Formerly known as the Orange Prize, the Women’s Prize for Fiction is awarded annually and ‘celebrates excellence, originality and accessibility in women’s writing from throughout the world’. We delve into the sixth, and final, of the shortlisted novels — Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies.
The epic saga of Anne Boleyn and her ignominious persecution, trial and death is intrinsically familiar to those even mildly acquainted with English history. As a key figure instrumental in bringing about the first break between the Church of England and Rome, and the first English queen to be publicly executed despite contradictory evidence, dubious sources and ill-solicited rumours, Anne Boleyn will forever be a subject of endless fascination firmly entrenched in the annals of English history.
But it’s not Anne Boleyn English writer Hilary Mantel is intent on chronicling. Just as she did in her multiple award-winning historical novel Wolf Hall, Mantel resuscitates master politician and chief minister to King Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell, in Bring Up The Bodies – the second book in her historical trilogy, concluding with the yet-to-be-released The Mirror and the Light. In Wolf Hall, Cromwell oversees King Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, his subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn, the English church’s break with Rome, and the dissolution of the monasteries that followed. This time, we see Cromwell play a decidedly more significant role as he masterminds a convoluted maze of lies, unwieldy intimations and ruthlessly corrupt processes that eventually seal Anne Boleyn’s fate and the downfall of her family.
Picking up from where Wolf Hall left off, Bring Up The Bodies begins with smidgens of King Henry VIII’s budding love for Jane Seymour. Peppered in amongst Cromwell’s growing unease at King Henry’s insinuations that he may yet again desire a new wife are careless whispers that but hint at what is to come. After a series of very unfortunate events, Anne Boleyn – betrayed, her name besmirched – is accused of high treason, adultery, witchcraft and incest. The sacrificial lambs arbitrarily relinquished alongside her are beloved brother George Boleyn, Sir Francis Weston, William Brereton, Mark Smeaton and Sir Henry Norris.
Boleyn’s fall provides a backdrop to Mantel’s recapturing of a more complete portrait of the deeply unpopular Cromwell who has so often been negatively portrayed in literary and historical accounts as calculating, unfeeling and dishonourable. Far from omitting instances of such reprehensible behaviour, passages of Cromwell’s unprincipled behaviour run rampant throughout.
He needs guilty men. So he has found guilty men. Though perhaps not guilty as charged.
Moreover, Mantel reveals a character routinely abused by a drunken father, plagued by a deep sense of loss after the death of his wife and two daughters, tender in his love of those closest to him, unwavering in his belief of what is necessary, and fiercely intelligent. In a choice moment, Cromwell lets slip – however momentarily – a shard of humanity for the wrongly convicted Anne Boleyn.
It is a long moment. He feels himself on the edge of something unwelcome: superfluous knowledge, useless information. He turns, hesitates, and reaches out, tentative…
Regardless of how one feels about Cromwell by the end of the novel, depictions of his character leave readers in reluctance admiration of his cool brand of pragmatism and diplomacy.
He has a way of getting his way, he has a method; he will charm a man or bribe him, coax him or threaten him, he will explain to a man where his true interests lie, and he will introduce that same man to aspects of himself he didn’t know existed… Knowing this, he is distinguished by his courtesy, his calmness and his indefatigable attention to England’s business.
Anne Boleyn, in a departure from common portrayals, is seen through Cromwell’s eyes as a bewitching, sly and self-centred player in the politics of the realm. In a testament to Mantel’s evocative narrative style, well-chronicled historical events are breathed new life as Mantel deftly reimagines the insidious machinations that ensnare Anne Boleyn and her many ‘suitors’. Narrated in present tense, with Cromwell always referred to as a ‘he’ rendering readers complicit in the web of Cromwell’s lies, readers are gifted the same limited knowledge Cromwell is privy to and the terrifying events are lent an astounding immediacy.
Although readers know well what awaits Anne in the terrifying final pages, the suspense never abates as the last ten minutes of Anne Boleyn’s life plod lugubriously along with no foreseeable end.
As a reimagining of Tudor times in the early 16th century, Bring Up The Bodies signifies much more than a stunning piece of historical fiction – though it certainly is that. Mantel is effectively ‘making the reader a proposal, an offer’ as she rewrites history in homage to a multifaceted and incredibly significant historical player, as fascinating by the end of the novel as he is abhorred.