In Hilary Mantel's 2009 Booker Prize-winning historical novel "Wolf Hall," her unlikely protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, was tasked with relieving Henry VIII of his first wife, Katherine of Aragon. In doing so, he also laid the groundwork for the new Church of England, with Henry at its head, oversaw the beheading of Thomas More and got his boss married to that feisty minx, Anne Boleyn.
Was Henry satisfied? No. Boleyn proved to be a political liability and a less-than-supportive spouse. Worst of all, she failed to produce a male heir. And so, as the sequel, "Bring Up the Bodies" opens in September 1535, it falls to Cromwell to figure out a way to dispose of Anne and free the king up to marry his current crush, Jane Seymour. Over the course of the next year, Cromwell builds the case against Anne. Wasn't she secretly betrothed before she accepted Henry's proposal? Hadn't Henry already slept with Anne's sister, Mary? Hadn't she committed at least four counts of adultery, and one count of incest? The king could take his pick.
Henry VIII was, famously, about as absolute as a British monarch could be, and the means by which he saw Anne beheaded belong to another age, but Mantel makes the case that the Tudor period was the fulcrum that tipped England into modernity. Her Cromwell is an entirely modern man, less courtier than consultant. He's suspicious of religious observance, favors public works projects to employ the poor and knows that noble birth signifies nothing. (He himself is the lowborn son of a Putney blacksmith.) As for the monarchy, he believes the "days of the moneylender have arrived, and the days of the swaggering privateer; banker sits down with banker, and kings are their waiting boys."
For all its costume drama, the novel reads like a particularly knowing act of political reportage. (If Seymour Hersh had covered the Tudor Court, he might well have published stories like this in The Yorker.) Mantel's characters are so palpable, their dialogue so natural, that the narrative seems more transcribed than imagined.
For most of us non-scholars, our understanding of this period has been formed by popular entertainments, most notably Robert Bolt's great play (and screenplay for the Oscar-winning 1966 movie) "A Man for All Seasons," in which a villainous Thomas Cromwell brings down a saintly Thomas More. In "Wolf Hall," Mantel inverted all of that, with More the sanctimonious, hypocritical, sadistic prig and Cromwell the scrappy, pragmatic mensch.
By the time "Bodies" rolls around, the freshness of Mantel's approach has worn off somewhat. Cromwell's great rival has been beheaded, and Cromwell himself, while still extremely likable, has engaged in some fairly villainous activities.
Then again, the acutely self-aware Cromwell no doubt can anticipate his own eventual fall from grace. When he accuses Anne Boleyn's brother of incest and treason, George Boleyn zings his accuser, noting that "Henry . . . destroyed the cardinal [Wolsey] and harried him to his death, and struck the head off one of Europe's great scholars [more]. Now he plans to kill his wife and her family and Norris who has been his closest friend. What makes you think it will be different with you?"
And with that, we await a sequel.