Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Though he battled for seven years to marry her, Henry is disenchanted with Anne Boleyn. She has failed to give him a son and her sharp intelligence and audacious will alienate his old friends and the noble families of England. When the discarded Katherine dies in exile from the court, Anne stands starkly exposed, the focus of gossip and malice.

At a word from Henry, Thomas Cromwell is ready to bring her down. Over three terrifying weeks, Anne is ensnared in a web of conspiracy, while the demure Jane Seymour stands waiting her turn for the poisoned wedding ring. But Anne and her powerful family will not yield without a ferocious struggle. Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies follows the dramatic trial of the queen and her suitors for adultery and treason. To defeat the Boleyns, Cromwell must ally with his natural enemies, the papist aristocracy. What price will he pay for Anne’s head?

Bring Up The Bodies presents a collection of tired clichés, a cast of one-dimensional secondary characters that jerk around Cromwell like limp puppets, always conveniently saying the exact thing or behaving in the exact way Cromwell needs to hear to build his evidence towards bringing the Boleyn family down. And Cromwell is bent on revenge, for the Boleyns bought about the downfall of his beloved Cardinal Wolsey.

Unfortunately that’s just stretching the believability a shade too far. That is one thing Mantel got right, “no-one lifted a finger to help Wolsey” Inlcuding “He, Cromwell”.

With the first hundred or so pages of the book drenched in Mantel’s “lyrical prose” it’s hard enough to even establish who is talking at some points, let alone establish a decent structure. Of course we have “He, Cromwell” at the start of every three paragraphs, but with the muddling slipping of third-person to first person to past-tense to (mainly) present-tense, short sentences that are obviously supposed to be snappy but simply keep falling short of the mark, I nearly gave up on the book before I got to any sort of decent exchange between two characters.

The writing started to flow better and settle into establishing the story at this point, but unfortunately it soon became clear exactly where it was leading. Anne Boleyn is a sexually depraved scheming witch.  Jane Boleyn is an outrageous villain out for her husbands blood. Jane Seymour is colourless and stupid and apparently can eat a whole chicken.  Henry VIII is a mewling, soppy fool who everyone takes advantage of.  Suffolk is a fat blustering fool. Mary Boleyn is a raving slut. George Boleyn is a bigger slut who sleeps with men and women and perhaps animals, but boy does he like his clothes. Wyatt is of course a broken-hearted bitter victim of Anne Boleyn’s who spends most of his time moping. Norris, Weston, and Smeaton are all sleeping with the Queen and are quite stupid enough to brag about it in front of Cromwell. I don’t remember if I saw Brereton. Norfolk and Thomas Boleyn are of course scheming villains who apparently would stand outside the tent where the King lays deathly injured after a bad fall, shrieking and plotting loudly so all can hear. And Chapuys was overshadowed by his excellent Christmas hat.

This may sound interesting enough, somewhere between a bad soap opera and an episode of Blackadder. Unfortunately Mantel doesn’t actually delve any further into any of these characters, they are shallow caricatures set in place for Thomas Cromwell’s grand plan, which seems to change every so often according to what Jane Boleyn has sidled up to tell him. We spend so much time inside Cromwell’s head that everyone else just fades into the background in an accommodating fashion to be perfectly manipulated  by Cromwell.

The overall misogynistic tone of the book I can mostly attribute to being told from Cromwell’s point of view,  the many historical inaccuracies, however, certainly can’t be attributed to the reliable historians Mantel has mentioned in her author note. Clearly ignoring the many sources mentioned, she skips daintily between old myths and pure fabrications. While the portrayal of most of the characters, (who are, folks, actual historical figures)  is generally disgraceful the horribly offensive portrayal of Anne, George and Jane Boleyn is among the absolute worst I have ever read, firmly cemented by Cromwell’s ridiculous reasoning of why “incest is easy”.

Lacking substance, depth, character building and imagery, it makes Philippa Gregory look like David Starkey.

Rating: ★☆☆☆☆ (For Chapuy’s excellent Christmas hat)

I thoroughly recommend you read this excellent article over at The Anne Boleyn Files

Bring Up the Bodies – The Facts Behind the Fiction

For further reading on Cromwell, there are actually two biographies currently in print by Robert Hutchinson and John Schofield

Thomas Cromwell: The Rise and Fall of Henry VIII’s Most Notorious Minister
Thomas Cromwell: The Rise and Fall of Henry VIII's Most Notorious Minister
The Rise & Fall of Thomas Cromwell: Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant  
The Rise & Fall of Thomas Cromwell: Henry VIII's Most Faithful Servant

And another by Patrick Coby to be released shortly

Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s Henchmen