Can Mantel's Bring Up The Bodies match Wolf Hall?

Hilary Mantel talks to the BBC's Nick Higham about her new novel, Bring up the Bodies

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Booker Prize-winning author Hilary Mantel publishes the long-waited sequel to Wolf Hall this week. Can Bring Up The Bodies meet the high expectations of Mantel's fans, peers and literary critics?

Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall won the Booker Prize in 2009. Her 12th book, it catapulted her from the status of admired but often under-rated literary novelist to worldwide best-seller.

A few found the book dense and unreadable; most found its intimate portrait of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's minister and fixer and one of the most feared and disliked characters in English history, simply irresistible.

Now she's published a sequel. The good news for fans of Wolf Hall is that Bring Up The Bodies repeats the same trick with aplomb. It's a very good trick and well worth enjoying twice even if, inevitably, the follow-up doesn't have quite the same breathtaking originality as its predecessor.

To say that Mantel has reinvented the historical novel is overstating it. But she has certainly reinvigorated an often tired and cliched genre. No-one in Wolf Hall or Bring Up The Bodies says "prithee", no bodices are ripped, no liberties are taken with the historical record.

Her Cromwell is not a modern man in Tudor costume but someone whose mental landscape is that of the early 16th Century: The tail end of the middle ages, just as the Protestant revolution was gaining speed.

Bring Up The Bodies cover Bring Up The Bodies is the second novel in a trilogy about Thomas Cromwell

Mantel's skill is in making the mind of someone operating in such a society accessible to contemporary readers, though it helps that the real Thomas Cromwell had some strikingly modern attitudes. In economics he was a Keynsian long before John Maynard Keynes himself.

He believed the state had a responsibility to look after its poorest citizens. He was an accomplished politician. And it was Cromwell who turned the business of medieval government, run by officers of the king's household, into the forerunner of a recognisably modern bureaucracy, underpinned by Acts of Parliament.

At 650 pages Wolf Hall is intimidatingly long. Originally Mantel planned to write a single book about Cromwell's rise and fall. It soon became clear, she says, that she had more than enough material for two. Then, "alarmingly late" in the process of writing the second book, she realised there would need to be three.

So Bring Up The Bodies is half the length of its predecessor and much narrower in focus. The first book traced Cromwell's career from childhood, through the death of his mentor and predecessor as Henry VIII's minister, Cardinal Wolsey.

It ended with Henry's divorce from his first wife Catherine of Aragon (Katherine in Mantel's spelling) and his marriage to Anne Boleyn - a woman almost as manipulative as Cromwell himself.

Good company

The sequel covers just the nine months of Anne's downfall and execution, engineered by Cromwell on behalf of the Seymour family, who supplied Henry's third wife, Jane.

Mantel's Cromwell is ruthless, it's true, but also sympathetic: A man of little education but wide experience and excellent taste, who can "draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury".

Hilary Mantel Hilary Mantel 's Wolf Hall won awards in the UK and US

He is a workaholic. He speaks several languages. He was once a soldier, later a banker and a lawyer and a cloth merchant: He can price a man's clothes just by looking at him. He is a loving husband and father, kind to his servants and loyal to his master - at first Wolsey, later Henry.

He is also vengeful, manipulative and cleverer by far than almost anyone else he encounters, including and especially the high-born aristocrats who surround Henry and who despise Cromwell on the grounds - absurd to modern eyes, but the universally accepted wisdom in the early 16th Century - that he is an upstart of humble birth, and that only they are fit to govern.

Mantel is clearly fascinated by Cromwell: Both the historical figure, the son of a Putney blacksmith who rose to become Earl of Essex, and her fictional creation.

She might have written the real man's biography, except that her trade is novel-writing and Cromwell is, as she says, "unbiographicable": We know a great deal about Cromwell the public man, mainly because his papers were seized and preserved before his execution. We know next to nothing about the private man.

The novelist is able to go where the historian and biographer cannot, imagining what it might have been like to be Cromwell.

And he makes very good company for readers privileged to listen to his inner voice - though, in a stylistic tic which infuriates some, Mantel makes sure we simultaneously identify with Cromwell and keep our distance by referring always to her central character as "he", leading to occasional confusion as to who is speaking or acting.

He's such good company, indeed, that it takes a while in Bring Up The Bodies before you realise quite how brutal he is.

Mantel's object may be to rescue Cromwell the man from his historical reputation as a black-hearted villain: He was a survivor, a pragmatist whose aim was always to further the interests of his master the king.

Yet in the most chilling scenes in the book he deliberately sets out to frame a series of men on charges of adultery with the queen.

He questions them personally, with subtlety and a refined psychological cruelty worthy of the Inquisition (a medieval institution with whose strikingly modern interrogation techniques you feel Cromwell must have been familiar).

Repressive dictatorships are said to enlist the support of otherwise decent people by ensnaring them little by little, each tiny compromise insignificant in itself but cumulatively damning.

By the end of Bring Up The Bodies the reader is in a similar position: seduced by Cromwell's charisma step-by-step into ready acceptance of his power, however unscrupulously he wields it. It's an impressive achievement.

Bring Up The Bodies is out now in the UK in hardback, published by Fourth Estate.

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