Michael's Reviews > Bring Up the Bodies

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
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bookshelves: fiction, historical-fiction, england, biographical-fiction

I didn’t enjoy this as much as I’d hoped to. The writing is often brilliant, with the dialogue lively and apt in revealing the characters, but I came away with a hollow feeling with respect to emotional engagement. Only part of that has to do with the lack of focus on likable characters in the unlikeable times.

The time is 1535, and the events concern the role of Thomas Cromwell in the downfall of Anne Boleyn in favor of Jane Seymour as Henry Tudor’s queen. As with the previous removal of Katherine of Aragorn from the throne in favor of Boleyn, features in Mantel’s “Wolf Hall”, there are a lot of nasty power plays and maneuverings that doesn’t favor liking anyone. Cromwell in most ways comes off in Mantel’s portrayal as the most human character in the tale. And that’s saying a lot given the historical outcome of the Queen’s execution and that of a number of formerly favored noblemen accused of being her lovers (and therefore treasonous).

His path to becoming the indispensable right hand to the King as Master Secretary from humble origins as a scrappy blacksmith’s son garners sympathy points, as does his bereft status after losing a wife and son to disease. His pragmatic Machiavellian persona keeps him brutally cool and efficient on the outside, belying a more emotional self the reader is privy to. Cromwell’s scope of character and methods are well distilled in this paragraph early in the book:

He never spares himself in the king’s service, he knows his worth and merits and makes sure of his reward: offices, perquisites and title deeds, manor houses and farms. He has a way of getting his way, he has a method; he will charm a man or bribe him, coax him or threaten him, he will explain to a man where his true interests lie, and he will introduce the same man to aspects of himself he didn’t know existed. Every day Master Secretary deals with grandees who, if they could, would destroy him with one vindictive swipe, as if he were a fly. Knowing this, he is distinguished by his courtesy, his calmness and his indefatigable attention to England’s business. He is not in the habit of explaining himself. He is not in the habit of discussing his successes. But whenever good fortune has called upon him, he has been there, planted on the threshold, ready to fling open the door to her timid scratch on the wood.

In the early part of the book, the King’s lack of a surviving male heir and the impending death of Katherine brings the ambassadors from the courts of France and Spain to Cromwell’s door on the issue of which of Henry’s daughters is to be considered the true Princess, Katherine’s Mary or Anne’s Elizabeth. One of his negotiations makes the King so angry, even Cromwell has fears over his precarious position:

Henry is convulsing with rage. ‘I really believe, Cromwell, that you think you are king, and I am the blacksmith’s boy.’

He will never claim, later, that his heart did not turn over. He is not one to boast of a coolness no reasonable man would possess. Henry could, at any moment, gesture to his guards; he could find himself with cold metal at his ribs, and his day done.

But he steps back; he knows his face shows nothing, neither repentance nor regret nor fear. He thinks, you could never be the blacksmith’s boy. Walter would not have had you in his forge. Brawn is not the whole story. In the flames you need a cool head, when sparks are flying to the rafters you must note when they fall on you and knock the fire away with one swat of your hard palm: a man who panics is no use in a shop full of molten metal.


When Henry tasks Cromwell to find some way of dumping Boleyn and getting an annulment, he has a chance to become indispensable again. Cromwell confesses to a crony:
He says softly, “I think I have been training all my years for this. I have served an apprenticeship to myself.” His whole career has been an education in hypocrisy.

He is able to wangle a chain of witness statements and semi-confessions without torture that can serve the purpose. The complete truth is not the overall objective for him:
we are not priests. We don’t want their sort of confession. We are lawyers. We want the truth little by little and only those parts of it we can use.

Thus, we get a lot of cleverness in Mantel’s the vision of Cromwell as an almost modern political manipulator. Still he didn’t quite gel for me, and my heart rarely felt concerned for him. Likability is not the issue in that; it’s more his lack of gravitas. Shakespeare’s tragedies about royalty are full of characters driven by corruption, avarice, and lust, and I can still often care a lot about their fate, even if it is to see them meet their just or inevitable desserts. Cromwell’s internal monologues and fantasies make him human, but a cool and flip type of human that just doesn’t get under my skin. In the first book, I got tired of being in his mind and wasn’t able to finish. Others obviously felt differently, which is fine by me.

I save my favorite line for the last, a response to negative rumors that illustrates both the high and low points of Mantel’s rendering of Cromwell’s humanity for me:
‘You know young Francis Weston? He that waits on the king? His people are giving out that you’re a Hebrew’ He grunts; he’s heard that one before. ‘Next time you’re at court’, Thurston advises, ‘take your cock out and put it on the table and see what he says to that.’
‘I do that anyway’, he says. ‘If the conversation flags.’

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Reading Progress

Started Reading
May 2, 2013 – Finished Reading
May 4, 2013 – Shelved
May 4, 2013 – Shelved as: fiction
May 4, 2013 – Shelved as: historical-fiction
May 4, 2013 – Shelved as: england
April 3, 2016 – Shelved as: biographical-fiction

Comments Showing 1-16 of 16 (16 new)

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Lisa (Harmonybites) Even though I liked this more than you I think, as reflected in my rating, I think it's a great review because it hints at why some might, and some might not, like these books, and I do think the reaction to Cromwell is key. I don't know I can say I liked him or felt for him--part of why neither book got a fifth star from me, but I was often fascinated by the takes on secondary characters--and FWIW, I think Cromwell does pay a price in this book, even though its not something I alluded to in my review because I think it's a spoiler--as much as anything can be said to be a spoiler in a work dealing with historical fiction.


Michael Lisa (Harmonybites) wrote: "Even though I liked this more than you I think, as reflected in my rating, I think it's a great review because it hints at why some might, and some might not, like these books, ..."
Maybe my approaching historical fiction on monarchs has me looking either for Shakespeare light or a soap opera of manners and morals or social dissection of the classes with an Upstairs-Downstairs scenario. Don't love reading how they are just modernly ruthless or irrelevantly ribald.


message 3: by Lisa (Harmonybites) (last edited May 04, 2013 08:13PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lisa (Harmonybites) Michael wrote: "Maybe my approaching historical fiction on monarchs has me looking either for Shakespeare light or a soap opera of manners and morals or social dissection of the classes with an Upstairs-Downstairs scenario. Don't love reading how they are just modernly ruthless or irrelevantly ribald. "

Hmmm--I thought actually both books did well in depicting a rather alien mindset that befits a different time and that tends to be my touchstone for good historical fiction. I think this was mentioned in a review--a professional one? But someone pointed out for instance how in that time being "new" in any sense was not a virtue--it was a point against a man, an idea, a way of doing things and it was nice how Mantel used that.

But I'd agree this Cromwell doesn't have the grandeur or nobility you'd find in many Shakespearean characters--although you know, Shakespeare had ruthless (Richard III) and ribald (the Porter say in Macbeth) characters too.


message 4: by Lynne (last edited May 06, 2013 02:04AM) (new) - added it

Lynne King This book was recommended to me Michael and my husband insisted I purchase it, for after all this is one of those books that has received a prize and so it has to be excellent.

I love Cromwell, I love the Tudor period and I started this book with anticipation. It bored me to death, it was very slow and I hated it. I am obviously a literary heathen but I'm an indvidual and I have choice. Well so everyone tells me!


Michael Lynne wrote: "...I started this book with anticipation. It bored me to death, it was very slow and I hated it. I am obviously a literary heathen but I'm an indvidual and I have choice. Well so everyone tells me! ..."

I can see the brilliant parts of the Cromwell books. My stars relate to how much I enjoyed reading them. And how much I would recommend the book to friends. The Booker Prize folks have their reasons. The quotes taking up real estate in the review are good enough to sway some toward wishing honor. I am glad we can together push for more excellence while rooting for promising writers to reach for the gold, to become the chef of a masterpiece. Its a hard job but someone has to do it--go Mantel!


Florence (Lefty) MacIntosh You did save the best for last:) There is a lot of depth written into her characters, must give her that. Loved Wolf Hall, wait-listed 4 months to get this, read about 80 pages & just couldn't keep going. That is so rare with me - I couldn't bring myself to admit I 'abandoned' it, so it's sitting in a new shelf I created just for it - called 'back-burnered'. The quotes you've noted do encourage to pick it up again. Sometime...Great review as always - thanks Michael.


Michael Florence wrote: "...it's sitting in a new shelf I created just for it - called 'back-burnered'. The quotes you've noted do encourage to pick it up again. Sometime...Great review as always - thanks Michael..."

We're so mean to writers. First I get stingy with 3 stars and now you put her in a simmering bean pot to cook some more. It it just didn't have a Monty Python sounding title: Bring Out Your Dead skit


message 8: by Jeffrey (new)

Jeffrey Keeten I still have Wolf Hall gathering dust on my shelf. I need to queue it up before I get too far behind on this series. Although from your review I wonder if she is losing juice. Great stuff Michael as always.


Florence (Lefty) MacIntosh Michael wrote: "Florence wrote: "...it's sitting in a new shelf I created just for it - called 'back-burnered'. The quotes you've noted do encourage to pick it up again. Sometime...Great review as always - thanks ..."

LOL Michael, 2 booker's, where's the respect? I'm TRYING to consider this as serious lit & get around to reading it... Now I'll forever equate it with that Monty Python skit, your not helping...


message 10: by Lynne (new) - added it

Lynne King Jeffrey wrote: "I still have Wolf Hall gathering dust on my shelf. I need to queue it up before I get too far behind on this series. Although from your review I wonder if she is losing juice. Great stuff Michael a..."

Interesting comment Jeffrey. I think that I've "done" the Tudor period for the moment. I suggest that you let "Wolf Hall" gather dust on your shelves and search new fascinating avenues.


message 11: by Jeffrey (new)

Jeffrey Keeten Lynne wrote: "Jeffrey wrote: "I still have Wolf Hall gathering dust on my shelf. I need to queue it up before I get too far behind on this series. Although from your review I wonder if she is losing juice. Great..."

I'm a Plantagenet so to me these Tudors are really just usurpers. Henry vii's claim on the throne was tenuous at best. His main claim was the strength of his sword arm.


message 12: by Lynne (new) - added it

Lynne King Hello fellow Plantagenet. I've never met one of those personally apart from within a historical context. Welcome...

Is that true though about Henvry VII? I know little about him.


Michael Jeffrey wrote: "I still have Wolf Hall gathering dust on my shelf. I wonder if she is losing juice. Great stuff Michael ..."

Thanks kind sir. I saw a gain in juice from Wolf Hall to this one. Am just egging her on to get more heart and soul into the otherwise masterful efforts.


Elizabeth Isn't it ironic that your favourite quote was the one that convinced me to finally give up reading the book. I could not like Cromwell's character nor the banality and mundanity of the lives portrayed despite their enduring fame; I wanted more, or maybe different. I applaud your spurring on of the author!


Michael Elizabeth wrote: "Isn't it ironic that your favourite quote was the one that convinced me to finally give up reading the book. I could not like Cromwell's character nor the banality and mundanity of the lives portr..."

Concerning taste there is no dispute. Admiration for an author's skills, marvels in effort and imagination, and clever plotting can still fall short for personal pleasure amd emotional impact.


message 16: by T (new)

T Moore M: It is hard to like a book when you like nobody in it.


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