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Monday, July 16, 2012

Deadly Intrigue in 'Bring Up the Bodies'

Novelist Mantel returns to reign of Henry VIII, Cromwell

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In an afterword to her second novel about Thomas Cromwell, Hilary Mantel writes that there is still uncharted territory in his character. I wonder what it could be. Her portrait of him in Wolf Hall and now Bring Up the Bodies (Macmillan) is vivid and exhaustive. She invites us to admire him knowing that, in the end, we will shrink from him.

Everyone clambered to be around King Henry VIII's amiable Cromwell, but shrank from the master secretary when he turned his gimlet eye on them. With his high competency, his drawing up of lists and his interrogatory skills, he inspires dread. But with his wife and children, his friends, and women in general, he is a friend and boon companion.

It was inevitable that Cromwell and Anne Boleyn, Henry's second wife, would clash. Anne was full of spite and guile, but the question remains open whether she took numerous lovers, including her brother, after she'd wed the king.

Much of Henry's interior life, as told by Cromwell, consists of rationalizing his infantile gratification needs in the name of producing a male heir. Cromwell makes it happen for Henry, for when the high-voiced king is happy, “Cremuel” prospers. And Cromwell goes to disturbing lengths to keep Henry happy.

The minor and middle characters, and there are many of them, add to this pageant of intrigue, betrayal and gory ends. Commoners, gentry and courtiers alike know the fear of being gutted alive in public with the butcher's knife.

Mantel's language is equal to her storytelling. When Anne is beheaded, her frail body is left in view to exsanguinate. A minor character dies “with his hose wet, splashed to the knees… paddling like a duck.”

Mantel is not yet as well known as she will be because she keeps a low profile.