By Marcia Allen
Technical Services & Collections Manager
Those who devour historical fiction will well remember one of 2009’s best books, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. To no one’s surprise, the book was destined for prestigious awards, among them the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. The reasons for praise were many: Mantel’s writing manages to bring to life a distant time period and to enliven characters long gone except in history books. Reading her prose is a lively immersion into the drama and customs of 16th century royal England.
Wolf Hall is the first of a trilogy that follows the life and career of Thomas Cromwell. The story begins with a grim look at his brutal childhood and works its way to his role as successor to Cardinal Wolsey during the reign of Henry VIII. As the story is told from Cromwell’s point of view, readers get both a compelling story and an intimate character study of a complex individual. All of this occurs against the backdrop of Henry VIII’s romance with Anne Boleyn.
But history shows us that Anne’s reign was doomed early on. Much as Henry was quick to fall for her, he quickly lost interest, and Anne’s failure to deliver a living son was a catalyst. That’s the focus of author Mantel’s new book, and second part of the trilogy, Bring up the Bodies.
The story begins shortly after the execution of Thomas More. First queen Katherine of Aragon languishes in exile. Cromwell is a favored confidante for King Henry, but he walks an uncertain path, as do others who counsel such a volatile leader. Henry is disappointed in Anne’s aborted pregnancies and has recently noticed the shy manners of Jane Seymour. He has already begun to weigh variables in dissolving his second marriage.
What makes this second volume just as compelling as the first is partly a matter of the author’s expertise in conveying the richness of the time period and partly a matter of her gorgeous use of language. Consider, for example, Cromwell’s thoughts when he visits the ailing Queen Katherine:
“If she (the queen) is ill in the night, perhaps she dreams of the gardens of Alhambra, where she grew up: the marble pavements, the bubbling of crystal water into basins, the drag of a white peacock’s tail and the scent of lemons. I could have brought her a lemon in my saddlebag, he thinks.”
Another equally compelling feature of Mantel’s writing is her uncanny ability to make the reader a silent witness to dramatic historical events. Toward the end of this book, Mantel recounts the boasting of musician to the queen, Mark Smeaton, who claimed to know the queen in intimate terms. The reader can feel the tension, as Smeaton’s questioners, Cromwell among them, realize that they have found the loophole that will free Henry from his burdensome marriage. The reader also senses the horror that this idle boast will bring upon Anne and her court.
The concluding passages of the book speed through the hurried trials of those convicted of treason. Mantel’s handling of those details immerses the reader in the brutality of the times, of the fate that awaited those who dared offend Henry. And the retelling of the actual executions is so vivid, so realistic, that readers can but cringe.
I have to confess that I read this book in only a day or two, which would seem to indicate that it’s fairly short and fairly simple to read. This is not the case. This is a complicated tale with multiple layers of nuance, a story that dedicates five opening pages alone to its list of characters. My haste to read the book is due to its hypnotic nature: it is just that well written. I am eagerly awaiting the third volume of this outstanding trilogy, which promises to put Cromwell into dangerous conflict with his unpredictable monarch. I urge you to get lost in the pages of Bring up the Bodies.