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Hilary Mantel: Wolf Hall & Bring Up the Bodies

While it is unusual for me to comment on two books at the same time, Bring Up the Bodies follows so seamlessly the preceding book, Wolf Hall, as to be one book. It is also unusual that I would choose to read a book about Thomas Cromwell, whose great-grandson brings into dictionaries the adjective Cromwellian, and whose morals and values drift so far from my own. Most unusual of all is that I would find myself liking – and understanding – Thomas Cromwell as described and defined by Hilary Mantel.

While reading, if forced away from the book, I couldn’t wait to get back to it. I felt totally immersed in the 1500’s, I felt like I was there. Hilary Mantel uses the senses to bring an immediacy to the story that makes you feel you are there, participating, perhaps one of Cromwell’s clerks.

Thomas Cromwell has a rough beginning, son of a blacksmith and sometimes moonshiner, often beaten to within an inch of his life by his father, Walter, who seems to hate him. He leaves home and the next few years of his life are murky – he fights for the French, he becomes a servant and later a clerk in a high ranking Italian household, he learns the wool trade, and the silk trade, he spends some years in Antwerp and then he finds himself as chief clerk and messenger to Cardinal Wolsey, advisor to Henry VIII.

We experience losing our loved one to the plague. In these two books, through Cromwell’s eyes, we watch that spoiled, self-centered King Henry VIII rationalize his divorce of Katherine, and then the beheading of Anne Boleyn.

Here is something I hate about Thomas Cromwell, no matter how human and humane and lovable Hilary Mantel made him, that his primary value throughout was that whatever Henry wanted, he would work to make it so.

We learn early in Wolf Hall how very dangerous it is to go up against King Henry, we watch Cardinal Wolsey stripped of his honors, his luxuries, humiliated and defeated. We see Thomas More badgered to execution. So we can understand, a little, Thomas Cromwell’s motivation to keep his hard-earned money, honors, position, etc.

What I don’t understand is how a really, very smart man like Cromwell doesn’t see that he needs to be hiding his wealth away, investing in places where Henry can never find it, so that he can leave the King’s service, withdraw from public life and from the dangers that go with it. By the end of Bring Up the Bodies, Cromwell has made a lot of enemies. Such a nice man, such a benign man, but he relentlessly prosecutes the four men who may – or may not – have slept with Queen Anne Boleyn. It’s what the king wants. He does it.

This is a protrait of Thomas Cromwell painted by the famous Hans Holbein:

Wolf Hall won the Man Booker Prize in 2009. Bring Up the Bodies is sometimes referred to as Wolf Hall #2. These are books you can’t stop thinking about, and I am hoping there will be one more.

June 27, 2012 Posted by | Biography, Books, Fiction, Financial Issues, Living Conditions, Local Lore, Mating Behavior, Relationships | , | 3 Comments