There will be plenty of fresh corpses by the time Hilary Mantel’s narrative completes its mordant course through the nine months required to send Anne Boleyn to the scaffold and clear the way for Henry’s new love, Jane Seymour. With ruthless efficiency, Master Secretary Cromwell facilitates this judicial murder, as well as the concomitant deaths of four men who made the mistake of crossing him. “He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged.” Cromwell knows the risks he runs in bending the law to the king’s desires. “Your new friends will make short work of you once she is gone,” warns Anne’s brother.
Those “new friends” are England’s old aristocratic families, who disdain the Boleyns (and Cromwell) as plebeian upstarts. Their pragmatic alliance with the Master Secretary implies no real amity. The class animus that gave “Wolf Hall” much of its bite is even more pronounced here: The nobility frequently and openly insult Cromwell with sneering references to his low birth, poor education and unseemly ambitions. His refusal to respond to their barbs fools them into thinking he’s a servile conniver with no pride. If they paid proper attention to the histories of the men he chooses for dispatch to the block with Anne, they would realize that Thomas Cromwell doesn’t get mad, he gets even.
Faced with the challenge of topping her formidable achievement in “Wolf Hall,” winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize, Mantel pushes her protagonist deeper into a moral quagmire and invites our complicity with his descent. Cromwell was no saint in the previous novel, but it was easy to be on his side as he faced down arrogant aristocrats, remained loyal to Wolsey and nonetheless rose to a position of power that he aimed to use for the benefit of England’s common people. If we felt sorry for Katherine of Aragon, Henry’s discarded queen, her fate was no worse than confinement in a country manor. The stakes are mortal in “Bring Up the Bodies,” and Cromwell, as lucidly self-aware as ever, doesn’t pretend that his tactics are anything but merciless; his goal anything but murderous.
The grim passages in which Cromwell bluntly tells the accused they are going to be convicted, that their possible innocence is irrelevant, recall the interrogation scenes in Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon” — told from Gletkin’s point of view instead of Rubashov’s. “You cannot make my thoughts a crime,” protests a nobleman who admits to amorous feelings for Anne but denies acting on them. The Stalinist cadences of Master Secretary Cromwell’s title reverberate in his reply: “If thoughts are intentions, if intentions are malign. . . .” Mantel allusively links Tudor absolutism to 20th-century totalitarianism, showing Cromwell as the reluctant but resolute instrument of authority that defines guilt to serve its own purposes. Henry needs Anne to be an adulteress and the gallants who flirted with her to be treasonous conspirators, so that he can legally marry Jane. The dirty details are his secretary’s problem.
The reader’s problem, deliberately created by Mantel, is that we know Cromwell too intimately to hate him for his terrible deeds. We understand the stark imperative that drives him: Satisfy the king or be thrown to the aristocratic wolves. We feel his bleak acceptance of guilt that is no less onerous for being unavoidable. The past he has shared with us “lies about him like a burnt house.”
It doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, does it? The pleasures of “Bring Up the Bodies” — and they are abundant, albeit severe — reside in Mantel’s artistic mastery. She animates history with a political and psychological acuity equal to Tolstoy’s in “War and Peace” (and she might have the edge on Count Leo in politics). Sardonic humor, particularly in scenes with not-nearly-as-dumb-as-she-seems Jane Seymour, leavens the ominous mood. Gruffly compassionate toward villains and victims alike, Mantel reveals their weaknesses and cruelties bundled up in a flawed humanity we share. The most flawed and human of all is Cromwell, who in the summer of 1536 defies his enemies and covertly rationalizes the bodies he has piled up to their advantage: “Let them try to pull him down. . . . They will find him stuck like a limpet to the future. He has laws to write, measures to take, the good of the commonwealth to serve.”
He has four years to live. And Mantel has one more novel planned to see Thomas Cromwell to his destiny. If that finale matches the somber brilliance of its predecessors — and there’s every reason to believe it will — these will be fitting volumes to place on a bookshelf next to Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy as thrilling examples of the finest works of historical fiction in contemporary literature.
Smith, a contributing editor of the American Scholar, reviews books frequently for the Los Angeles Times, AARP and The Post.