. Secretary to King Henry VIII, this often ignored historical figure is given a leading role in a smart, funny and dark literary sequel.
What could possibly be compelling about a mere secretary? A bean-counting, pencil-pushing administrator? In the cutthroat court of King Henry VIII, even the humblest positions are filled with extraordinarily crafty people.
Fans of the CBC-TV series The Tudors will be familiar with the delightful James Frain's interpretation of this devious mastermind, but Mantel's portrait of Cromwell is riveting.
Cromwell is known as a key supporter and powerful mover and shaker in the English Reformation. He gained enormous power and no small amount of money in the dissolution of monasteries throughout England following the Reformation. He is credited with many brilliant schemes that filled the king's (and his own) coffers.
Bring Up the Bodies begins in September 1535 while Cromwell is with the king's retinue on progress through the realm. During their stay in Wolf Hall, home of the Seymour family, King Henry VIII meets and is smitten by young Jane Seymour; it is a meeting that will be disastrous for the present queen, Anne Boleyn.
The novel follows the fluctuations of fortune for all the players in the court as power shifts in response to the king's infatuations. The novel ends just after the execution of Anne and Henry's eye-roller of a marriage -- 10 days later -- to Jane Seymour.
Charming and wry, Cromwell is an utterly fearless character, speaking bluntly to the powerful, negotiating tenaciously with the heart-breakingly pitiable, and all in service of his king.
He seems to have no agenda other than to serve. Yet he knows, despite his fidelity, that no one is safe from Henry's capricious suspicions, and one day he too will feel the bitter edge of the axe.
"What can I do? Arm myself with patience and leave the rest to God."
As the novel progresses, we begin to see that he is subtly, invisibly exercising vengeance upon his enemies. He is cool and duplicitous, and we can't help but admire his skill.
The author of almost a dozen previous novels, Mantel has a remarkable knack for getting under the skin of these ancient characters, without giving too much away.
One of the delights of historical fiction is to discover new aspects of people we already know well. Mantel isn't afraid to challenge our notions of who these people might be, or to push her characterizations right to the edge.
While this is a piece of historical fiction, and not biography, it is doggedly faithful to the facts. Truthful and rigorous, Bring Up the Bodies is a rich and satisfying read for anyone who prefers intellectual stimulation to the rose-tinted fantasies and bodice-ripping of lesser writers of this genre. In fact, few can meet Mantel's skill.
Only slightly confusing is Mantel's decision, which she first used in Wolf Hall, to use "he" to refer to Cromwell. On occasion it is easy to mistake who is being referred to with the third person pronoun, but on the whole this convention puts the reader into Cromwell's pocket, giving us an intimate glimpse at the inner workings of the court.
We can only hope that Mantel is already at work on the next chapter of Cromwell's life. Knowing he won't meet his anticipated end on Tower Hill until 1540, we should be able to look forward to a number of instalments to fill his remaining four years.
Debbie Patterson is a Winnipeg playwright and theatre-maker with a fondness for the royals.
Bring Up the Bodies
By Hilary Mantel
HarperCollins, 407 pages, $25
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 23, 2012 J9
(1 of 24 articles for today)1:00 AM 0