Bring Up The Bodies is the title of Hillary Mantel’s Booker shortlisted sequel to her previous Booker prize winning novel Wolf Hall. Picking up where her last novel finished, we return to Tudor England and find Thomas Cromwell at the height of his powers. His benefactor, King Henry, is married to Anne Boleyn, at least for the time being.
The present Queen of England’s position is tenuous due to her shouldering the blame for not having produced a male royal heir, as well as her unpopularity with the general populace who view her as a witch. On top of this the plain and chaste Jane Seymour, who is every inch Anne’s opposite, has caught Henry’s eye.
The novel being a sequel shares much the same merits and flaws as its predecessor. Again I found Mantel’s over-identification with her protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, to be to the books detriment. Cromwell is presented as a sort of Tudor James Bond, his decisions always correct and his lines always the best. The author’s breathless portrayal of him stretches credibility at times and undermines the book’s verisimilitude, a move potentially fatal in the sober world of historical fiction. Even when he appears to have failed at a task you can be sure that it is part of his cunning plan. His opponents are all scoundrels and depicted in such a negative light that sometimes the novel veers towards a “goodie vs baddie” dichotomy.
While reading the novel I admit that at times I entertained the childish refrain of “If you love Cromwell so much why don’t you marry him Hilary?” While I can sympathise with the fact that the author is attempting to address the imbalance in the portrayal of Cromwell, which has tended towards the negative at least from the Victorian period onwards, her blatant partisanship somewhat marred my enjoyment of the novel.
Like Wolf Hall, the novel features a strong supporting cast filled with a wide array of fascinating and amusing characters. My favourite of Mantels new characters has to be the foul mouthed French boy Christophe, whose talent for profanity is without peer. Depictions of Cromwell’s domestic life are also a success, perhaps because the character is allowed to appear ridiculous around his family, much of the novel’s humour takes place there. The domestic passages are written with real warmth and provide a welcome relief from the tense atmosphere of Henry’s court.
Where Bring up the Bodies excels over Wolf Hall is that it moves along at a brisker pace, having had the expository foundations laid by its forerunner. The challenge for writers of historical fiction lies in finding the correct balance between the demands of historical accuracy and those of art. On this point I feel Bring Up The Bodies outdoes Wolf Hall, which sometimes buckled under the weight of history. I found Bring Up The Bodies also displays slightly better prose, its opening paragraph in particular being one of the more arresting pieces of writing I have read recently.
While some reviews have suggested the reading of Wolf Hall to be unnecessary in order to enjoy Bring Up The Bodies, I strongly disagree. Without being familiar with major characters such as Cardinal Wolsey or Thomas More, a reader, excepting Tudor history enthusiasts, will find certain passages unclear and confusing. While the novel will not be rendered incomprehensible, I cannot understand why anyone would seek diminish their enjoyment of Bring Up The Bodies experience by forgoing Wolf Hall.
The true success of Mantel’s retelling of Cromwell’s story lies in the fact that she tells us a tale which we may already abe vaguely familiar with and makes it fresh and engaging. Mantel should also be commended for the scale of her ambition, a trait she shares with her protagonist. If you enjoyed Wolf Hall you will find much to admire in Bring up the Bodies. If you did not enjoy Wolf Hall you may not. I for one look forward to the third part of this trilogy.