Well, although I had slightly mixed feelings about Hilary Mantel’s 2009 novel “Wolf Hall“, I was still in the mood for historical fiction. So, I thought that I’d check out the novel’s 2012 sequel – “Bring Up The Bodies”.
Like with “Wolf Hall”, I found a second-hand copy of this novel in a charity shop in Petersfield (the same shop, no less) last year.
Although this novel is a sequel to “Wolf Hall”, it can theoretically be read as a stand-alone novel. However, it is worth reading “Wolf Hall” first – both in order to learn more about the characters and, more importantly, to get used to Mantel’s unusual writing style too.
So, let’s take a look at “Bring Up The Bodies”. Needless to say, this review contains SPOILERS. But, if you have a fairly basic knowledge of Tudor history, then you’ll already know how this novel will end.
The novel begins in Wiltshire in 1535. King Henry VIII is on holiday, taking a tour of the many stately houses of England, accompanied by his faithful advisor Thomas Cromwell. During this holiday, Henry begins to take a liking to Jane Seymour, whilst his relationship with his wife Anne Boleyn grows ever more distant and acrimonious.
And, after a complex series of events, the King wishes to end his marriage to Anne so that he can wed Jane instead. And, of course, there is only one person that the king can entrust with this devious task… Thomas Cromwell.
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that whilst it is still a character study of Thomas Cromwell, there is more focus on intrigue and plotting than in “Wolf Hall”. As such, it’s kind of like a more realistic version of “Game Of Thrones”.
Plus, although this novel certainly isn’t a fast-paced thriller, it feels a lot more focused and dramatic than “Wolf Hall” does. In part, this is because I’ve got used to Mantel’s unusual writing style and, in part, it is because this novel tells a somewhat more linear story (with fewer flashbacks, time jumps etc..) than “Wolf Hall” does.
Like with “Wolf Hall”, one of this novel’s strengths lies in it’s atmosphere. The story is filled with all sorts of poetic descriptions of Tudor life, which really help to bring the story to life.
Whilst this story doesn’t go in the dystopian direction of something like S.J.Parris’ “Sacrilege“, it doesn’t present an entirely rose-tinted version of the Tudor age either. This is a novel set in a world where opulence and squalour sit side by side, where the king wields near-absolute power and everything revolves around the people who try to influence him.
This exploration of power is best seen in one scene where, after a jousting accident, Henry’s court fears that he is dead. Even if you know the basic history, this scene is still surprisingly suspenseful. In the brief moment where everyone fears Henry’s loss, you can really feel the instability and uncertainty that comes from having all authority reside within one man.
Then, in a moment of genius, this scene is brilliantly counterpointed by a moment where Henry publicly berates Cromwell for his ambitions – only to meekly speak to Cromwell later when he realises that, without Cromwell, his job as king would be much more difficult. It’s a scene which brilliantly shows that power, by it’s very nature, is not something that can be truly held by just one person.
This is also, as you may have guessed, a novel about death too. In addition to all of the events leading up to Anne’s execution, this novel focuses heavily on how the dead influence the living. Not only are many of the novel’s events set into motion after Catherine Of Aragon dies from natural causes, but Cromwell is also shown to be motivated by the memory of his time with Cardinal Wolsey etc…
Another one of this novel’s strengths lies in the characters – Cromwell in particular. Because both this novel and “Wolf Hall” focus so heavily on Cromwell, the scenes in the later parts of “Bring Up The Bodies” where he becomes much more of a morally-ambiguous character are so subtle and gradual that you might initially find yourself smirking along with him until you suddenly remember the gravity of what he is doing.
These scenes are combined with some brilliant moments of dark comedy (eg: Cromwell accidentally using Christmas decorations to scare a confession out of someone etc..) in such a way that Cromwell’s slow descent into evil is softened to the point of seeming even more chillingly realistic. He’s a loveable rogue… until the gavel falls on his enemies and they are taken to the scaffold.
Likewise, the novel’s portrayal of Henry VIII is fairly nuanced and complicated too – with the jovial and boisterous side of his character contrasted with his more emotional, sensitive and melancholic elements. Despite his bitter plot against his wife, he is also shown to be a surprisingly … noble… man, rather than the lecherous glutton of popular culture (although there are certainly hints of this side of him emerging…)
Anne Boleyn, on the other hand, is shown to be a much harsher and sharper character than she was in “Wolf Hall”. Although she still retains some dwindling power, her marriage to Henry has deteriorated since the events of “Wolf Hall” and, although she is shown to be uncertain about her grim fate until the very last drawn-out moment, this gaunt, harsh and embattled characterisation of her helps to ominously foreshadow the ending of the story.
The novel, of course, has lots of other interesting historical and fictional characters – but I would probably be here all day if I wrote about each one of them. But, in general, the characters in this novel are as good as ever.
As for the writing in this novel, it’s really good… once you get used to Mantel’s writing style. If you’ve already read “Wolf Hall”, then you’ll have no problem here. If you haven’t, then prepare to be confused. In addition to using the present tense, Mantel will also do things like referring to Cromwell as “he” without introducing him first. But, when you get used to all of Mantel’s stylistic quirks, this novel’s third-person narration has a poetry and beauty to it that really has to be seen to be believed.
In terms of the length and pacing, this novel is a relatively concise 482 pages in length – making it shorter and slightly more focused than “Wolf Hall” 🙂 Whilst “Bring Up The Bodies” tells a reasonably slow-paced story, it is probably at it’s most focused and gripping during the earlier and later parts of the story. Even so, the middle of the novel still contains the occasional moment of drama to keep the story flowing. Likewise, since this novel contains fewer flashbacks and time jumps than in “Wolf Hall”, the story’s pacing feels a lot more confident too. Still, expect a slow-paced story with some very long chapters.
All in all, this is a better novel than “Wolf Hall”. Yes, it’s still fairly slow-paced, but the plot feels a lot more focused, the characters gain some extra complexity and it is as wonderfully atmospheric as ever. Plus, once you’ve got used to Mantel’s writing style, then this is also one of those novels that is worth reading just for the writing alone. Yes, you’ll probably have to put a bit of effort into reading this novel, but it’s worth it.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.