Do you ever love a book or admire an author’s writing so much that they become almost impossible to write a review about? Well, I do and to hammer home this difficulty, Hilary Mantel’s second installment in her Cromwell saga; Bring Up the Bodies, has had such a huge amount of press, reviews (mainly positive) and prize after prize that now the hoohah has died down I’m almost loath to add my inconsequential opinion to all the noise. So I’ll keep this short. I promise.
Mantel started off with a superb chunk of storytelling prowess with 2009’s Wolf Hall, giving her a lot to live up to. We now, of course, know that she delivered 500 times over with Bring Up the Bodies, yet reading this literary mammoth pre prize-giving made me ever so slightly nervous it wouldn’t live up to the hype.
Having studied the Tudor dynasty at least twice throughout my school-life and being a die-hard sucker for a bit of David Starkey, it strikes me that up until now, Henry VIII’s chief minister Thomas Cromwell often misses the list of the great and good in British history for us lay folk He isn’t glamorous, his importance almost entirely lies in a dry, political landscape and he certainly isn’t very pretty, yet Hilary Mantel manages to bring a sagging, grumpy, old (by Tudor standards) lawyer to life. With the greatest panache she lays bare his ruthless nature and makes us, somehow, adore him.
Lucky enough to catch a day in London a few months ago (for work first and foremost mind you!) I snuck an hour out of the day to go and take a look at the Tudor paintings at the National Portrait Gallery. Geeky as it is, I have to admit to being a little starstruck, standing in awe of portraits of people who, after studying them so often throughout my student days and now being whisked deep into their lives in Mantel’s superb novels, really felt like meeting old friends. With a sense of urgency that makes her storytelling so utterly gripping, Mantel takes a leaf out of Hans Holbein’s paintings and sketches out her images in pure technicolor:
‘Sometime before noon, clouds scudded in from the west and rain fell in big scented drops; but the sun re-emerged with a scorching heat, and now the sky is so clear you can see into Heaven and spy on what the saints are doing.’
Details some may find inconsequential such as Cromwell’s comments on what glaziers a family uses for their windows or his home life in general drag me deeper into the world she has imagined in such a convincing a way that one cannot fail to be impressed by her profound knowledge. She’s certainly earned the respect of the scholars…
Do I want to get into the debate over what is now the infamous Mantel vs Kate Middleton debate? Not really. However, what I will say is that I have listened to her speech, which offers a penetrating and frank view into the forcibly imposed roll of the modern royal woman and yes, may seem a little too frank and penetrating with regards to Kate but is, by and large, a criticism of society’s attitude towards women and mainly, when it boils down to it, an academic lecture on the TUDORS. Shame on you tabloids.
Mantel’s telling of Cromwell’s rise and fall was originally attended as a wonderful duet. Due to the sheer mammoth subject and wealth of things to tell it will now be a happy trilogy… I can’t flippin’ wait.
The Mirror and the Light; the tale of Cromwell’s final demise, is expected to hit the shelves sometime in 2015.