The royals in their flawed state

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She drove everyone mad. British novelist Hilary Mantel, it turned out, was not shy regarding her thoughts about British royalty.

In a lecture delivered at the British Museum last month, Mantel called the massively popular Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, “a shop-window mannequin,” adding that Middleton was “presumably designed to breed.” She even compared Middleton to Anne Boleyn, the controversial wife of Henry VIII, saying both were valued for their body parts and not their smarts.

A close reading of Mantel’s comments shows that she was criticizing the idea behind the choice of Middleton, rather than personally attacking the pregnant duchess herself. Nevertheless, the royalists and tabloids pilloried Mantel for it.

 

Scheming eyes

Yet anyone who has read Mantel’s Man Booker Prize-winning 2010 novel, “Wolf Hall,” would know that the author knows what she’s talking about.

Set during the reign of Henry VIII, “Wolf Hall” detailed the poisonous, behind-the-throne maneuvering through the scheming eyes of the king’s secretary, Thomas Cromwell. By the end of “Wolf Hall,” Thomas More—Cromwell’s greatest rival—has been executed. Henry VIII broke ties with the Catholic Church and married the willful Anne Boleyn.

This is where the second volume in Mantel’s planned trilogy about Cromwell begins.

“Bring up the Bodies: A Novel” (Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2012, 407 pages) sets the scene in 1535, with Boleyn (that’s her on the cover) now pregnant with what is hoped to be a male heir, the discarded former queen Catherine of Aragon nearing her death, and Cromwell warily watching the unfolding events.

He is most concerned with Boleyn, who clashes with him repeatedly as she seeks to cement her hold on power by marginalizing Catherine. But Henry is starting to become distracted by the charms of the enigmatic lady-in-waiting, Jane Seymour.

Cromwell sees where all of this is going and tries to help things along, even as he aids Henry in keeping England safe from the shifting affections of the nobility like the Boleyns: “The old families of England are restless and ready to press their claim, especially since Henry broke with Rome; they bow the knee, but they are plotting.”

Claustrophobic

The antechambers near Henry’s throne are a dizzying, claustrophobic place full of plotting, self-interest and gossip, all dressed up in court finery and fakery. The royals are flawed and intriguing. Mantel’s Boleyn is particularly vicious, out only for her own good.

This version of Henry is capricious, moody and yet charismatic. Cromwell, always conscious of where he stands in Henry’s eyes, is the perfect witness since he may be the most dangerous person there aside from the king. That’s because he combines a high-minded ambition to serve His Highness with a powerful sense of entitlement: “Now, they must accommodate me, or be removed.”

 

Bloody ending

Mantel crowds “Bodies” with so many characters, keeping them coming and going as readers may struggle to tell them apart. It gets really busy. There is much conversation. But Mantel’s prose is as plush as a velvet chair, embracing the reader even as it holds them in place.

There is a reason Mantel won her second Man Booker Prize last year for this book. Even those not enamored by historical fiction will be riveted by Mantel’s chronicle of this portion of the Tudor era, all the way to its dramatic, bloody ending.

Anyone who knows history knows this will not end well for most of these characters. “But look, never mind all this,” Mantel writes. “Queens come and go.”

Yet what she has done is make us care about how and why they wound up there. Contrary to what she thinks, Cromwell may be no hero but readers will decide whether or not he’s a villain, even as they wait for the trilogy’s final book, “The Mirror and the Light.”

Whether or not you agree with Mantel’s assessment of Middleton, you will know after reading “Bring up the Bodies” that she holds a uniquely incisive perspective about just how flawed the royals may be—and that Kate Middleton may have actually gotten off lightly.

Available in paperback at National Book Store.

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