Rating: 4 stars
Bring Up The Bodies
Rating: 3 stars
I heard mixed things about Hilary Mantel‘s imagining of the life of Thomas Cromwell. She seemed to have polarised the opinions of people whose opinions I respect. Some told me the books were a tedious exercise in literary fiction, a waste of good reading time, and generally not very good. Others told me that they were gripping and brought Cromwell to life, making him human in a way straight histories depicting him as a power hungry monster didn’t.
It took the BBC broadcasting an adaptation for me to pick the books up myself. I tried to read the books at the same time as watching the TV version, which perhaps was a mistake. The TV adaptation merged characters and shifted the chronology around, which I found confusing. There were many conversations with my husband in the kitchen, trying to work out who was an amalgam of whom.
I liked the writing style of the first book very much. I know some people don’t get along with it, but I found it helped me feel like I was inside Thomas Cromwell’s head. I’ve read reviews criticising Mantel’s writing style, her use of ‘he’ to signify Cromwell, her odd use of grammar, but it didn’t bother me. It fitted the story she was telling, it gave a sense of compulsion and stopped it being dry. I felt I was there with Cromwell every step of the way. In particular, I found Mantel’s imagining of Thomas Cromwell’s inner life believable. She made him human and sympathetic. I liked her depiction of the women at Henry VIII’s court – at a time when intelligent women had no means of gaining an education and taking on positions held by men, Mantel’s understanding of their ambitions and opportunities goes beyond mere scheming. I also appreciated Mantel’s treatment of those not born into aristocracy, her presentation of their interplay with the ruling classes, and her sympathy for their position. Hilary Mantel really brought Cromwell and his era to life for me and I jumped straight into Bring Up The Bodies because I couldn’t let Cromwell go.
I had a bad head cold the weekend I read the second instalment, which gave me the luxury of uninterrupted reading time. Consequently I made light work of Bring Up the Bodies. I preferred the writing style in Wolf Hall. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the sequel, just that it felt like Hilary Mantel had given in to her critics and made it more like your average novel than the first book. This less stimulating novelization style put me at a remove from Cromwell and made the story less compelling. There was a sense of apology about the writing, strengthened by the author’s afterword, explaining that it was fantasy and some characters had been left out and others made to seem more guilty than they were. She must have been told to make the distinction of when he meant Cromwell, it was done so clumsily. Her repeated use of “He, Cromwell”, as though she had been pressured to make clear it was Cromwell speaking when she said he, or Cromwell about whom she was writing, jarred. Still an exceptional book, though, for its corralling of historical fact and interlacing of fiction. I wish Hilary Mantel had had the courage of her previous writing style, though.
These two books inspired me to read Tracy Borman’s biography of Cromwell, itself inspired by Mantel’s humanising approach in the novels. If you read Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies and love them, I recommend Borman’s biography. Especially as book three in Mantel’s trilogy seems to be a long time coming.
The books also sent me to C J Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series, of which I’ve read two so far.