Friday, September 05, 2014

Bring Up the Bodies

The intrigues of the court of England's King Henry VIII have long been rich source material for novelists and screenwriters. Centuries later, Henry remains one of England's most famous monarchs, noted for his break with the Roman Catholic Church and his six wives. Henry's reign provides ample excitement to fuel the plots of a modern soap opera, but in Hilary Mantel's novels, the sexual politics are primarily background for a languid psychological drama.

The second volume in a proposed trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies continues the story of Henry's court as told through the perspective of his chief counselor, Thomas Cromwell. This is a character study of a specialist in character study, as Cromwell achieves and retains his position through his keen ability to assess the motivations, strengths and frailties of his acquaintances and generally manipulate these to his advantage.

In Wolf Hall, Cromwell was presented sympathetically. A devoted father, grieving husband, steadfast friend, generous employer, he was kind to those in need and generally a good guy. Sure, he plays power politics masterfully, but as he rises to prominence in Henry's government, his primary motivation seems to be to act for the good of England. Happily for Cromwell's household, what's good for England is what's good for Cromwell.

The first volume chronicled Henry's seven-year campaign to set aside his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, for Anne Boleyn, a marriage that was not sanctioned by the Catholic Church and thus severed England's ties with Rome. As the second book begins, Henry is beginning to tire of Anne and cast his eyes on the quiet Jane Seymour, a lady-in-waiting to the Queen. Cromwell, ever sensitive to his monarch's desires, engineers the downfall of Anne and a few men of the court whom Cromwell resents. A darker side of the man now emerges. That he treats his friends well no longer compensates for the persecution of his enemies, even as he rationalizes to himself that those he has convicted of crimes are guilty even if they are innocent of the particular charges.

Mantel's prose is lovely, and Bring Up the Bodies is a shorter, faster read than Wolf Hall, but I think I more enjoyed the first volume, which was richer in period details. Without as many descriptions of household management to distract me, I was more immersed in the political maneuverings and ever on the alert to discern the mistakes in judgement that would lead to Cromwell's eventual downfall. But that will have to wait for volume three.

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