What are you reading? Have you found a book this summer that you can't put down? My current summer read has transported me to the royal court of sixteenth-century England. I am immersed in the world of Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell. Hillary Mantel's brilliant book Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel to Wolf Hall, brings this world alive in such a vivid way that you feel you are there. This book is a hard one to get out of your head; it seeps into your mind and you may find yourself dreaming about it. The story is told from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell. You are walking the streets of London with Cromwell as he strategizes how to satisfy the King's whims, visits the King's first wife Katherine in prison, and carefully negotiates with the current Queen, Anne Boleyn. You are there as he meets with the Seymour family to negotiate a possible marriage and watch the demeanor of the demure Jane Seymour, knowing that the King has his eyes on her for his next wife. And all the while, Cromwell is trying to learn from the mistakes of those who went before him, those who died because they did not make the King's desires a reality. He is doing his best to be indispensable to the King so that he will survive.
I love that Hilary Mantel has created a living and breathing world for the reader. Sixteenth-century England comes to life in this book and we feel as if we understand it for the first time. It is historical fiction that has the feel of an engrossing novel. The story begins in the autumn of 1535...
"The king had left Whitehall the week of Thomas More's death, a miserable dripping week in July, the hoof prints of the royal entourage sinking deep into the mud as they tacked their way across to Windsor. Since then the progress has taken in a swathe of the western counties; the Cromwell aides, having finished up the king's business at the London end, met up with the royal train in mid-August. The king and his companions sleep sound in new houses of rosy brick, in old houses whose fortifications have crumbed away or been pulled down, and in fantasy castles like toys, castles never capable of fortification, with walls a cannonball would punch in as if they were paper. England has enjoyed fifty years of peace. This is the Tudors' covenant; peace is what they offer. Every household strives to put forward its best show for the king, and we've seen some panic-stricken plastering these last weeks, some speedy stonework, as his hosts hurry to display the Tudor rose beside their own devices. They search out and obliterate any trace of Katherine, the queen that was, smashing with hammers the pomegranates of Aragon, their splitting segments and their squashed and flying seeds. Instead -- if there is no time for carving -- the falcon of Anne Boleyn is crudely painted up on hatchments."
The cast of characters in this famous episode of history -- the King, his wives and families, his court, the Boleyn and Seymour families, the ambassadors, clerics, courtiers -- are all richly imagined and live as we've never seen them before. The central character Thomas Cromwell is at the heart of everything and the person we get to know most intimately. His household and its inhabitants are depicted as a vibrant and flourishing little world of its own with Cromwell as the master who knows every detail of its daily workings. The abilities that make him indispensable as Secretary to the King are the same ones he applies to running his estate. His past life and the journey that brought him to his present position of power are all laid out. As Hilary Mantel reminds us in the "Author's Note," this book is not about Anne Boleyn or Henry VIII, but about the career of Thomas Cromwell and how this crucial period of time might have looked from his point of view. His personality and inner life are given a sparkling realness in Mantel's book. We feel that we know this man.
By the way, I just got back from New York (more about that later!) where I visited the Frick Museum and made a beeline for the portraits of Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More by Hans Holbein that hang side by side. I have seen them before but realized this time I would view them with new eyes. With Hillary Mantel's narrative fresh in my mind, I gazed at Thomas Cromwell and could see the intensity and ruthlessness of the man captured in this painting. I had the chills thinking about how instrumental he was in changing the course of English history.
You may have thought nothing new could be said on this topic, but in "Bring Up The Bodies" Hillary Mantel has breathed fresh life into the story and made it come to life like nothing else has before. We all know where the events are heading, but it's so delicious to be along for the ride as it is told by a master storyteller.
What a book! I can't put it down.
What are you reading?