Jennifer (JC-S)'s Reviews > Bring Up the Bodies

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
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Jun 18, 12

bookshelves: librarybooks
Read in May, 2012

‘In a generation everything can change,’

In ‘Bring Up The Bodies’, which covers the period from September 1535 to the summer of 1536, Thomas Cromwell has become Master Secretary and is an architect of the Reformation currently under way. Cardinal Wolsey and Sir Thomas More are now amongst the dead but they are still influential in Thomas Cromwell’s mind, together with his deceased wife and daughters. In life, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and Emperor Charles V’s ambassador, Eustace Chapuys are important: Cromwell’s relationship with each fluctuates, depending in part on the King’s needs.

‘The king gives him titles that no one abroad understands and jobs that no one at home can do.’

Henry’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon has been annulled, and she is dying, under house arrest and not allowed contact with her daughter Mary. The Boleyns hold sway at court, but Anne has failed to deliver a male heir. What will happen to Thomas Cromwell, if Anne is doomed? Henry raises, with Cromwell, the possibility that his union with Anne might be illegal. And with Katherine dead, in January 1536, he will be free to marry. Cromwell is alarmed initially, but he has survived by being adaptable.

‘What is the nature of the border between truth and lies? It is permeable and blurred because it is planted thick with confabulation, misunderstandings and twisted tales.’

Within three weeks, between the end of April and the middle of May 1536, Anne and her alleged lovers are tried, found guilty of treason and executed. Thoughts are as dangerous as actions in this world: the King’s needs must be met.

‘The order goes to the Tower, ‘Bring up the bodies.’ Deliver, that is, the accused men by name Weston, Brereton, Smeaton and Norris to Westminster Hall for trial.’

While cross-examining Henry Norris, Thomas Cromwell is re-allocating Norris’s houses and lands. The ultimate multi-tasker, is Thomas Cromwell.

We know that Anne is beheaded. But until it happens, Cromwell does not. Anne is beheaded by sword, her women in attendance:

‘Then they straighten up, each of them awash in her blood, and stiffly walk away, closing their ranks like soldiers.’

Reading this novel is a journey within Thomas Cromwell’s mind as envisaged by Hilary Mantel. We have actions and motivations, a clear sense of why Cromwell acts the way he does and little independent or external sense of the other people involved. And Cromwell himself is a fascinating contradiction. Small things occupy his mind as much as the great affairs of state, his imagined life is as important as the history taking place around him. Thomas Cromwell is the centre of this novel; most others (even the King, sometimes) occupy the shadows. Any description of scenery and of time and place is rare, and almost unnecessary.

I enjoyed this novel immensely: I am rethinking my views about Thomas Cromwell and the first two books in Ms Mantel’s trilogy have set the scene for the third in which, surely, Cromwell’s own downfall must be central. All that Cromwell knows is the past, and during this novel he often revisits it.

‘There are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings. Here is one.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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