Bring Up the Bodies: Henry VIII meets Tony Soprano

Saul Austerlitz draws a rough parallel between the protagonist in Hilary Mantel's engaging new novel about life in the Tudor king's court and television's most famous organised crime boss.

Thomas Cromwell, the royal dispatcher. Hulton Archive / Getty Images
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The tendrils linking a 16th-century English royal adviser to a fictional 21st-century American mob boss are tenuous, at best. And yet, reading Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel's second volume of life at the court of King Henry VIII as seen from the perspective of the king's most trusted adviser, Thomas Cromwell, one cannot help but be reminded, time and again, of Tony Soprano. Cromwell, about 50 when Bodies begins, blessed with "a labourer's body, stocky, useful, running to fat", looks like Tony, but the resemblance is more than skin deep. Mantel, the David Chase of the historical novel, has been engaging in a bait-and-switch of colossal portions, and approximately halfway through this novel, she swipes the rug out from underneath her readers in a manner reminiscent of Soprano's journey from loveable everyman to moral monster.

First, some recap for those joining Mantel late. Wolf Hall (2009), which won the Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, accomplished the feat of reinvigorating the by now wearily familiar tale of Henry VIII and his wife-swapping by a simple substitution. Where previous works - think A Man for All Seasons - had depicted Henry's court from the perspective of Henry, or one of his wives, or the Catholic martyr Thomas More, Mantel chose Henry's other chief adviser, the calculating Thomas Cromwell, as her protagonist and guiding light. In her sly undermining of an earlier era's moral pieties, More is a fundamentalist prig, a zealot in saint's garb, and Cromwell the only recognisable modern voice in the entire grim farce - sceptical, worldly, supremely efficient. The magic of Wolf Hall was its intimacy, its offering us a clear window through which to view the opaque past, in something resembling our own English - "a good language for all sorts of matters", as Thomas describes it here.

Cromwell is employed by Henry to dispatch his no-longer-wanted wife Katherine, cobbling together a legal brief arguing that because she had briefly been betrothed to Henry's brother, their marriage was null and void. The ensuing scuffle costs the lives of More and Cromwell's mentor Cardinal Wolsey, as well as accidentally creating the Church of England as a byproduct of the marital squabble.

Bring Up the Bodies picks up where Wolf Hall leaves off, in disarmingly jaunty fashion. "We've seen some panic-stricken plastering these last weeks," observes Mantel's narrator of the king's tour of the homes of the nobility, "some speedy stonework, as his hosts hurry to display the Tudor rose beside their own devices." Henry is happily betrothed to Anne Boleyn, but a glimpse of the homely, dour Jane Seymour has the king looking "like a veal calf knocked on the head by the butcher". Anne's meddling, her presumptuous family, and her "churchyard's worth of dead babies", in Mantel's pungent description, cool the king's ardour, and have him eyeing other, possibly more fertile wombs. The king knows his legacy is in his offspring, and that to have no son is to have no future: "If a king cannot have a son, if he cannot do that, it matters not what else he can do. The victories, the spoils of victory, the just laws he makes, the famous courts he holds, these are as nothing."

And so we are back where we have started, with a king desperate to shirk the dead weight of an unwanted wife, and itching to take on a new beloved. Cromwell "pictures them, their faces intent and skirts bunched, two little girls in a muddy track, playing teeter-totter with a plank balanced on a stone." That the very same image could have appeared in Wolf Hall, with Katherine, not Jane, balancing across from Anne, is a gruesome irony that Cromwell is not entirely willing, or able, to acknowledge.

It is here that the ground begins to shift, not only under Cromwell, but under us as well. We have been conjoined to Cromwell, willingly or not; every time Mantel says "he", regardless of context, we know she means Cromwell. He had been the unabashed hero of Wolf Hall, a wily pussycat in lion's garb, feared for his cruelty when he should have been admired for his strategic brilliance. Cromwell notes to himself that the king has asked him once more to revise history in his favour: "You removed all impediments: Mary Boleyn, Harry Percy, you swept them aside. But now our requirements have changed, and the facts have changed behind us." Anne, previously defined as a woman who "wants you to treat her like the Virgin Mary, but ... also wants you to put your cash on the table, do the business and get out," is to be condemned as a harlot, guilty of all manner of sexual indiscretion, including incest with her brother. Cromwell knows that he serves an unworthy master, that his diligent study of The Book Called Henry is for naught, hinting at "something unwelcome: superfluous knowledge, useless information." The truth is not what is, but what the king wants it to be.

The lighting has subtly shifted, and the shadows Mantel had so assiduously kept at bay creep up the wall, dwarfing her figures. "I take it back," one of the accused, Mark Smeaton, tells Cromwell during his interrogation. "I don't think so," Cromwell bluntly responds. The list of charges is a mere formality; the guilty parties have already been identified, accused and convicted, all to serve the king. It is "the bodies", after all, not "the accused", who are to be brought up.

Prior to Wolf Hall, Mantel's best-regarded book had been the wonderfully argumentative French Revolution epic A Place of Greater Safety, and the second half of Bodies transforms Cromwell into a precursor of Robespierre, righteously slaughtering in the name of a rancid ideal. "1 May 1536: this, surely, is the last day of knighthood," observes Mantel of the day before Anne's arrest. "What happens after this - and such pageants will continue - will be no more than a dead parade with banners, a contest of corpses."

Cromwell the schemer has become Cromwell the torturer, craftily calculating the ideal amount of pain necessary to break another human being: "I have endured it, you will say. I have come through. And pity and self-love will crack open your heart, so that at the first gesture of kindness - let us say, a blanket or a sip of wine - your heart will overflow, your tongue unstop." "I see," notes one of his associates. "It is not so much, who is guilty, as whose guilt is of service to you."

The prosecution of Mark Smeaton and the other purported lovers of the queen would be farcical were it not so horribly familiar; Cromwell, living three centuries later, would have made an ideal interrogator for Joseph Stalin. And Anne, ascending to the scaffold, is a figure of infinite piteousness, the French Revolution's first victim: "Her head goes down. Then she seems to draw herself together, to control the tremor that has seized her entire body from head to foot."

Like Tony Soprano, we are besmirched by our affection for Cromwell, our breezy willingness to overlook his cruelty redounding to our shame. We are made to pay for our own indifference to horror, forced to embrace the maggoty sore of our erstwhile hero's festering moral wound. And like we had with Tony, we expect Cromwell to be punished for his iniquities. "Henry killed his father's councillors," observes Anne's brother. "Now he plans to kill his wife and her family and Norris who has been his closest friend. What makes you think it would be any different with you, that are not the equal of any of these men?"

Moreover, we know that Cromwell's grisly fate, his head impaled on a spike on London Bridge in 1540, was not dissimilar to those of his victims. And yet, Mantel, like Chase, prefers to pause in medias res, drawing a heavy curtain across the future. Death, she argues, is not always the end. "The word 'however' is like an imp coiled beneath your chair," she concludes. "It induces ink to form words you have not yet seen, and lines to march across the page and overshoot the margin. There are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings. Here is one." We leave Cromwell at the peak of his powers, and at the moment of realisation of his own moral bankruptcy. His fate is to be remembered on a series of slips of paper, and soon enough, he knows, others "will turn the page over, and write on me".

Saul Austerlitz is the author of Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy.