Mantel’s Wolf Hall was my favourite book of the year in 2010 — mine and a lot of other people’s, since it won the Booker Prize. It was a work of historical fiction that elevated historical fiction beyond genre categories; it was a superb piece of literary fiction that, along with the exquisitely beautiful writing, had the richly realized sense of place and time and compelling characters that mark the best historical fiction. And, like Sharon Kay Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour, it took a generally unpopular historical character — in this case, Henry VIII’s all-purpose right-hand man, Thomas Cromwell — and, without whitewashing him, made him not just real but sympathetic.
Everything that began in Wolf Hall is continued, just as brilliantly, in Bring Up the Bodies. This sequel has a much narrower and more specific focus — it tells one of the best-known and most compelling tales of English history, the story of Anne Boleyn’s swift fall from grace after Henry had spent most of a decade wooing her and wrenched the English church out of the grasp of Rome in order to accomplish his divorce. Anne’s dizzying decline in fortune has all the marks of classical tragedy — she begins this novel as the adored queen, and ends it disgraced and headless — and there is about the story the inevitability of tragedy. What makes Mantel’s telling unique is, of course, Cromwell’s point of view. We have heard Henry’s story and Anne’s story: what we haven’t heard before is the story of the tireless civil servant who worked with such dedication to bring about the king’s divorce and make it possible for him to marry Anne — and who worked with just as much dedication, only a few short years later, to discredit Anne, to have her and several men close to her charged with adultery and treason, and to have her put to death, all so that Henry could marry the next woman who caught his eye (and who might finally give him the son he desperately wanted).
It’s easy to cast Cromwell as a villain but harder, especially in this part of his story, to make him a sympathetic character while portraying the sordid business in which he is involved. Mantel achieves it here, by making Cromwell so real that even if we disapprove of his part in the tragedy we can empathize with the man playing that part. Nor can we forget, as we read this story, that there is another tragedy coming, another inevitable downfall of one who rose to dizzying heights so quickly. Four year and two queens later Cromwell himself would fall from Henry’s favour — and for a man like Cromwell in his time and place, with no lofty family name or coat of arms to support him, the king’s favour was the one thing he could not afford to lose.
For those who know history, the shadow of that last fall hangs over Cromwell’s machinations in Bring up the Bodies. But avid readers will have to wait for a third volume to see how that story takes shape under Hilary Mantel’s skilled pen. I, for one, can’t wait.