My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.
Hilary Mantel’s second historical novel on the reign of Henry VIII almost feels like an addendum to Wolf Hall, as though it was originally meant to be a part of that book, then Mantel realized it didn’t quite fit, then she expanded on it until it was its own volume. It takes place over about nine months compared to Wolf Hall’s 5+ years, and seems to close the circle on Cromwell’s revenge on the enemies of Cardinal Wolsey. But, if you look at the two books as Cromwell facing down two different enemies–Thomas More in Wolf Hall, and Anne Boleyn in Bringing Up the Bodies–the organization makes a little more sense.
More than anything, I appreciate how Bring Up the Bodies puts the lie to the idea that things moved more slowly in medieval times. The number of things that happen in nine months over the course of this book would be enough to make any democracy today tremble; people tend to forget that one of the functions of representative political systems is to make changes more gradual and government more stable. The number of competing incidents and events that Cromwell has to contend with in these pages, and the decisions the king’s council must make, often without any sort of legal precedent, makes one realize how violent and chaotic monarchy was, even a parliamentary monarchy like England’s.
The other significant thing about this book, like its predecessor, is how it works to rehabilitate the image of Thomas Cromwell, who is often cast as one of the prominent villains of this historical moment. Mantel occasionally makes use of the relative lack of documentation around these events to do so. For example, much of the case against Anne Boleyn comes from testimony of a singer in her court, Mark Smeaton, who confessed (after several days in the Tower of London) to having sex with her. While it’s generally suspected that Smeaton made his confession after being tortured, there is no explicit evidence that he was, so Mantel creates a sequence of events that plausibly shows how he might have confessed without being tortured.
At other points, Mantel brings up points of Cromwell’s biography that are often glossed over: his creation of a Poor Relief bill, the first in England’s history, and the way he was able to maintain England as a merchant power even while it was feuding with both France and the Holy Roman Empire. At the same time, she doesn’t avoid the fact that Cromwell’s actions are as much about revenge as they are about self-preservation.
But that may be a matter of opinion, and I don’t want to claim the level of historical expertise that would be necessary to accurately judge Mantel’s research here. All I can say is that she makes the history come alive, gives us fictional versions of historical characters that seem plausible in their motivations and actions, and somehow makes events that we know must happen seem freighted with danger and uncertainty, rather than the sense of inevitability that attends so much historical fiction.
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