It is not often that I leap to my computer to pre-order a new release in hardback. However I was so excited at the prospect of reading the next instalment of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy I just had to. It arrived last Monday – and I started it Tuesday night. I wished I hadn’t had to go to work this week – and I was out after work on both Wednesday and Thursday, so it is testament to the enormous readability of this novel that I have finished it today.
In Wolf Hall – Mantel’s marvellous Booker winning first instalment – we see the raise of Thomas Cromwell. A blacksmith’s son, who having escaped his humble beginnings, serves time abroad learning his craft until eventually he arrives back in London and goes to work for the great Cardinal Wolsey. Wolsey is doomed however and it is Cromwell who ends up with the ear of king. The story in Wolf Hall takes place over a number of years and concerns mainly the divorce of Henry VIII from Katherine of Aragon, and the fall of Thomas More. The time period of Bring up the Bodies – is much shorter – the story opens in September 1535 - when the cracks in Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn are beginning to show - and takes us up to the summer of 1536. The autumn of 1535 there are crops failing all over England due to incessant rain, for which some blame Anne Boleyn. Katherine of Aragon is ill – dying and separated from her daughter Mary.
For any fan of Tudor set novels like myself – the story of the fall of Anne Boleyn is one we never tire of – though we know it ever so well. When it comes to stories about Henry VIII and those surrounding him, I feel like a child hearing a loved bedtime story – crying out “again, again” We know what happens to Anne, we know who whispers what to whom, and how it ends, but none of that ever stops it being utterly enthralling. When they finally come for Anne – her uncle among them – and take her away to the tower – how can we not be thrilled at the horror of a queen taken away in shame? She must have known what her fate could be even then, although she is often - as here - portrayed as believing that Henry would intervene for her eventually.
It is however Hilary Mantel’s marvellous writing that separates this from all the rest. From the strange and beguiling opening sentences:
“His children are falling from the sky. He watches from horseback, acres of England stretching behind him; they drop, gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze.” - Cromwell has named his hawks after his dead daughters – from here on in, I was hooked.
Mantel’s depiction of the times is brilliant, the sights and sounds of Tudor England subtly and beautifully woven into an extraordinary tale. The politics and conniving machinations that surround Anne are brilliant reproduced. Cromwell has a ready supply of gossip mongers and court informers that conspire to bring Anne down. Lady Rochford (one of my favourite Tudor characters) is marvellously sinister. Thomas Cromwell’s household in comparison to that of Henry’s court is a happy, settled and genial place. Despite the tragedies of his wife and daughter’s deaths that we witnessed in Wolf Hall – Cromwell retains a good family life – with his son, nephew and Rafe his clerk, who was brought up by Cromwell, as well as various well treated, good humoured and trusted servants.
Bring up the Bodies – is at least a couple of hundred pages shorter than the epic Wolf Hall – but it is utterly compelling and beautifully written, and I enjoyed it enormously. Already I am looking forward to the next instalment.