Ruthless Ambition in 16th-Century England

By Maslin, Janet | International Herald Tribune, May 4, 2012 | Go to article overview

Ruthless Ambition in 16th-Century England


Maslin, Janet, International Herald Tribune


Hilary Mantel's "Bring Up the Bodies" continues the story of King Henry VIII's scheming fixer, Thomas Cromwell.

Bring Up the Bodies. By Hilary Mantel 432 pages. Henry Holt and Co., $28; Fourth Estate, Pounds 20.

Two years ago something astonishingly fair happened in the world of prestigious prizes: the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction for 2009 both went to the right winner. The book was Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall," and it would have dwarfed the competition any year. "Wolf Hall" was a historical novel that ingeniously revisited well-trod territory (the early marriages of Henry VIII), turned the phlegmatic villain Thomas Cromwell into the best-drawn figure and easily mixed 16th-century ambience with timeless bitchery.

Despite a complicated cast of characters and Ms. Mantel's teasing way of preferring pronouns to proper names, it wound up providing an experience of sheer bliss. It was a hard act to follow. But the follow-up is equally sublime.

In answer to what will surely be everyone's first question about Ms. Mantel's "Bring Up the Bodies": Yes, you can read it cold. Knowledge of "Wolf Hall" is not a prerequisite to appreciating what "Bring Up the Bodies" describes, because Ms. Mantel sets up her new book so gracefully. All of Cromwell's scheming to expedite Henry VIII's casting off of his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, to marry Anne Boleyn is behind him. So is the schism with the Roman Catholic Church that the first book so thoroughly outlined, maneuver by crafty maneuver.

All Ms. Mantel must do to reintroduce Cromwell is to revisit the most famous image of him: Hans Holbein's portrait of a ruthless- looking power broker with "his hand clenched around a document as if he were throttling it." She replays the moment in "Wolf Hall" when Holbein completed the painting, and Cromwell was startled to see himself looking like a murderer.

"Didn't you know?" his son, Gregory, asks, once again, as "Bring Up the Bodies" begins.

Cromwell's sparring with Anne Boleyn was in its tentative stages as "Wolf Hall" unfolded. Now she is queen -- or, as the new book's cynics put it, "Anne, the queen that is now." And Cromwell's dealings with her are "chary, uncertain, and fraught with distrust." Anne insists on mispronouncing his name as "Cremuel" when she gives him orders. Cromwell follows those orders only as far as he cares to; he knows that her status is precarious, since the king's eye has again begun to wander. When Anne arrogantly announces to Cromwell that "Since my coronation there is a new England" and that "it cannot subsist without me," he typically keeps his rejoinder to himself. And it is typically brisk and brutal.

"Not so, madam, he thinks," Ms. Mantel writes. "If need be, I can separate you from history."

"Bring Up the Bodies" explains how he does it. But as anyone who can't get enough of Ms. Mantel will be glad to know, this book is only the second in what will be a trilogy.

"Bring Up the Bodies" begins in September 1535 and spans less than a year. …

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