Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies: A review by Margaret Atwood

Anne Boleyn

Here is a brief excerpt from Margaret Atwood’s review of Bring Up the Bodies for The Guardian, the second volume in Hilary Mantel’s highly acclaimed trilogy. To read the complete review, check out other resources, and obtain subscription information, please click here.

Illustration Credit: Roger-Viollet/Rex Features

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Oh, those Tudors! We can’t get enough of them. Whole bookshelves have been filled with them, acres of film consecrated to their antics. How badly behaved they were. What Machiavellian plottings and betrayals. Will we never tire of the imprisonments, torturings, entrail-windings, and burnings at the stake?

Philippa Gregory has very successfully tackled the Boleyn girls, Mary the Mistress and Anne the Aggravating. Then there’s The Tudors, the TV series, in which church geopolitics are ably dealt with, though some of the underwear is anachronistic and Henry VIII is a dark, brooding romantic who never gets fat. This is stretching it, but makes for much better sex than if he were to wheeze and grunt and ooze from his decaying leg all over the bedsheets, as in real life.

I have a weakness for the Tudors, so I inhaled Hilary Mantel’s terrific Booker-winning Wolf Hall – the first in her series about Thomas Cromwell the Calculating and Ruthless – in almost one sitting. Now comes the aptly titled Bring Up the Bodies, which picks up the body parts where Wolf Hall left off.

As the book opens, it’s summer. Henry and his court are staying at Wolf Hall, home of the Seymours, where Henry has his piggy eye on stiff, prudish little Jane, destined to be his next queen. Thomas Cromwell is flying his hawks, named after his dead daughters. “His children are falling from the sky,” Mantel begins. “He watches from horseback, acres of England stretching behind him; they drop, gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze … All summer has been like this, a riot of dismemberment.” And we’re off, into the deep, dark, labyrinthine, but strangely objective mind of Thomas Cromwell.

The historical Cromwell is an opaque figure, which is most likely why Mantel is interested in him: the less is truly known, the more room for a novelist. Cromwell rose from obscure and violent origins through a life abroad – sometime soldier, sometime merchant – to become England’s top go-to man, the prime maker-and-breaker of fortunes and spines, secretly hated and despised, especially by aristocrats. He played Beria to Henry VIII’s tyrannical Stalin: he did the dirty work and attended the beheadings, while Henry went hunting.

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Here is a direct link to the complete interview.

Margaret Atwood is the author of more than fifty books of fiction, poetry and critical essays. Her novels include Cat’s Eye, The Robber Bride, Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin and the MaddAddam trilogy. Her 1985 classic, The Handmaid’s Tale, went back into the bestseller charts with the election of Donald Trump, when the Handmaids became a symbol of resistance against the disempowerment of women, and with the 2017 release of the award-winning Channel 4 TV series. ‘Her sequel, The Testaments, was published in 2019. It was an instant international bestseller and won the Booker Prize.’

I also highly recommend the first and third volumes in Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy, Wolf Hall and The Mirror and the Light.


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