Diabolical. Violent. Fascinating. The story of the throne-usurping Tudors has been seducing people for almost five centuries.
This weekend is the 476th anniversary of Anne Boleyn's beheading. This month's publication of Hilary Mantel's novel "Bring Up the Bodies" -- the second in a trilogy -- tells us how the craziness in Henry VIII's court might have felt if you could have been there for a falcon hunt, to covet a good ermine to keep away the chill and were up to all the intrigue, backstabbing and fawning required of an ambitious courtier.
From this safe 21st century distance, Mantel turns it into dangerous fun. That is until the climax. That's when Mantel's lead character, Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith's son and king's secretary, finally finishes the job as nuptial alchemist, letting the king's lust for another wife combust with gossip, treachery and forced confessions.
Nobles are sent to the Tower.
Their grim march foreshadows Cromwell's own end with his head on a spike at 55. But that's a story for Mantel's next book.
Her tale started with "Wolf Hall," which won the 2009 Booker Prize and praise for writing in the present tense, crafting elegant descriptive prose and using Cromwell as a window into Henry VIII's world.
Mantel's style is swift, which is part of the pleasure and difficulty of "Bring Up the Bodies." It is as if the Tudor universe is a cold river and the reader is dropped in the middle with almost enough protective gear to stay comfortable while bobbing along with the doomed players.
Mantel has a peculiar rhythm. I reread a lot of sentences to get used to how she often presents Cromwell simply as "he." She also switches gears quickly, moving from one scene to the next. I would find myself reading along, thinking I knew where I was in the story.
And then I didn't.
In one of those passages, Cromwell sits on a "humble three-legged stool" and carries on a real-seeming conversation about maneuvering the king into a new marriage.
In this story Anne Boleyn, the second queen (after Catherine of Aragon), is in her mid-30s, has given birth to the future Elizabeth I, and has miscarried a boy. The charms of the young Jane Seymour seem obvious in a Cromwell daydream, which refers to her like so: "Why would one prefer a tough old hen to a plump little chick? What use is it?"
" 'Soup,' he [Cromwell] says: but not so [anyone] can hear."
It's all part of what helps make the old Tudor tale suspenseful and fresh, if sometimes labored in Mantel's pages.
Getting to know the cruel, thoughtful, complicated character of Cromwell is one of its delights. In one description, Cromwell is "distinguished by his courtesy, his calmness and his indefatigable attention to England's business. He is not in the habit of explaining himself. But whenever good fortune has called on him, he has been there, planted on the threshold, ready to fling open the door to her timid scratch on the wood."
Mantel refers to written history and then riffs on it. She quotes from the note Catherine of Aragon wrote to the king before she died -- "mine eyes desire thou above all things" -- which Mantel's Henry disdainfully gives to Cromwell to fold and put away.
The portraits by court artist Hans Holbein are also part of her arsenal.
In his, Cromwell icily stares off into space. Mantel says his turquoise ring was a gift of his dead predecessor. When Cromwell saw it finished, he said presciently, "Christ, I look like a murderer."
And this is the reason to read Mantel's Tudor tale. The old characters come alive. Her language is modern, not Shakespearean. Here is how she reveals Boleyn's seductive mystery:
"Her prominent dark eyes she uses to good effect, and in this fashion: she glances at a man's face, then her regard flits away, as if unconcerned, indifferent. There is a pause: as it might be a breath. Then slowly, as if compelled, she turns her gaze back to him Though in fact the trick is quick, cheap, effective and repeatable, it seems to the poor fellow that he is now distinguished among all men. He smirks. He preens himself. He grows a little taller. He grows a little more foolish."
That's how Mantel supplies what I think I craved when I was a teen, first fascinated by the frustratingly limited Anne Boleyn I discovered in a thick paperback.
How was it, I wondered as I read, that this young queen left a king so smitten that he broke with the Catholic Church to marry just a few years before killing her?
At the time I remember being so disappointed that there was such scant information about personality and feelings that I kept the dense book around after I finished.
I reread parts thinking the answer must be there: I must have just missed it somehow on the first go.
That mystery lingered long after I lost track of that Anne Boleyn paperback. Finally, Mantel has imagined a good answer for how these people with all their jewels and enigmatic royal looks still frozen in Holbein's paint might have thought, moved, lived, loved and seduced.
And got themselves beheaded.
Michelle Kearns is a News reporter.
Bring Up The Bodies: A Novel
By Hilary Mantel
432 pages, $28.