The spectacular second instalment of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy of novels about Thomas Cromwell has a far shorter time frame than its predecessor, the Man Booker-winning Wolf Hall – one year, versus a trawl through decades of a life – and a more intense focus. Two queens die, their daughters condemned to illegitimacy; nobody, from the petulant, mercurial king down to the malicious gossips on every street corner, comes out of this well. Cromwell, doggedly doing Henry VIII’s bidding, uses the fall of Anne Boleyn to settle some scores of his own and in doing so takes the first steps towards his own downfall, hurtling towards us in the final novel.
Cromwell’s image, pre-Mantel, was of scowling Tudor baddie, lurking in the shadows of novels, plays and films featuring star turns by such doomed glamorous people as Sir Thomas More, Cardinal Wolsey and Boleyn, his role confined to trumping up charges, getting rid of the King’s unwanted wives and dissolving monasteries. Mantel, groping for his humanity, found someone else: the blacksmith’s son, ruffian turned mercenary turned businessman, pragmatist, reformer, good father, patron, peacekeeper. At times in Wolf Hall, Cromwell seemed a little too New Labour in his sensibilities and plain-speaking Protestant vision of a fair and tolerant England: every possibly bad deed had its reason, with fingers pointed at dissolute monks, a snobbish and jealous aristocracy and the bigoted bishops, the political, economic and religious disarray of the era and Cromwell’s own personal demons, including a violent and unhappy childhood, a wife and daughters lost to illness, and a loved mentor, Wolsey, hounded into his grave.
There are still Modern Man touches here, but the moral implications of Cromwell’s activities are more clear. If Wolf Hall was Mantel’s counterpoint to A Man for All Seasons, debunking the myth of the saintliness of More – among other things, he was vile to his wife and an enthusiastic burner of heretics – then perhaps Bring Up the Bodies has less to prove, as well as less to explain. The novel continues Mantel’s complex, nuanced and not entirely sympathetic portrait of Boleyn, a woman in an uneasy alliance with Cromwell until the king turns on her – as he will, implicitly, turn on everyone close to him. It also develops one of the more enigmatic characters of Henry’s melodrama, Jane Seymour, a woman cast by history (and Hans Holbein) as mousy and purse-lipped, the dull interlude before another whirlwind of divorce and execution. In Mantel’s account, Seymour – “a plain young woman”, Cromwell thinks, “with a silvery pallor, a habit of silence, and a trick of looking at men as if they represent an unpleasant surprise” – plays her own game, and wins.
Like Wolf Hall, this is long, but it doesn’t sprawl. It’s clear from the first line we’re in the hands of an expert stylist and storyteller who’s made an audacious imaginative leap. Mantel has written another novel that makes us question what we think we know about the past and its players; another novel to devour and reread.
BRING UP THE BODIES, by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate, $37.99)
Paula Morris is a New Zealand writer living in Scotland.
You can still join the conversation about Bring Up the Bodies. Visit the Book Club section of www.listener.co.nz, follow the Twitter account @nzlbookclub or go to the Facebook page New Zealand Listener Book Club. For July, we have three book choices – the fiction finalists of this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards: Paula Morris’s own historical novel, Rangatira (Penguin, $30), Fiona Kidman’s The Trouble with Fire (Vintage,$36.99) and Sue Orr’s From Under the Overcoat (Vintage, $29.99). Coverage begins on July 6 with interviews with Orr and Kidman (we interviewed Morris last year and will be reposting the interview in the Book Club section of our website).