Mantel's puppet: The King's chief minister Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein
In what is now known as a "publishing event", the hardback release of Hilary Mantel's Bring Up The Bodies, sequel to the 2009 winner of the Man Booker Prize Wolf Hall, has generated much excitement among the book-buying British public. Many readers had circled the date on their calendars well in advance of May 10, when Bring Up The Bodies hit the shelves.
Wolf Hall has been extraordinarily successful both in terms of sales and critical acclaim, perhaps surprisingly so given that its subject matter, the career of Thomas Cromwell at the court of Henry VIII, was thought by some to be too highbrow for bestseller material. The naysayers surely reckoned without Mantel's treatment of Cromwell's story, which transforms the Tudor mind, taking it out of the remote past and making it accessible to the modern reader. Mantel's Cromwell lives through the page in a compelling feat of literary ventriloquism and imaginative projection: this Cromwell has proved a surefire hit.
Bring Up The Bodies continues where Wolf Hall left off, with Henry VIII having secured his marriage to Anne Boleyn but already noticing other ladies at court, in particular the demure Jane Seymour. With Anne having failed to give him a male heir, and with her political ambition already grating at court, Henry is looking for a way out of a marriage that Thomas Cromwell worked so hard to secure.
Few do not know the story of Henry VIII's famous scruples: having married his brother's wife it took Henry 20 years of married life before his conscience began to trouble him. Was it incest, he wondered, to marry his sister-in-law? A papal dispensation said otherwise. Katherine of Aragon herself said otherwise, asserting to the end that she and Prince Arthur had never consummated their union therefore Henry was her true husband, in law and before God. But Katherine had not borne him the living male heir which Henry wanted to secure the Tudor dynasty, and Henry's eyes were wandering to younger women who might prove more fertile, and malleable.
For all his scruples about incest, it did not strike Henry as relevant that with Anne Boleyn he was falling into the same trap of incestuous relations. Anne's sister Mary had long been his concubine and, if rumour is to be believed, so was their mother when Henry was in his teens. Mantel uses Wolf Hall, the Seymour family seat, to signify incest and licence, even though it only appears as a location within the last few pages of Wolf Hall. Its name works in the novel as a byword for licence: news reached the Tudor court that old Sir John Seymour had been caught in flagrante with his daughter-in-law, a liaison which had been going on behind his eldest son's back for years.