ANDREW FFRENCH finds himself transported back to the court of Henry VIII in our latest Book of the Month


AS a fan of historical fiction I was delighted to get the chance to read Bring Up The Bodies, Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize winning sequel to her 2009 novel Wolf Hall.

But November’s Book of the Month did raise one or two questions in my mind.

Could Bring Up The Bodies, the second novel in a trilogy stand alone, or would it be necessary for me to refresh my memory of Wolf Hall, the first book in the series about Henry VIII’s minister Thomas Cromwell?

Thomas Cromwell joins the King’s council in 1530 and Bring Up The Bodies takes up his story in 1535 by which time he is Henry VIII’s chief minister.

I think readers could probably get away with skipping Wolf Hall and moving straight on to the second novel.

But the more you try to unravel the Tudor period the more fascinating it becomes, and I think reading Bring Up The Bodies will send amateur historians heading to the bookshops or libraries to grab copies of Wolf Hall, if they haven’t read it already.

It’s probably worth grabbing a history book and trying to get to grips with the main events of Henry VIII’s reign before you start on these novels, although the King’s changing relationship with Rome can get your head spinning.

At first I found Mantel’s prose slightly stilted, but as the novel progressed I became more engrossed in the life of Cromwell, as he advises the King and watches nervously as Henry courts Jane Seymour.

Mantel keeps a firm grip on the narrative but the reader can see events from Cromwell’s point of view.

The novels are an astonishing feat of imagination as Cromwell left very little personal paperwork behind.

In a piece Mantel wrote about Wolf Hall, she told her readers: “It seems that Thomas Cromwell rarely talked about his life.

“His early career is very hard to reconstruct. Cromwell kept no diaries, and his many letters are business letters.

“Cromwell’s letters were published in 1902 by the scholar Roger Bigelow ... hardly any of the material is personal.

“There is nothing for a biographer to work with.

“For a novelist, this absence of intimate material is both a problem and an opportunity. I have had to do my best with hints and possibilities.”

Read both Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies and you realise how much Mantel has achieved to transport us back to the 16th century and the court of Henry VIII.



HILARY Mantel CBE is an English novelist, short story writer and critic.
Her work ranges from personal memoir to historical fiction, and has been short-listed for a number of major literary awards.

In 2009, she won the Man Booker Prize for her novel Wolf Hall, and earlier this year won the prize for the second time for the sequel Bring Up The Bodies.

Born in Glossop, Derbyshire, the eldest of three children, Hilary Mantel was brought up in the Derbyshire village of Hadfield and went to the local Roman Catholic primary school.

Her family is of Irish origin but her parents, Margaret and Henry Thompson, were born in England. After losing touch with her father at the age of 11, she took the name of her stepfather Jack Mantel.

Her family’s background, which inspires a great deal of her work, is explained in her memoir Giving Up the Ghost.

In 1970, the author went to the London School of Economics to read law.
She then went to Sheffield University and graduated in Jurisprudence in 1973. Then she worked in the social work department of a geriatric hospital, and then as a saleswoman.

In 1974, she began writing a novel about the French Revolution, later published as A Place of Greater Safety. In 1977, she went to live in Botswana with her husband Gerald McEwen, a geologist, who she had married in 1972.

Later the couple spent four years in Saudi Arabia and a memoir of this time, Someone to Disturb, has been published in the London Review of Books.
During her twenties she suffered from a debilitating and painful illness, eventually diagnosed as endometriosis, a diagnosis confirmed back in London.

The condition and resulting surgery left her unable to have children.
Her first novel, Every Day is Mother’s Day, was published in 1985, and its sequel, Vacant Possession, came out a year later.

A Place of Greater Safety, published in 1993, won the Sunday Express Book of the Year award, for which her two previous books had been shortlisted.
Her 2005 novel, Beyond Black, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize.

A scathing, dark comedy, the novel features a professional medium Alison Hart, whose calm exterior conceals grotesque psychic damage.
The author was appointed a CBE in the 2006 Birthday Honours list.

The long novel Wolf Hall, about Henry VIII’s minister Thomas Cromwell, was published in 2009, winning critical acclaim.

After the novel scooped that year’s Man Booker Prize, the author said: “I can tell you at this moment I am happily flying through the air.”
Judges voted three to two in favour of Wolf Hall, with Mantel being presented with a trophy and a £50,000 cash prize during an evening ceremony at London’s Guildhall.

A panel of judges, led by the broadcaster James Naughtie, described Wolf Hall as an “extraordinary piece of storytelling”.

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