I read Hilary Mantel’s novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies pretty much when they were both released. I’ve always been interested in the history of Henry VIII and his daughters Mary and Elizabeth. Such a turbulent time of England and Scotland’s history, with so many lasting effects. The story of Henry and his wives has often been told in fiction, and just before embarking on reading Mantel’s novels I had watched the most recent TV version of Henry VIII’s life and death – the at times astonishingly good (yes, really!), but mostly wildly entertaining The Tudors.
Mantel’s novels tell the story of Henry VIII through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, a lowly born London lad blessed with a head for finance and the law, and an excellent memory. Wolf Hall begins with Cromwell in the service of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Henry VIII has been on the throne for about 20 years, with a kingdom geographically including England, Ireland, and parts of France . The winds of change in the church are blowing from the continent, and various characters are caught up in spying and intrigue in incredibly dangerous times. Thomas More staunchly opposed the reformation in the church, and the run ins between him and Cromwell are fascinating explorations of the theological debates of the time.
The first parts of the novel detail Cromwell’s relationship with Wolsey, and cleverly traces how Cromwell gained favour with the King while Wolsey fell out of favour. The court intrigue centring around Anne Boleyn, who is portrayed as a complex character making what happens incredibly tragic. She’s bright, with a lively mind, and the intellectual attraction between her and Cromwell is one of the key features of the novel, counterpointing with Cromwell’s discussions with Thomas More.
Court intrigue and the jockeying of various families to gain power are the other strands of a complex history where a considerable amount is on the record, but there are gaps. This is the skill of a novelist writing historical fiction based on real people and real events. Choosing the lens through which to view the events, and being careful to bring each to life in a way both believable to a modern audience and yet as true to the feel of the time as is possible. Mantel’s style is clean, crisp, and incredibly efficient as well as evocative.
Wolf Hall takes us up to More’s execution. Bring Up the Bodies traces Anne Boleyn’s fall and Catherine Seymour’s rise in Henry’s favour. There are flashbacks to Cromwell’s childhood and adolescence in London and the continent, which provide a richness to his character.
During 2014 the Royal Shakespeare Company produced a play of both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies in the Aldwych Theatre in London. I saw them back to back and it was a fascinating experience to see both in that way in the same theatre in the same seats. The adaptation itself was brilliant, and staged in a minimalist way.
With a certain sense of inevitability the BBC also adapted the books, which I just caught up with this week via DVD. Unfortunately they chose to compact down the two novels into one six part series, and it showed. The complexity and nuanced nature of Cromwell’s relationship with Anne Boleyn just wasn’t there, and as a result her execution – incredibly powerful in both the book and play – left me cold. A real shame, because the acting and sets were as lush as you’d expect. I thought Damian Lewis was particularly noteworthy as Henry VIII.