Bring up the Bodies
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"THERE are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to
heir nature. They are all beginnings."
With Bring up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel takes up the threads she
aid down at the end of her last novel, Wolf Hall, and makes of them
the beginning of a complex and thrilling new book that well
deserves the lavish accolades it has received.
We enter, in this new novel, into the story of the inexorable
downfall of Anne Boleyn. Mantel's great genius is to present the
narrative through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, a figure it is easy
both to admire and loathe in equal measure.
We see a certain nobility in his talent, tenacity, and political
in-sight, all of which precipitate Cromwell to the highest offices.
Yet those very same instincts are also the root of the harsh
Realpolitik he adopts, in which the truth is malleable, and those
around him are expendable.
At the heart of this novel lies the notion that history is
written and rewritten by those with power. Cromwell admits that the
only truth he is interested in is the sort that is useful to him.
As accusations of treason and adultery are brought against Anne,
speculation, fiction, and hearsay are woven together to become the
new truth, the new historical narrative of Anne the temptress,
which everyone must accept. Even Anne's marriage is annulled
before her execution, as if all memory of her having ever been
married to Henry must be obliterated before her death.
Mantel's surest skill lies in the way in which she reveals the
psychological motivation that haunts her characters and prompts
their actions. Centre-stage is the monstrous figure of Henry
himself. Mantel dissects the combination of neurotic insecurity and
rapacious egomania within him. She also lays bare the past pains
that have contributed to Cromwell's emotional carapace. The deaths
of his wife and children and the trauma of seeing his benefactor
and hero, Wolsey, fall so grotesquely from power create in him a
steely determination to survive.
This novel is a powerful indictment of the danger of unfettered
power, and yet, at the same time, it shows all power to be
ultimately fleeting. It reveals both the heartlessness of
ambition untempered by principle, and the frequency with which we
callously employ violence and exploit jealousy to achieve it. But
we also develop a strange sympathy for the figure of Cromwell,
who, although contradictory and equivocal, has survived the
jealousies and violence of others.
If, as Mantel asserts, endings are all, in fact, beginnings, let
us hope that there is scope for a third novel to recount the
downfall of Cromwell himself, and see this gripping story come
The Revd Peter Anthony is Junior Dean of St Stephen's House,
Oxford, and Junior Chaplain of Merton College, Oxford.