Machiavelli Would Be Proud as Cromwell Outwits Queen

"Bring Up the Bodies," by Hilary Mantel. Source: Henry Holt via Bloomberg

Fixer-in-chief Thomas Cromwell is back with a new mission: to dispatch the queen he helped create.

The superbly devious Tudor statesman leapt from the history books in Hilary Mantel’s garlanded novel “Wolf Hall.” Her latest, “Bring Up the Bodies,” resumes the story in September 1535.

The mood is ominous. The peasants are hungry, the pope displeased and France -- well, France is France, England’s enduring foe.

There is a more pressing problem, too. Having split with Rome to remarry, Henry VIII remains in want of a legitimate male heir. After just three years, he’s tiring of his current consort, Anne Boleyn, and falling for another.

“He looks stunned, like a veal calf knocked on the head by the butcher,” Cromwell observes as the pale and interesting Jane Seymour unwittingly casts her spell over the king.

Since his promotion to master secretary, the blacksmith’s son is consulted on all aspects of royal life from foreign policy to interior design. Now he must ease out Anne and her supporters and ease in Jane.

“Wolf Hall” galloped across several countries and 35 years, dramatizing battles, intrigue and seductions as it chronicled Cromwell’s rise and rise. Its sequel has a more intense focus, covering the scant year that it takes him to bring down Anne Boleyn.

Settling Scores

As a teenage runaway peddling the three-card trick, he often made the Queen of Hearts vanish. Anne’s removal is messier, necessitating lengthy interrogations and pacts with scheming courtiers in order to ensnare her on charges of adultery, incest and treason. Along the way, he seizes the chance to settle a personal score.

Violence stalks Mantel’s nimble prose throughout. In the opening scene, Cromwell watches his hawks, named for his dead daughters, hunting. It is “a riot of dismemberment.” Later, the soft pinks and grays of a new frock recall “stretched innards, umbles and tripes, gray-pink intestines looped out of a living body.”

Yet as the executioner prepares to swing his blade and bring Anne’s story to its well-known end, it is the more prosaically intimate details that chill. The way her hands hover at her chin, for instance, uncertain whether or not to tie her bonnet.

Rewriting History

Anne Boleyn’s demise has been much debated by historians. Mantel chooses not to offer a definitive version of what went on behind the closed doors of Anne’s chamber, conveying instead a startling sense of history’s shifting nature. Far from being a fixed narrative, it is forever susceptible to rewrites by the likes of Cromwell, she suggests.

Meanwhile, Cromwell’s own position at court is not as secure as it might be. At one point, he wonders if he could improve on Machiavelli’s legendary treatise. It seems a fair bet that he could, yet for all his wealth and influence, no one is about to let him forget that he remains a commoner.

“Get back to your abacus, Cromwell. You are only for fetching in money,” one duke goads him.

It is giving nothing away to say that by the end of this second novel he has become Baron Cromwell. The title does little to dispel a looming sense of his precariousness, even as we leave him “stuck like a limpet to the future.”

Mantel’s Cromwell is one of the finest creations of historical fiction, so it’s hardly surprising that he has seduced her into stretching to a trilogy what was initially planned as a two-parter. Unfortunately, that decision leaves “Bring Up the Bodies” reading very much like a middle volume, slowed by recaps and overshadowed by what is still to come.

Bawdy Humor

Of course, judged alongside almost anything other than its own precursor, this is a fine novel, laden with rare insights into the past and present. The scents and sounds, colors and tastes of Cromwell’s England are rendered in sentences so luminous they seem to wink back at you from the page. And yes, there is also wit to be found here, from bawdy joshing to savage gallows humor.

In middle age, Cromwell isn’t above surveying the fashions of the time, either. The must-have accessory for autumn 1535? Heart-shaped man-bags popularized by European bankers.

When I wrote in ardent praise of “Wolf Hall,” Mantel e-mailed to say that if I found myself able to do the same for its sequel, she would reward me in Cromwellian style, perhaps with a small abbey.

I don’t expect to be polishing its silver anytime soon. That’s just fine, so long as we’re not made to wait too long for that final volume.

“Bring Up the Bodies” is published by Holt in the U.S. and Fourth Estate in the U.K. (410 pages, $28, 20 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Hephzibah Anderson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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