Bring Up the Bodies
On Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies (BookForum)
Hilary Mantel’s 2009 novel, Wolf Hall, was an extraordinary achievement, a work of historical and artistic integrity that nonetheless managed to be a hit across genders, generations, and sensibilities. I know a twentysomething male worshipper of Thomas Bernhard who loves it, and I know a retired female acolyte of Jodi Picoult who loves it just as much. The book appeared midway through the high-rated run of Showtime’s The Tudors, which grappled lustily albeit ahistorically with the same soapy crisis—Henry VIII’s break with Rome and divorce from Katherine of Aragon in favor of the swiftly disfavored Anne Boleyn—and which, at its gloriously stupid best, suggested a remake of Showgirls set at the Palace of Whitehall. In the Booker Prize–winning Wolf Hall, which cleared the room of heaving bosoms and bore no taint of faux-Tudor cheese, Mantel provided the highbrow but equally addictive alternative version of the King’s Great Matter.
She also provided a central, sustaining surprise in her choice of sympathetic protagonist: Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister for eight pivotal years, typically portrayed as a beady-eyed menace in works ranging from Hans Holbein the Younger’s famous portrait to Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons. (On The Tudors, Cromwell says things like, “You shameless friar! You’ll be sewn in a sack and thrown into the Thames if you don’t speedily hold your tongue!”) Mantel took this agreed-upon villain and made him into an unlikely hero, much as she did with Robespierre in her historical novel A Place of Greater Safety (1992). And she made Cromwell …
Jessica Winter is executive editor of newyorker.com and a former editor at Slate and Time. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, Bookforum, The Believer, and many other publications. She lives with her family in Flatbush, Brooklyn.