Bring Up the Bodies is the second instalment in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell’s life. It follows on from Wolf Hall, and will be succeeded by The Mirror and the Light in the hopefully not too distant future, although no publication date has been released as of yet. It is just as ambitious in scope as Wolf Hall, but I actually found it to be a better novel, and one which I found easier to read. I was also pleased to see that a few problems which I had while reading Wolf Hall had been resolved in its sequel, which definitely made the reading of this epic tome that much easier.
Bring Up the Bodies covers a much shorter time frame than Wolf Hall and spans 1535-1536, however as that was a pretty jam-packed year in the Tudor court there’s more than enough to keep the reader entertained. This is a period which is much more familiar territory to myself and anyone who knows the fate of Anne Boleyn, and so the story itself was much more gripping than its predecessor. As soon as Henry married Anne Boleyn, it was only too clear that we were heading straight towards her grisly end, and seeing all of Cromwell’s machinations and manipulations to secure her conviction was really fascinating. I felt that I could also see Cromwell’s character really developing, and he became a much more interesting person to follow than before. While I sympathised with him during Wolf Hall (although I wasn’t really sure if I was meant to or not), in Bring Up the Bodies my opinion changed towards him as he became much more ruthless. He’s portrayed as a deeply complex character, as he works to secure convictions against people who he knew to be innocent in their dealings with Anne Boleyn, but who had wronged Cardinal Wolsey years before. It was completely fascinating, but it shows a really dark side to Cromwell if he is willing to impose the death penalty on men who are innocent of the crime they’ve been accused of, but at the same time it shows his extraordinary loyalty and the store he holds by securing justice. It’s definitely a warped sense of justice because he knew some of the men were innocent on this occasion, but as they were guilty of the ‘crime’ of persecuting Wolsey he views them purely as guilty men in general, rather than men guilty of consorting with Anne Boleyn. There are probably better ways of explaining what I mean, but it’s clear to me that Cromwell is a man with very complex morals, emotions and principles (or at least has been portrayed as such by Hilary Mantel, as this is something we can never really know about the real Thomas Cromwell).
I found the story to be much faster paced in Bring Up the Bodies, and it certainly sucked me in quicker. I don’t know if this is because I was already used to the narrative style from Wolf Hall and so didn’t find it as dense and intimidating when starting this book, but I also found that the general tone and style of writing had changed slightly, and was much more engaging. I found it a lot easier to get drawn into the story, and while Wolf Hall was a little dry in places, Bring Up the Bodies kept me feeling captivated. I was on the edge of my seat in the build up to Anne Boleyn’s death, and part of me was almost willing it not to happen even though I knew it had to. There was definitely a lot more suspense, although I did still get bogged down with the characters occasionally, as there are so many of them and they change titles so often that I still struggled to keep track of who was who. However I was quite pleased to see that some of the other issues I had with Wolf Hall had been resolved in Bring Up the Bodies. Hilary Mantel’s use of ‘he’ for Thomas Cromwell was a lot clearer, and I didn’t have the issues I had previously where I wasn’t sure who was talking or even who was present in the scene.
As far as I’m concerned, I did enjoy reading Wolf Hall anyway but I found Bring Up the Bodies to be a vast improvement. The story was more engaging and more dramatic (especially with Anne Boleyn’s death), and it was really interesting to see the character of Cromwell develop and become more manipulative as the story progresses. I really don’t know what to make of him now, I’ve changed from feeling sympathetic towards him to not liking him while still enjoying reading about him. Everyone likes to hate a good villain, and while I don’t hate Cromwell, I do find it fascinating to see him becoming more of a villain and heading towards his own downfall. At the same time he’s still an admirable character though, as he’s still intent on doing what he thinks is right, it’s just he’s becoming increasingly ruthless and it’s getting a little unsettling. I can’t help thinking he’s getting a bit too big for his boots, and it’s all going to come crashing down around his ears…
I’m really looking forward to concluding reading the trilogy with the release of The Mirror and the Light, but the only downside is that the history and cast of characters is so complicated that it’s inevitable I’ll have to reread Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies again first, and that’s a daunting prospect. While both books are worth a read, it was definitely a commitment of time and energy to work my way through them in the first place, and I’m going to have to free up some mental space before trying to tackle them again!