Affairs of state

Bring up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel, Fourth Estate RRP£20, 608 pages

When Thomas Cromwell tells his nephew on the eve of Anne Boleyn’s execution, “If we had let her reign longer, we would have deserved it,” there was no sliver of belief left in him. Cynicism had encased his personality and nothing could penetrate the carapace. Yet by the end of Hilary Mantel’s sequel to her Man Booker prize-winning Wolf Hall, the last thing any reader will surely want to do is to say farewell to the monster. His weary smile, the eye that can flash into the dark corners of the king’s court, the restless watchfulness, remain irresistible.

“I represent the King’s interests. That is what I am for,” he tells the Seymour family, as if we didn’t know. While Henry holds on to Anne, with Jane Seymour in the other bed, Cromwell will continue to serve his queen. “But if he rejects her, I must reconsider.” As he says it, the king’s designs against the Boleyn family are taking shape, and his grinding obsessions with sex and succession are boiling up again. But Cromwell’s own temperature never rises; as Henry’s secretary, his is the cold-blooded hand that stirs the cauldron.

When Mantel gave the name of the Seymours’ home to the previous novel in which it barely appeared, readers were aware of what must follow. The Boleyns’ decline and enforced disgrace, and the arrival on the throne of Jane, once a quivering slip of a girl at court. But this novel is much more than a necessary sequel to its astonishing predecessor. It confirms that Mantel may be writing a sequence of historical novels that could rise above anything we have known in this country in our time.

Take the language, first of all. Her poetic pulse never falters. The England through the winter of 1535, after the king’s break with Rome, is a bare, dank place. “In Henry’s new church, Lent is as raw and cold as ever it was under the Pope. Miserable, meatless days fray a man’s temper.” Cromwell watches as the king writes a love letter to Jane, waits for Katherine of Aragon to die alone in the Fens, plots against the families who still bow the knee but scheme against him. Cromwell “can almost hear them, hidden among the trees”.

These rich narrative colours are purposeful rather than decorative. The relentless juggling of fortunes at court is absorbing not because it is about power but because the characters involved are rendered so vividly – their crude stratagems and violent panics, the casual understanding that disgrace and death are always around the corner, the familiarity of perpetual deceit. They are Cromwell’s world.

He knows when Anne has concluded that she has failed, by losing the king to Jane Seymour. “Since Henry rode away from her yesterday, she has been an impostor, like a child or court fool, dressed in the costumes of a queen.” And by this stage we know precisely what conclusion Cromwell will draw. “Anne is dead to herself. We shall have no trouble with her now.”

Amid all the cruelty and violence, the comings and goings of ambassadors and worries about war, Mantel’s supreme skill is to allow time for the childish and the absurd. Her people are more often ridiculous than heroic, and she explains why. The most venal among them fascinate us just as they obsess Cromwell. She has us just where she wants us.

Her narrative technique (and the dominant present tense) has irritated some readers, with Cromwell rendered in the third person while having the intervening persona of a near first-person narrator. Some will never get used to it, and there we are. But the device gave Wolf Hall the startling feeling of a story that was coming from somewhere else, a familiar scene being replayed in a different way, and Bring up the Bodies is similarly strengthened by the ability of Cromwell to seem a character like all the others, out there, and yet to be leading you on all the time, insinuating his cleverness and his instincts as a survivor.

How close is he to smiling when he congratulates the archbishop for keeping the reason behind Anne’s condemnation secret – adultery, of course – because it wouldn’t be laughed at in public? The Lord Chancellor adds: “The truth is so rare and precious that sometimes it must be kept under lock and key.” He will have enjoyed that one too.

This is a great novel of dark and dirty passions, public and private. It is also an exploration of what still shocks us – statecraft reduced to a barometer of the king’s libido as well as episodes such as Anne’s execution. “The women, unassisted, lift the queen’s sodden remains into the chest. One of them steps forward, receives the head, and lays it – no other space – by the queen’s feet. Then they straighten up, each of them awash in her blood, and stiffly walk away, closing their ranks like soldiers.”

Yet that night, Cromwell hears of an enemy who wonders when he will turn on the king himself. “He stands looking down into the darkening garden: transfixed, the question like a knife between his shoulder blades.” He knows, no one better, how things turn.

A truly great story, it rolls on.

James Naughtie presents ‘Today’ and ‘Bookclub’ on BBC Radio 4

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