One of the many ballads that were made in the pubs of England during Henry VIII’s reign named the King Littleprick, according to Hilary Mantel’s latest  Man Booker Prize-winning novel, Bring Up the Bodies. There are many places in the novel where Henry’s sexual potency or the size of his genital organ is called into question. In a way, the novel is about the King’s lack of “skill” and “vigour” in copulation. Is it some psychological complex about his sexual skills or the size of his penis that drove Henry to marry six times? Well, Anne Boleyn was his second wife, and the present novel tells the story of the King’s and many other men’s affairs with her. Maybe, in the next volume of the series, Mantel will explore this theme further. Maybe not. Mantel’s real interests lie in Thomas Cromwell who is the indirect narrator of both the first two volumes and promises to continue that job in the next one too.
Wolf Hall, the first volume in the series, ends with Henry marrying Anne Boleyn. Cromwell is left with an axe to grind because Anne’s royal ambition drove his patron, Cardinal Wolsey, to the grave. Cromwell, being an astute manipulator, soon got into the good books of the King. Right at the beginning of the novel we are told that even Cromwell thinks of himself as looking like a murderer. The novel will end about 400 pages later with Cromwell leading five men and the Queen herself to their gory death. And four of the five men were complicit in the death of Cardinal Wolsey.
Was Cromwell avenging the cardinal’s death? In the “Author’s Note” at the end of the novel, Mantel tells us that the “book is of course not about Anne Boleyn or about Henry VIII, but about the career of Thomas Cromwell, who is still in need of attention from biographers.” Mantel has done justice to her exploration of Cromwell’s character: he comes across as a man with a marmoreal demeanour and equally cold heart, more Machiavellian than Machiavelli’s Prince, focused on his goals with the determination of the Devil himself. At the end of it all, he still remains a mystery.
Bring Up the Bodies is the story of how Anne Boleyn is brought to her tragic end by her tragic flaw of sensualness. Anne loves to have variety in her sexual encounters and experiences. One of her lovers, Weston, tells of her, imitating none other than Henry himself, “Has she not the wettest cunt you ever groped?” In one of the last pages of the novel, Cromwell wonders whether Anne “was a book left open on a desk for anyone to write on the pages, where only her husband should inscribe.”
Anne’s character is not as simple as that, however. She is also an expert schemer. Mantel succeeds eminently in portraying the complexity of Anne’s character.
Anne and Cromwell together bring us a peculiar experience, a churning experience of two very different types of perversions, thanks to Mantel’s dexterous art and craft.
The title, Bring Up the Bodies, refers to Henry’s order to “deliver the accused” for the trial. All of them end up as mere bodies soon after the trial, bodies without life. Ten days after Anne’s execution, Henry marries Jane Seymour, the woman who was his third wife. Wolf Hall had ended with Henry’s marriage with Anne. There are many more marriages to come. And more executions too, including Cromwell’s. I look forward to the next volume in the series.