Bring Up the Bodies (Henry Holt), Hilary Mantel's sequel to Booker Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award winner Wolf Hall (2009), arrives on the heels of the latest flare-up about women in literary publishing, kicked off by Meg Wolitzer's New York Times essay "The Second Shelf." Although Wolitzer's piece dealt mostly with the lack of literary acclaim for books by women about women, she also claimed that critics do not look kindly on women who write sprawling and ambitious novels. She dismissed Wolf Hall from this conversation, because Mantel's protagonist Thomas Cromwell is historical and male. But Bring Up the Bodies does chronicle the mother of all bad marriages—the one between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn—and literary heavyweights such as James Wood are already singing its praises. Might this novel present, if not a total fix, then a welcome relief from the inequalities exposed by Wolitzer?
Although some reviewers say a reader can start with Bring Up the Bodies, Cromwell's choices make more sense if you are familiar with the death of his mentor Cardinal Wolsey, as chronicled in Wolf Hall. Mantel's projected trilogy seems well-conceived, poised to avoid the narrative mistakes that troubled the initially scintillating Showtime drama The Tudors. (When Cromwell himself is brought down, so ends the political story, and after Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour, Henry and his wives become far less compelling.)
Readers of Wolf Hall will remember Mantel's Cromwell as a man who pays attention, who loves his family, who uses everything and everyone to serve king and state (and self). Mantel's genius is that she renders him sympathetic in the process—who wouldn't be intrigued by a man who sometimes chats with his murdered enemies? As with Wolf Hall, I was repulsed yet fascinated by his sardonic brand of terror, and found myself uncomfortably thrilled by his machinations. When Cromwell invites his conspirators to dine, "he shouts for the waiters. The doors burst open. Sweating men heave the platters to the table. It seems the meat is fresh, in fact not slaughtered yet. It is just a minor breach of etiquette. The company must sit and salivate. The Boleyns are laid at his hand to be carved."
Although Bring Up the Bodies drags more than Wolf Hall, and contains fewer gorgeous folkloric interludes, what is particularly fascinating about this episode of Cromwell's story is that, in bringing down Anne Boleyn and related enemies, he fixes his calculations on personal relationships. Mantel's novel, while continuing to explore her man's surgical talent for state-sponsored violence, also illuminates a story that chilled me to my feminist bones, and that, all wishes aside, I can't fully banish to the 16th century: the downfall of a charismatic, ambitious woman in favor of one who knows how to play it meek.
"How will Anne counter meekness and silence?" Cromwell ponders, as he notices the king's love shifting. "Raging will hardly help her. She will have to ask herself what Jane can give the King, that at present he lacks. She will have to think it through. And it is always a pleasure to see Anne thinking."
That Cromwell manipulates Henry's desires and Anne's pride is compounded by his brilliance at soliciting gossip from Anne's inner circle—jealous and slighted women who seem more than eager to talk. In her author's note, Mantel admits that she's playing a bit loose with the history here, but this kind of move—choosing emotional truth over proven fact—is what allows us to sink ourselves so easily in the dense, treacherous bog of Mantel's 16th century. Somehow, the concerns of these women, though dated, feel as vital and animate as the present tense Mantel uses in much of her novel. One sinister morning, Cromwell astutely observes: "The ladies have veiled themselves. They do not want their future lives associated with this morning's work. They do not want their suitors or husbands to look at them and think of death."
While it might be foolish to call Bring Up the Bodies a marriage novel, it is a story whose battles are fought in bedrooms and at sideboards and behind curtains. The fighters have much to lose, way more than is usually the case in contemporary novels about marriage. Because the stakes are so high, because dinner with Thomas Cromwell might save your life or write your death, Mantel brilliantly mixes political terror with the more private, but also terrifying, conspiracies of the heart.