Hilary Mantel would make a terrible fortuneteller. Several years ago, when the English author began conceiving a novel about Thomas Cromwell, the chief minister of King Henry VIII during his break with the Vatican over the little matter of divorce, she thought it would be a single volume. She expected that, following the pattern of her previous novels, it might get respectful reviews but a collective yawn from book buyers. And she thought that a novel about events that took place more than five centuries ago had little chance of winning a major literary prize.
Wrong, wrong, wrong. The Cromwell saga mushroomed into a trilogy, whose first volume, “Wolf Hall” (2009), was a massive hit with critics and readers on both sides of the Atlantic. It won the Man Booker Prize, the Pulitzer’s British counterpart, and the National Book Critics Circle Award in the States, where it went through a dozen printings in hardcover and sold 435,000 copies in all formats, a phenomenal number for a 560-page literary novel that was anything but a page-turner.
Perhaps wisely, the author is making no predictions for “Bring Up the Bodies” (Henry Holt, $28), the second installment of the trilogy, even though this leaner, more action-packed sequel — about Cromwell’s role in the downfall of Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn — is almost certain to be a major international bestseller. “When I won the Booker, I was absolutely astonished,” Mantel, 59, says by phone in her cozy Midlands accent. “Now for the first time, I think, ‘Will my sales figures live up to expectations?’ ”
Expectations are stratospheric, but also reasonable, given the intensity of interest in Mantel’s intricately textured and often surprising approach to well-worn material. Henry’s campaign against Anne (against whom he leveled the dubious charge of adultery with several men at court, including her own brother) is the subject of dozens of fictional treatments, though none quite like Mantel’s. “There’s a feeding frenzy out there for this book,” says Holt’s president and publisher, Steve Rubin. “People can’t wait to get their hands on it — which you might think is strange, because how many times have we read about Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn? The answer is that Hilary brings a totally new dimension to a story we essentially know.”
In “Bring Up the Bodies” — the title comes from the ominous phrase used to summon Anne’s alleged lovers to their so-called trial — Mantel focuses on the tricky and at times tense relationship between the king and his right-hand man. Cromwell’s formidable task is to understand his prickly and mercurial boss, who often only hints at what he wants, and then to make those wishes come true, even when they’re at odds with Cromwell’s own conscience.
This is complicated by the fact that Cromwell — a blacksmith’s son whose unlikely rise to the top of England’s political heap has earned him the bitter resentment of the noblemen of the court — must wield near-regal authority without ever letting the king suspect how smoothly he’s being managed. “It’s crucial for the subordinate in that situation to disguise from his master how powerful he’s become,” Mantel says. “What attracted me to Cromwell as a subject, really, was the fact that he was able to do this for so long, even when the spirit of the age was against him. What kind of man could work with King Henry VIII on a daily basis and survive him for a decade?”
The answer, in “Wolf Hall,” is a subtle, supremely accomplished political operator who is also a good deal more sympathetic than the sinister schemer of most portrayals, notably Robert Bolt’s “A Man for All Seasons.” But the demands of serving Henry, who’s forever on the prowl for a wife who can provide him with a male heir, stretch even the skilled and diligent Cromwell to the absolute limit. Already in “Bring Up the Bodies,” set in 1535-36, the bond between master and servant has begun to fray. The book’s most harrowing scene is not the climactic decapitation of Anne Boleyn but, rather, an invented episode in which Henry dresses down Cromwell in front of a stunned court. “I really believe,” he rages in a foreshadowing of the argument that would cost Cromwell his own head a few years later, “that you think you are king, and I am the blacksmith’s boy.”
Mantel’s close identification with Cromwell perhaps has something to do with the fact that she too has had a sense of an uphill climb in her chosen profession. In something like the way Cromwell is conscious of his low birth, the author has always been keenly aware that she’s working in a genre many still regard as second-rate. “There can be good historical fiction — I love Gore Vidal’s “Burr,” for example — but we also have just as much down-market historical fiction as any other kind. There are novels about Henry VIII and Anne by the armful, and they’re all the same love story or femme fatale story — the treatment is kind of cosmetic, and that hasn’t helped.”
It’s true that Barry Unsworth’s “Sacred Hunger,” about the 18th-century slave trade, and “The Ghost Road,” part of Pat Barker’s World War I trilogy, won the Booker in 1992 and 1995, respectively, but they are among the exceptions. Besides, while those books combine real and invented characters, “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies” have only one purely fictional character — Christophe, a French boy who becomes one of Cromwell’s servants and enforcers — and even he has a real-life model. A novelist who relies so heavily on what really happened can’t be in the same league as one who makes it all up, can she? Talk about a slacker.
In the Cromwell books, Mantel is no slacker, filling out the portraits of the leading figures of the Tudor court in ways consistent with history yet not chained to it. “I stick as closely as I can to the record as we have it, but you have to say that the record is incomplete, partial, distorted,” she says. In “Bring Up the Bodies,” Mantel seizes on such gaps the way Henry attacks a joint of beef. Anne’s enigmatic rival Jane Seymour, for example, comes off as a surprisingly able player in the game of thrones, using her modesty and lack of obvious allurements to their best advantage. “The tendency is to say that since we don’t know much about Jane — we don’t have any record of her utterances or letters — she must have been stupid,” Mantel says. “If I had to take a guess, any woman who behaved so coolly, as Jane did, and with such a fine sense of timing, had to be smart rather than the reverse. After all, she was an experienced courtier. She’d watched Katherine of Aragon, she’d watched Anne, and learned from their mistakes. She certainly knew how to handle Henry.”
One key difference between “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies” is that the latter mostly lacks the poetic reveries that Cromwell allows himself in the former. This is largely a product of the sequel’s compressed timeline of barely nine months, in particular the three weeks leading up to Anne’s execution. “In this book, Cromwell is forced to action — he’s become the ugly knuckle of power — and events are happening so quickly that he has almost no time to reflect on anything,” she says.
In the trilogy’s conclusion, “The Mirror and the Light” — which Mantel expects will come out in 2014 or perhaps later, depending on how bogged down she gets in interviews like this one — she hopes to have it both ways. “I want to combine aspects of both books: the fast turn of events that you have in “Bring Up the Bodies,” but also the interior voice of Cromwell, the spiritual aspect that you saw more of in “Wolf Hall,’ ” she says. “In that way, I hope, the end will reflect the beginning.”
Spoken like a true non-slacker.
Nance is a freelance writer.