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.