Book review: Bring Up The Bodies

PUBLISHED: 14:41 03 May 2012

Hampton Court Palace - where Henry VIII held court after Cardinal Wolsey fell out of favour

Hampton Court Palace - where Henry VIII held court after Cardinal Wolsey fell out of favour

PA Archive/Press Association Images

Hilary Mantel exceeds expectations in her Wolf Hall follow-up

»It is probably not controversial to claim that the personal life of Henry VIII rendered him our most colourful monarch to date – livening up even the driest history class. The saga of the six wives has been told and retold in a million different ways and with varying degrees of lurid detail.

It is a story that, were it to appear on EastEnders, would seem far-fetched. However, using Thomas Cromwell as her centre point in this dark chapter of the annals, Hilary Mantel has reinvigorated an age-old story and added such wonderful depth and real humanity to it that it will hardly need telling again.

The first instalment of this projected trilogy, Wolf Hall, won Mantel the Booker Prize in 2009. It followed Cromwell from his humble beginnings as the progeny of a violent blacksmith through his swift rise to become Henry VIII’s right hand man.

This he achieves through the deft handling of the break with Rome and the facilitation of the King’s second marriage to the formidable force that was Anne Boleyn. Enough praise was justly lavished on Wolf Hall when it was released so I shan’t add to it except to say that it really is very good indeed.

Bring Up The Bodies is the eagerly awaited second instalment and it is a literary tour-de-force that outstrips even its tremendous predecessor.

Having accumulated most of the significant offices in the country through his unique brand of fearless ambition and manipulative diplomacy, romwell is riding high at the peak of his influence. Henry’s interest in his wily second wife is waning and, when the meek figure of Jane Seymour unwittingly becomes a romantic prospect, the stage is set for a bloody reckoning.

Anne’s fall is a familiar tale but it is a testament to Mantel’s immense skill that the reader feels these events are nerve-shatteringly uncertain and all is to play for. This adds an intense frisson to every encounter and every bit of scheming that occurs in this mortal struggle.

As well as delving further into the curious psyches of Cromwell, Henry and Anne, Mantel viscerally describes the texture of everyday Tudor life.

She also magnificently captures the strange mixture of piety and bawdiness and the shifting moral centre of society that is solely dictated by the whims of a self-absorbed sovereign.

Mantel presents us with such a surfeit of astounding writing that it is tempting to quote the entire novel.

It feels authentically Tudor but is also electrifying in its originality. When Anne’s alleged noblemen lovers are thrown into the tower we are told “the silk ties of garments snapped to spill flesh”. And one of the courtiers, Norris, is described as being “spider of spider, the black centre of the vast dripping wed of court patronage.”

Historical accuracy is never sacrificed for creativity and vice versa. It is as close as you are likely to come to actual time travel without fiddling around with physics.This book manages to contain both a relentlessly compelling story and an exhibition of Mantel’s awe-inspiring command of language. Some sentences are so ingeniously crafted it is tempting to stop and stare at them as if they were a great painting but, at the same time, the narrative pulls you along with an irresistible force. It is both guilty pleasure and high art.

Mantel is a writer at the absolute pinnacle of her considerable powers and long may it continue. Her creations are so successful and so satisfying that the reputation of historical novels as naff and irrelevant may be a thing of the past.

Bring Up The Bodies is published by 4th Estate priced £20

n Bring Up The Bodies is published by 4th Estate priced £20

Most Read

Most Read

Latest from the Hampstead Highgate Express

Hot Jobs

Show Job Lists