THE TITLE OF HILARY MANTEL'S latest novel Bring Up the Bodies comes from a line spoken in its final pages. Only after this declaration are “the bodies” given names: “Deliver, that is, the accused men, by name Weston, Brereton, Smeaton and Norris, to Westminster Hall for trial.” Anne Boleyn’s illicit lovers seem more meat than men while herded to the scaffold. Like Mantel’s title, they act as a warning — a prelude — to the queen’s own execution. It all happens very quickly. “Bring up the bodies,” as though these men were already and only that — bodies. The line is as efficient as an ax to the head. Actions are abrupt in this novel; where Mantel takes her time is in cultivating the long spaces between.
Bring Up the Bodies is the second volume of Mantel’s trilogy that tracks the rise, decline, and ultimate fall of Thomas Cromwell. Where the first installment, Wolf Hall, chronicles the undoing of Thomas More, Bring Up the Bodies charts the demise of Anne Boleyn. Both novels end in swift scenes of execution. Wolf Hall sprawls from 1500 to 1535, teasing out the historical and psychological conditions that could produce the impenetrable force that was Thomas Cromwell. Bring Up the Bodies is more urgent, turning a close lens on Boleyn’s final days.
When Wolf Hall was being considered for the Booker Prize in 2009 (which it won), the Times noted that its shortlist (which included A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger, and Adam Foulds’s The Quickening Maze) was “dominated by a form once taboo,” but historical fiction is less a taboo than a literary challenge. The problem facing its writers seems to be this: How does one maintain the novelistic properties of suspense, ambivalence, and most importantly, the illusion of choice when readers already know how the tale ends? The final installation of Mantel’s trilogy (titled The Mirror and the Light) is in progress, but readers already know the story will end with Cromwell’s death. And how.
Instead of trying to thwart readers’ expectations, however, Mantel engages them. In the first pages of Bring Up the Bodies, she playfully alludes to Hans Holbein’s portrait of Cromwell (currently hanging in New York’s Frick Collection). Though the painting is a familiar one now, Mantel’s description is fresh, casting it, once more, with life:
His portrait broods on the wall; he is wrapped in wool and fur, his hand clenched around a document as if he were throttling it. Hans had pushed a table back to trap him and said, Thomas, you mustn’t laugh; and they proceeded on that basis, Hans humming as he worked and he staring ferociously into the middle distance. When he saw the portrait finished he said, ‘Christ, I look like a murderer’; and his son Gregory said, didn’t you know?
In expressing Cromwell’s shock at his own brutal gaze, Mantel invokes the mythology surrounding King Henry VIII’s chief minister. History will not be compassionate to him; time will flatten Cromwell, leaving him to be remembered as the man in Holbein’s painting, a murderer, remorseless in his pursuit of power.
Holbein has Cromwell “staring ferociously into the middle distance,” a...read more