I read with Bring up the Bodies, from Hilary Mantel with as much pleasure as I did Wolf Hall. As I’ve already mentioned the post about the first book, I do not particularly like historical novels (the latter looks at England in the sixteenth century and Thomas Cromwell, the advisor of Henry VIII), and I do not know very well this particular period of English history. Seeing (part of) the series on the BBC when I was in Britain made me want to read the book. It was helpful to see the series first, because the links between the characters are complex and Mantel is not easy to read, especially for a non-native. Even in French translation, readers have noted that this is a demanding book (but the effort is worth it). I think I preferred the second book to the first, as in the first book, the author had to put all the characters in place so that they could play their role and this made reading more difficult (at least for me). In the second one , perhaps due to the great success the first book had (and Mantel won her first Booker prize), it seems that she sets Cromwell free, as she imagined him. Readers can feel the great affection she has for her character and she brilliantly gives the reader the impression that s/he is in the head of Cromwell and can somehow spy on the mind of a man of the sixteenth century. Mantel has so much talent that we end up by almost understanding the “logic” of Cromwell, the reasons he gives for “having to” to get rid of one or the other, but especially Anne Boleyn so that Henry VIIIth may have a male heir. In the second book, Cromwell thinks more often about his past, aristocrats reminds him more and more frequently that he is the son of a blacksmith. We discover that he has not forgiven the treatment that his dear Wosley had to endure. Mantel also suggests that Cromwell had progressive ideas, and did not see the usefulness of war, amongst other things. In short, Cromwell feels almost nice. Through her characters, Mantel explores the perception of women and sex at that time.
It is not intended to be factual only and warns that it is “her” Cromwell that she introduces to us, aware that others have seen him very differently. I have not done extensive research on Cromwell, but it seems true that other portraits of him were more unflattering. I much prefer the multidimensional portrait Mantel has drawn for us in a beautiful style, which probably explains that Mantel is now part of an elite group of very privileged authors who received a second Booker.