Prompted by the BBC TV series, I had previously read Wolf Hall (to which I gave 3.5 stars). While that first novel impressed me as leaning on whitewashing Thomas Cromwell (especially when contrasted with Thomas More), I found Bring Up the Bodies to be somewhat more balanced in the portrayal of his character.
The main storyline in this novel is about Anne Boleyn’s downfall and Cromwell’s hand in the elaborate scheme that brought about the indictment and execution of Anne herself, her brother, and four other men in various ranks, all for high treason. Here, Cromwell is the chief schemer, who would admittedly benefit politically from the erasure of his ally-turned-rival. But in his role as King Henry’s trusted adviser, he has little choice but to anticipate his wishes and act at his behest. When the belligerent and self-important Anne threatens his life, he understandably needs to move first. Granted, the underlying powder keg of the whole meltdown is the King’s burgeoning whims for another woman, Jane Seymour, which means that Anne, whose cardinal sin is her inability to produce a male heir, is doomed in the first place. The play of chance and design is fully fleshed out.
In portraying Cromwell’s internal thoughts when he seeks to justify his ruthless cunning in culling his enemies, Mantel often invokes his obsession with avenging his mentor and master, the deceased Wolsey. But the fact that he never lets himself be brought down with him does suggest that his loyalties may be less steadfast than perceived. Still, given his humble background and the horde of predatory noblemen constantly hounding him, self-preservation at the cost of rivals seems to be a more believable excuse.
As for his reformation effort that is supposed to be beneficial to British society, especially where it concerns shutting down papist monasteries and confiscating their estates and channeling the proceeds to education and feeding the poor, perhaps his contribution cannot be denied, although in the process, while stuffing the King’s coffers, he also conveniently empowers and enriches himself.
This passage reveals at a glance the essence of both Anne’s and Cromwell’s characters:
He has always rated Anne highly as a strategist. He has never believed in her as a passionate, spontaneous woman. Everything she does is calculated, like everything he does.
This paragraph gives a clear gist of the novel:
Statements, indictments, bills are circulated, shuffled between judges, prosecutors, the Attorney General, the Lord Chancellor’s office; each step in the process clear, logical, and designed to create corpses by due process of law.
Overall, the novel is full of immersive intrigue and drama while seemingly adhering to historical facts. I’m giving this novel 4 stars.