Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel: A review

I took Hilary Mantel with me on vacation last week. She proved to be a fascinating companion.

I had read Wolf Hall, her Man Booker Prize-winner, in 2010 and enjoyed it immensely, even though I was sometimes annoyed by Mantel's eccentric punctuation and her often failing to enumerate who "he" was in her telling of the story. Usually, it would be Thomas Cromwell, but not always. It was sometimes confusing.

In Bring Up the Bodies, she seems to have addressed my quibbles or maybe I've just gotten used to her style of writing. Maybe a little bit of both.

This book follows the downfall and execution of Anne Boleyn and the Master Secretary Thomas Cromwell's part in it. Cromwell was Henry VIII's right-hand man. Henry spoke his desire and Cromwell made it reality. When he wanted to get rid of his first wife Katherine so that he could marry his inamorata Anne, Cromwell made it possible. But at the opening of this book in 1535, Anne and Henry have been married for three years and she has failed to give him a son. Their only living child is Elizabeth. All other pregnancies - and it seems that poor Anne has been almost constantly pregnant - have ended in miscarriages or dead children. Moreover, Anne has proved to be strong-willed and to be possessed of a sharp intelligence which makes her unpopular among members of the court. Henry is disenchanted to say the least. It is time for Cromwell to work his magic once more.

Anne makes it almost too easy for him. She is the center of attention of a coterie of young men in the court. She flatters and flirts and loans them money and gives them gifts. Rumor has it that one of the gifts she gives is her own body. Most appallingly, one member of this favored coterie is her own brother, George.

All of this, of course, makes her a focus of the gossip and malice of other members of the court, specifically of those ladies who serve her. Cromwell talks to the ladies-in-waiting, starting with Anne's sister-in-law, George's wife Lady Rochford. He pieces together very nebulous and circumstantial stories which might or might not be evidence of adultery and treason, but, in the end, when he presents his case to the peers who will decide the fate of those accused, there is no hesitation in condemning them all. Of course, these peers knew what their king wanted. To be rid of Anne and to have Jane Seymour. They did their part to make it possible.

Were Anne and the five men executed really guilty or were their deaths simply means to an end? It is highly unlikely that we will ever know the truth of the matter. As Mantel would have it, it seems that at least four of the men executed may have been selected as victims because of their part in the downfall of Cardinal Wolsey who had been a mentor to Cromwell, while another man who may truly have been guilty was protected because he was not an enemy of Wolsey. Is this really the case or merely literary license? Again, we'll never know, but it certainly makes for one bang-up story.

Mantel is a lyrical writer and it is such a pleasure to read and sometimes re-read these pages. Her choice of words for her descriptions are just perfect. Not a syllable could be changed or moved. For example, here she describes the death of Anne:

There is a groan, one single sound from the whole crowd. Then a silence, and into that silence, a sharp sigh or a sound like a whistle through a keyhole: the body exsanguinates, and its flat little presence becomes a puddle of gore.
Anne's head has been separated from her body by a single clean stroke of a sword by the French headsman brought over for the purpose. "The body exsanguinates" - what a crisp and concise descriptive word for such a bloody mess. But that is typical of Mantel's writing throughout. This is a tour de force, a writer on top of her game. And that makes for much pleasure for her fortunate readers.


  1. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the period or in history in general. But it's also just a very entertaining read. I think it's a great achievement and I hope that Mantel goes on to give us another book about he, Cromwell. I look forward to it (and to some of her other works, which I've bought for my Kindle).

    1. I couldn't agree more. It is a fantastic read. It's my understanding that there will be a third book in this series and, like you, I look forward to it.


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