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Scan 12So having finally finished Wolf Hall at the second attempt I was so absorbed in the story of Thomas Cromwell that I immediately picked up the sequel, Bring Up The Bodies. This turned out to be a wise decision as it was equally as well written as its predecessor though potentially darker in tone and with a slightly different style which I can’t quite put my finger on.

This picks up from the end of Wolf Hall, with Henry VII divorced from wife one, married to wife two and casting his eye around at other women in the court, with a particular fancy for Jane Seymour whom we know will become wife three. Although he now has Anne in his possession she id pregnant and the King needs female companionship. It’s also becoming clear even at this early stage that he is becoming tired of Anne as a personality; Mantel portrays her as manipulative and unforgiving and her behaviour will sow the seeds of her inevitable downfall when she fails to provide a male heir. She does of course produce Elizabeth I, my great heroine of which I will say no more other than that her rare appearances as a baby and toddler in the book are rather sweet.

This reads like a thriller and I tanked my way through the second half in a single sitting. Once its clear that no son is forthcoming Henry starts casting around for reasons to get rid of Anne and Cromwell, with his informants everywhere and his growing attachment to the Seymour family , helps pull together the evidence required to have her executed for treason. I found the portrayal of Anne really compelling; I’ve always felt she was hard done by, and I know Mantel is taking a particular position here but I have to say that her descriptions of Anne’s alleged behaviour shows her to be at the very least a foolish woman who overestimated her power and influence over the King.

The role of families in court politics is also fascinating, the way fathers and brothers effectively pimped their women folk to royalty for land and power and influence is remarkably dismaying but, of course, par for the course over many centuries.

I still like Cromwell. His attempts to help Katherine, Mary and Anne to give the King what he wants and needs while allowing them to retain some form of dignity are admirable but doomed. Pride is a very important commodity for these women, and for Henry himself, who comes across as rather more petulant and self-serving in this volume. Still can’t stand the man though.

There will be a third book which will take us up to Cromwell’s death; not sure when that will appear but I’m already looking forward to seeing how my favourite Henrician queen, Anne of Cleves, is handled. Wonderful stuff.

WolfHallHilaryMantel54268_fI started to read this as part of the read-a-long hosted by Coffee and a Book Chick; the launch post explaining why it has taken me so long to get to this book is here. And I started with the best of intentions but, you know what sometimes happens, you aren’t really in the mood for that sort of book at that time, or other distractions come along, or you get into a bit of a reading slump. So I stopped.

But I always intended to go back to Wolf Hall; I must have done because I swept up the sequel in hardback when it came out, and I’m not daft enough to do that if I don’t intend to do the whole thing, am I? (Rhetorical). And this year, because I’ve been in a good place in terms of my reading I picked it up again and was hooked. I got, at the second time of asking, why so many people love this and why it won the Booker. It is simply magnificent.

I’ve said elsewhere that I’ve got a bit of a girl crush on Mantel, since seeing her interviewed in a BBC profile. That doesn’t mean that I believe that she can do no wrong. The recent controversy over what she may or may not have said about the Duchess of Cambridge was entirely manufactured by some elements of the press, but she did set herself up for  it whether deliberately or not its difficult to tell. (By the way I thought her speech, which I read in the London Review of Books, was thought-provoking and I was very cross indeed with the personal nature of some of the attacks on her which largely proved her point.)

But back to Wolf Hall. This is the first in a projected trilogy which covers the life of Thomas Cromwell, an adviser initially to Cardinal Wolsey and then to Henry VIII himself, who assists the King in his divorce from Katharine of Aragon who has failed to give him a surviving male heir, and his subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn. I shall declare an interest which I’ve mentioned elsewhere I’m sure that my degree is in modern history and the sixteenth century is my thing (my dissertation was on Philip II of Spain as King of England during his marriage to Mary Tudor). So I always read fiction set in the period with a tiny wee bit of trepidation. Of course here I needn’t have worried. The factual stuff is all accurate and the speculation is plausible and convincing, so I was very happy being swept up in a convincing recreation of the period.

Mantel has made Cromwell a sympathetic of not wholly likeable person and the sadness in his private life gives a real insight into family life at the time, when illness and sudden death were all around. And it’s good to see someone finally having a go at Thomas More – never liked him and always thought that previous portrayals left out a lot of the unsavoury elements of his behaviour. I’m not going to say that I felt any increase in sympathy for Henry himself; I’ve always thought he was odious, a tyrant and a cruel man, but Mantel does give some clues as to how he may have turned out that way.

Fascinating and compelling and I am glad I persevered.

Bride of the Book God

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Scottish, in my fifties, love books but not always able to find the time to read them as much as I would like. I’m based in London and happily married to the Book God.

I also blog at Bride of the Screen God (all about movies and TV) and The Dowager Bride, if you are interested in ramblings about stuff of little consequence

If you would like to get in touch you can contact me at brideofthebookgod (at) btinternet (dot) com.

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