I’m reading through all six of the Booker Prize shortlisted novels – attempting to finish before the winner is announced, although given the size of the books that is looking unlikely at the moment! Here’s the fifth of my reviews, for Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel.
By 1535 Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith’s son, is far from his humble origins. Chief Minister to Henry VIII, his fortunes have risen with those of Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second wife, for whose sake Henry has broken with Rome and created his own church. But Henry’s actions have forced England into dangerous isolation, and Anne has failed to do what she promised: bear a son to secure the Tudor line.
When Henry visits Wolf Hall, Cromwell watches as Henry falls in love with the silent, plain Jane Seymour. The minister sees what is at stake: not just the king’s pleasure, but the safety of the nation. As he eases a way through the sexual politics of the court, its miasma of gossip, he must negotiate a ‘truth’ that will satisfy Henry and secure his own career. But neither minister nor king will emerge undamaged from the bloody theatre of Anne’s final days.
Bring up the Bodies is the follow-up to Mantel’s phenomenal Wolf Hall, winner of the 2009 Booker Prize. This has been on my wishlist since I first heard she was writing a follow-up, so I was delighted, if a little surprised, to see it on the longlist. I remember when the longlist was announced, thinking that given that this is a sequel to a previous winner, if must be something quite special to have been considered for this year’s award – but that surely they wouldn’t shortlist it. When it made the shortlist, I thought it must be not just special, but exceptional.
I wasn’t disappointed.
In Bring up the Bodies, Mantel has once again created a vision of Tudor England that escapes the romanticism that so often plagues historical fiction set in this period. This is history at its most brutal, bloody and unforgiving. The scene is set right at the start, as we join Thomas Cromwell and the King on a hawk hunt:
“Weightless, they glide on the upper currents of the air. They pity no one. They answer to no one… All summer has been like this, a riot of dismemberment, fur and feather flying…”
Once again, the characterisation is spot on. One of the problems with historical fiction, particularly such a well-known period, is that we all know the ending, which can rob it of any suspense. Anyone who remembers the schoolchild rhyme about Henry VIII’s wives (“divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived”) knows that things aren’t going to turn out well for Anne here!
Mantel plays with this a bit – at one point, a character demands to know how many wives the King intends to have, in a lovely piece of dramatic irony – but also gets around it by drawing such vivid, believable characters that you still root for them and care what happens to them, even if it is a foregone conclusion. She gives us a King Henry who is at turns childish, masterful, romantic, callous, politically savvy and almost wilfully naive – exactly as you’d expect a man who was bred to power and has known nothing but having his every whim indulged to act.
Anne Boleyn is calculating and manipulative, but at the same time cuts a surprisingly sympathetic figure: she’s a woman who has managed to achieve vast amounts in a time when women had almost no power, by using her (much as I loathe this phrase) “feminine wiles”. To see her reduced to nothing, all that she has worked for stripped away in a shockingly brief period of time largely because she is getting older, has failed to produce a son and the King has started noticing another, younger woman, is heartbreaking.
“Anne Boleyn is not thirty-four years old, an elegant woman, with a refinement that makes mere prettiness seem redundant. Once sinuous, she has become angular. She retains her dark glitter, now rubbed a little, fading in places.”
And then there’s Jane Seymour, “pale, silent Jane”, who has caught the King’s attention despite the lack of any apparent effort on her part, simply by being the opposite of Anne. I found her character really intriguing: although she doesn’t actually get that much “stage time”, so to speak, her presence overshadows the entire book. She is described as being timid, quiet, modest to a fault, innocent, chaste, and naive to the point of stupidity. Most of this is borne out by her actions in the text, but she has enough throwaway, surprisingly barbed comments throughout the book to imply to the reader that there is more to her than meets the eye:
“‘My belief is,’ Edward says, ‘ this modesty could pall. Look up at me, Jane. I want to see your expression.’
‘But what makes you think,’ Jane murmurs, ‘that I want to see yours?'”
I was left with the impression that, in her own way, she is just as calculating as Anne Boleyn. Both characters are stuck within the limited social roles available to women at the time, but have taken opposite approaches: while Anne uses her charms to flatter and seduce the men around her, ultimately making her way to the throne with this technique but bringing about her own destruction by it too; Jane presents herself as the unimpeachable virgin, and thus escapes Anne’s fate. The two are living embodiments of the virgin/whore dichotomy, and each in her own way is simply playing a part.
Finally, we have Thomas Cromwell, master manipulator. He appears more ruthless here than he did in Wolf Hall: in the previous book, he came across as a man doing what he needed to do in order to survive and get ahead, but ultimately a kind and sympathetic person. Here, he seems more motivated by revenge. It is made clear on a number of occasions that the gentlemen of the King’s court look down on him for his lack of social standing, and resent his influence with the King: one courtier snarls at him to “get back to your abacus…you are a common man of no status, and the king himself says so, you are not fit to talk to princes”.
Cromwell shrugs this off at the time, and later consoles himself that
“Chivalry’s day is over… The days of the moneylender have arrived…banker sits down with banker, and kings are their waiting boys”.
However, he is clearly resentful of those of less ability than himself who have gained their position through birth and social status, particularly Anne Boleyn’s family. He is also still seeking revenge on those involved in the downfall of his patron, Cardinal Wolsey, as described in Wolf Hall. When he moves against the courtiers alleged to have committed adultery with Anne Boleyn, it is explicit that he is targeting those he has a grudge against: one man who is under as much suspicion as the others is not targeted, as he is a friend to Cromwell.
The writing, once again, is spectacular. Mantel has a real flair with language, hence I’ve included so many quotes in this review! I don’t normally put a lot of quotes in, but my copy of Bring up the Bodies is just bristling with sticky notes I put in to mark particularly beautiful sentences and paragraphs, so it would have felt a crime not to include some here. Here’s another one for you:
“Jane Seymour, alone of the ladies, does not move. She stands and looks at Henry and the king’s eyes fly straight to her, a space opens around her and for a moment she stands in the vacancy, like a dancer left behind when the line moves on.”
Beautiful, right? The text is just full of little moments like that: pitch-perfect descriptions that sum up everything you need to know with nary a word wasted.
So, you may have guessed by now, I quite liked this book 😉 The question is though, could it win? I’d love it to, but realistically I don’t think it can. To award the Booker Prize to a writer who won it a mere three years ago would be politically difficult, so to award it to the same writer for a sequel to the book they previously won with would be near-impossible. I also think it would feel quite unfair on the others on the shortlist.
It’s impossible to read Bring up the Bodies without thinking of Wolf Hall. Mantel has, in effect, had the space of two books to build her characters and story, whereas the other shortlisted authors each only have one book to impress the judges with.
Although Bring up the Bodies would work as a standalone book, it really makes more sense if read alongside Wolf Hall.
So, regardless of my own feelings on the book, I’d be astonished if it won, and I actually don’t think it should. For the record, my money is still on Swimming Home.