The second volume of Hilary Mantel's novelisation of the life of Thomas Cromwell carries on the dramatic story of the reign of Henry VIII. The first novel describes Cromwell's rise, from humble origins to the heights of power in the English court. Henry VIII is of course known for his wives, and Cromwell's role in securing the marriage of Henry to Anne Boleyn is a masterpiece of intrigue and political manoeuvring. At the heart of this volume is the dramatic change that occurs as Henry loses interest in Anne as a result of her failure to produce a male heir, and his growing interest in her successor, Jane Seymour.
Thomas Cromwell's role, balancing the forces ranged behind each of the women in this epic tale, is in reality the balance of some of the most powerful families in England. One struggling to hold on to power and remaining linked to the King, but terrified of being dragged down by the fallen angel; the others scheming to use the new found interest of the King to increase their power and wealth. As with the first volume, Mantel skilfully demonstrates the way that women in the Tudor aristocracy were merely pawns in a game of power. Few male aristocrats love their wives, preferring to sleep with prostitutes or other men's wives and hoping their own will produce a heir as quickly as possible. Cromwell himself is at the height of his powers, but the cracks are beginning to show.
Mantel's prose is sharp and to the point. Bring up the Bodies is a novel of dialogue and impressions, but ever so often the raw emotion of events breaks through. In her postscript, Mantel points out, that much of the story of Anne Boleyn's trial and her execution remains obscure. The impotence of Henry's victims in the face of the power of his court is tragic, so is their violent end. Mantel is not trying to write history through fiction. She's telling a story that links to the past, powered by real events, but driven by our ability to emphasis with characters from the past. Oddly, given the subject matter, this story of the Tudor Court, grabs the reader and doesn't let go.