Bring Up the Bodies
by Hilary Mantel
Note: all my complaints are based on my interpretation of the book--subjective at best-- and my limited knowledge of the history of the time period. Therefore, all of my complaints may, in fact, be objectively wrong. I don't think so at the present, but that doesn't make me right.
I put off reviewing this book for about a month because, honestly, I’m not quite sure what to make of it. This particular brand of historical fiction rather perplexes me; to me at least, it is not sufficiently creative or entertaining to stand on its own merits as a novel, yet it is also not sufficiently accurate--at least by my unreasonably high standards-- to gain merits as a work of history. Overall, it leaves me rather discontented, and I'm planning on working off my irritation in this review.
Bring Up the Bodies gives a glimpse of life at Henry 8th’s court from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s chief advisor. The story begins just after Henry’s divorce from Catherine and marriage to Anne Boleyn, and details the repercussions of her ascendance and her eventual topple from grace. It is told in the present tense--not my favourite style--and third person limited, providing Cromwell’s presumed inner thoughts. I’m sure it is quite well told, but somehow, it couldn’t hold my attention and I had to keep forcing myself to concentrate. I’m sure it was well researched, but Mantel took certain artistic freedoms with history that made me distrust the veracity of absolutely every aspect of the story, which had the side effect of aggravating me to no end.
My first issue was probably the characters. I liked Mantel's characterization of Henry 8 as a man-child who never quite grew up and could never stop chasing some idealized dream of love, but I was rather sceptical of her depiction of several of the other important players. Mantel’s version lionizes Cromwell--as much as it is even possible to do so--and utterly demonizes Boleyn. She goes so far as to twist certain elements of the trial; in Mantel’s version, Boleyn is portrayed as at least likely to be guilty of all charges, including the incest one. In Mantel’s version, Jane Rochford not only accused Boleyn of incest, but actually came forward of her own accord. (There’s actually evidence that she didn’t even accuse him). While everyone in the court does think George Boleyn will get off, it is because of his connections, not because he was innocent. This story is, at the very least, improbable given the facts we have. In contrast to Mantel’s rabid sex-crazed Boleyn, Cromwell is painted as the portrait of a dutiful servant. According to my read of Mantel’s version, Boleyn was heading towards batshit-vindictive crazy, but loyal servant that he was, Cromwell did not go about attempting to oust her until Henry asked it of him. (Yeah, right.) I think my aggravation with this level of bias utterly destroyed my ability to enjoy the book. What is the point of a historical novel when you cannot trust the history?
Overall, I think it might just be that I don’t understand this genre. I like historical novels, but my favourite variety tends to be those that center around author-invented characters who interact with real individuals. The line between imagination and fact tends to be clearly drawn in that case. My variety of historical fiction never alters the known facts and merely paints between the lines. I feel (although as I am no historian, I may be wrong) that Mantel betrays this. The goal of the book, in my opinion, is to make us sympathise with Cromwell. If facts get in the way, then bend them. It is a pity, to my mind; I've always seen Cromwell as a fascinatingly Machiavellian character, and turning him into a dutiful--if also clever and scheming--subject of the king rather lessens this.
In terms of sheer entertainment value, I’d definitely recommend Thomas Penn's Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England, a genuine nonfiction history, over Bring Up The Bodies. Not only is the former quite suspenseful in a History-channel-commerical-break variety; it is also meticulously researched and contains a plethora of quotes from primary sources. From these recommendations alone, it should be pretty clear that if you enjoy the close-to-historical-figure variety of historical fiction, you’d do best to ignore this review. As for me, from now on, I think I’ll try to pick my historical-figure variety of history in the nonfiction section.