When Hilary Mantel's new book opens, the spark has gone out of Henry VIII's second marriage. His roving eye leaves Anne Boleyn and begins to settle on Jane Seymour, another woman at court. The monarch doesn't go to a marriage counselor or divorce lawyer, not when Thomas Cromwell is his chief adviser.
Bring Up the Bodies is the sequel to Wolf Hall, which won the Man Booker Prize and worldwide acclaim. It is also the latest in a planned trilogy about Cromwell.
Historically, Cromwell is considered a dangerous and unscrupulous bully. In Mantel's books, he is — like any other man — much more than his reputation.
"He's a work in progress, as far as I'm concerned. I'm far from being able to add him up. I'm not even trying at this point," Mantel tells Weekend Edition host Scott Simon.
She says some people expected the follow-up to Wolf Hall to be about Cromwell's fall, since the first book narrated his rise.
"But actually it's not like that at all. He will go on and on rising in the world until he becomes Earl of Essex," Mantel says, "and then his fall, when it came in 1540 — long after the action of this present book — was very, very sudden. In a few weeks, it was all over."
Mantel says Cromwell knows how to "work" the king — but only does so up to a point.
"Because, in the end, Henry needs to be told the truth, and he needs someone strong who can stand up to him," she says.
The king's attraction to Seymour was puzzling to his contemporaries, Mantel says. They had known each other for years, so it wasn't love at first sight.
"But contemporaries said maybe it's because he's such a contrast to Anne Boleyn ... She was sexy, and she knew she was sexy, and she knew how to work life her way," Mantel says. "Jane was muted, she was soft, a complete opposite sort of woman ... In Jane, he saw the woman who would reflect him back at twice his size."
In the midst of this story, Cromwell tries, unsuccessfully, to pass an employment law through the parliament. Cromwell, Mantel says, looked at the endemic poverty across rural England and saw that people didn't have work. At the same time, the country needed infrastructure. He proposed putting the two together.
"But the state [would] have to finance it, and the way he seemed to be proposing to finance it was by imposing income tax," Mantel says. "But parliament did not like that. They comprehensively trashed his measure. But he was, in lots of ways, a man ahead of his time in thinking of the relationships between the state and society. It all seems startlingly modern."
She says she wants her readers to try and put themselves in Cromwell's position and find turning points they would have handled differently.
"But I myself think that Thomas Cromwell's end was written into the beginning," Mantel says.
The nobility felt they should have his job, and he was envied by his colleagues. Even the common people eyed him with suspicion, believing such a "low-born" man rose to eminence through sorcery.
"His only friend, really, was the king, and the moment the king turned against him, then it was all over," Mantel says. "But the marvelous thing about it is that he managed to keep on winning for so long. And I hope the reader will take pleasure in watching him do so."
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
When Hilary Mantel's new book opens, the spark has gone out of Henry the VIII's marriage; second marriage, in fact. Anne Boleyn hasn't given him a son. Now, he finds the sharp remarks she makes that used to charm sometimes come at his expense. His roving eye begins to settle on Jane Seymour, another woman at court. But in Henry's time, a monarch doesn't go to a marriage counselor or divorce lawyer, not when Thomas Cromwell is the king's chief advisor.
"Bring Up the Bodies" is Hilary Mantel's latest novel, the sequel to "Wolf Hall" which won the Man Booker Prize and worldwide acclaim, and the latest in a planned trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. Historically, Cromwell is considered a dangerous and unscrupulous bully. But in Hilary Mantel's books he, like any other man, is more than his reputation. We meet Cromwell in the fall of 1535.
HILARY MANTEL: (Reading) Thomas Cromwell is now about 50 years old. He has a laborer's body: stocky, useful, running the fat. He has black hair, graying now. He never spares himself in the king's service. He knows is worth and merits, and makes sure of his reward: offices, (unintelligible) and title deeds, manor houses and farms. He has a way of getting his way. He has a method. He would charm a man or bribe him, coax him or threatened him. He will explain to a man where his true interests lie, and he would introduce that same man to aspects of himself he didn't know existed.
(Reading) Every day, Master Secretary deals with grandees who, if they could, would destroy him with one vindictive swipe as if he were a fly. Knowing this, he's distinguished by his courtesy, his calmness and his indefatigable attention to England's business.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SIMON: What a wonderful depiction of a human being, Ms. Mantel.
MANTEL: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SIMON: And I guess that's the point, he's a human being. You've taken a character known from portraits and, in a sense, caricature.
MANTEL: He's a work in progress, as far as I'm concerned. I'm far from being able to add him up - I'm not even trying at this point. I seem to have set the mechanism ticking, and now I'm standing back and I'm watching. Some people said to me, when you wrote "Wolf Hall," the first Thomas Cromwell book, that was his rise and the next volume will be his fall, right?
But actually it's not like that at all. He will go on and on rising in the world till he becomes Earl of Essex. And then his fall, when it came in 1540, was very, very sudden. In a few weeks it was all over.
SIMON: Does Cromwell humor or flatter his monarch?
MANTEL: Cromwell knows how to work him. And his methods, as he explains it to the reader is: Give way, give way, give way on every point until you reach the one point where you must stick, and then take your stand. Because in the end, Henry needs to be told the truth and he needs someone strong who can stand up to him. Otherwise, it will be like an animal: if you back away and back away, he will just hunt you down.
SIMON: What drew Henry to Jane Seymour?
MANTEL: It wasn't love at first sight. Henry had known of her for a long time. But contemporaries said maybe it's because she is such a contrast to Anne Boleyn. Anne was flamboyant and beautiful. She was sexy and she knew how to work life her way. Jane was muted. She was soft; a complete opposite sort of woman - meek and demure - someone who would say, yes, Henry. no, Henry.
In Jane, he saw the woman who would reflect him back at twice his size.
SIMON: There's a fascinating section in the middle of the story where Cromwell wants to pass what's called a New Poor Law through Commons. And Commons doesn't see it as their business to create work. It's hard to read that section and not think you're touching on a very contemporary debate.
MANTEL: Yes, indeed. All over England rural unemployment and consequent poverty and disorder are endemic problems. So, Cromwell is saying what are the causes of poverty? It's that people don't have work. They turn to lawbreaking when they can't feed their families. What can we do about this? The country needs an infrastructure; we need road, bridges, harbors. We have men who need work. Let's put the two together, but the state will have to finance it. And the way he seemed to be proposing to finance it was by imposing income tax. But parliament did not like that. They comprehensively trashed his measure. But he was in lots of ways a man ahead of his time in thinking of the relationships between the state and society. It all seems startlingly modern.
SIMON: You know, I'm having such a wonderful time reading your books about Thomas Cromwell. Is there any way you could prevent the end from happening? I don't want to see this guy's head on a stick - if I might put it that way.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MANTEL: Yes. Wouldn't it be wonderful if you could get in like that and change things? I want to challenge the reader to stand in his shoes and say: if you were Thomas Cromwell, what would you have done? So that the reader sees the turning points and they can say at that point it just could've been different.
But I myself think that Thomas Cromwell's end was written into the beginning. He was really in a no-win situation because his position was an affront to the nobility who thought they should be Henry's advisers. He was envied by those on an equal level with him. And to the common people he was an object of suspicion: How had this low-born man got up to such an eminence? Well, it must be because he was a sorcerer. So he had no constituency. He had no family to back him. His only friend, really, was the king, and the moment the king turned against him, then it was all over. But the marvelous thing about it is that he managed to keep on winning for so long. And I hope the reader will take pleasure in watching him do so.
SIMON: Hilary Mantel, her new novel, "Bring Up the Bodies." Thanks so much.
MANTEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.