Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Bring up the Bodies This is the sequel to Wolf Hall and the second in a planned trilogy of novels telling the story of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister.

While Wolf Hall was concerned with Cromwell’s rise to power, the fall of Cardinal Wolsey and the process that led to Henry’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon, in Bring up the Bodies the King has grown dissatisfied with his second wife, Anne Boleyn, who has failed to give him a male heir, and he is now turning his attentions to Jane Seymour. Beginning in 1535, just after Wolf Hall ends, this book follows Cromwell as he attempts to find a solution to Henry’s problem. It’s not an easy task but Cromwell has already proven himself to be an expert at negotiating complex political situations and getting what he wants, while also trying to do what he believes is best for the King and for England.

I think most of us probably know what happened to Anne Boleyn and what her eventual fate would be, so I won’t say much more about the plot of this book. But although I’ve read about Anne Boleyn’s downfall many times before, I have never read about it from this perspective or in so much detail. By allowing us to follow events through Cromwell’s eyes, Mantel makes what to many of us is a familiar story feel like a fresh and interesting one – and in a world already filled with Tudor novels this is a real accomplishment!

I was intrigued by the suggestion that Cromwell had his own motives for plotting the demise of Anne and the men who were brought down with her. I don’t suppose we can ever know what thoughts were really going through Cromwell’s mind or what made him act the way he did, but Mantel’s theory was interesting. As in the previous book, Cromwell is a fascinating character and portrayed as neither a hero nor a villain. He’s ruthless, clever, ambitious and (in this book, at least) vengeful, but away from the court and the world of politics, we are shown a more human side to him. Through his relationship with his son, Gregory, and through his frequent memories of his wife and two daughters and his mentor Thomas Wolsey, who are all now dead, we see that he is also a man who loves his family and is loyal to his friends.

You could probably read Bring up the Bodies without having read Wolf Hall first, especially if you already have a good knowledge of Tudor history, but I would still recommend reading Wolf Hall before starting this one. It’s not completely necessary but will help you to understand Cromwell’s personality and how his mind works. You will also be introduced to the members of Cromwell’s large household (made up of extended family, servants and employees) and the other secondary characters who appear in this book.

Mantel’s novels are not easy reads but I did find this book much easier to read than Wolf Hall, maybe because I knew what to expect from her writing style this time. One criticism that I and many other readers had of Wolf Hall was regarding Mantel’s use of the pronoun ‘he’ without making it obvious who ‘he’ refers to. It was usually safe to assume that ‘he’ was Cromwell but it could still be confusing, especially when there were a lot of male characters in the same scene. In this book, Mantel still uses ‘he’ but sometimes clarifies it by adding ‘he, Cromwell’ which makes things easier to follow. I also found this a much quicker read than Wolf Hall, as it’s not as long and is faster paced and more focused on one subject – the fall of Anne Boleyn.

Now that I’ve caught up with the first two books in the trilogy, I can join those of you who are patiently (or maybe impatiently) awaiting the third one!

22 thoughts on “Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

  1. Elena says:

    I haven’t read any books by Mantel and I must admit I’m intimidated by her. All bloggers I trust love her novels, but you also highlight that they are complex and sometimes can make heavy reading.

    I am interested in Anne Boleyn and loved “The Other Boleyn Girl”, so probably I’ll love this book as well.

    May I ask how much time did it take you to read Bring Up The Bodies? Everyone suggests that if I read it, I should take it slow.

    • Helen says:

      Mantel’s books do need a lot of concentration but they are worth the effort!

      It took me about a week to read Bring Up the Bodies, but I suppose it depends on your usual reading speed and how much free time you have. In comparison it took me more than a month to read Wolf Hall.

  2. Joanne says:

    I loved this, and Wolf Hall. I’ve just finished Beyond Black which is very different to those two. It’s wonderfully written and even though the subject matter was very dark I really enjoyed it.

  3. Alex says:

    Mantel never puts a foot wrong as far as I’m concerned. One of the things I find most impressive about these two books is the way in which she is gradually changing the readers view of Cromwell from someone who is really likeable to someone who is driven by political expedient. It is so gradual as to be almost imperceptible but has to be done, I think, if we are to appreciate what is to come. I also found it chilling that Cromwell is so aware of the fact the eventually something will bring about his own downfall. I suppose this was a reality that anyone in reach of Henry had to live (and die) with.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, he’s slowly becoming a bit harder to like, isn’t he? Before reading either of these books, I had a very negative impression of Cromwell so was surprised by how likeable he was in Wolf Hall!

  4. Anbolyn Potter (@anbolynp) says:

    I absolutely loved Wolf Hall, but I have tried to read Bring Up the Bodies three times now and have failed (around page 100) to complete it. I am not sure why! The story is fascinating, the characters vibrant and her writing is entangling. I know I will give it another chance some day and I hope I will love it too.

    • Helen says:

      I hope your next attempt will be more successful. I’ve had similar experiences with other books that are sequels and it’s always frustrating when you loved the first one and can’t get into the second!

  5. Angelized1st says:

    Wolf Hall was the first book I read this year, and have been planning to read the sequel since. However, like you mentioned, I found it difficult to determine who ‘he’ referred to in much of the book, causing me to have to re-read pages for clarification and making the book difficult to read. I’m glad Mantel changed that for the 2nd book. I definitely plan to read it once I finish the Outlander series. Maybe I’ll bookend 2013 by reading Bring Up the Bodies as the last book I read this year.

    • Helen says:

      Mantel definitely makes it a lot easier to tell who ‘he’ is in this book…it’s still confusing at times but not as confusing as in Wolf Hall! I hope you’re enjoying the Outlander series. I’ve read all seven and am looking forward to the new one next year.

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