Fourth Estate, £20

Bring Up The Bodies, By Hilary Mantel

After 'Wolf Hall' comes the fall of Anne Boleyn, and a second journey into the familiar terrors of the Tudor court.

Until the advent of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, most people saw Thomas Cromwell as a jowly accountant who destroyed sainted Thomas More. Only Geoffrey Elton saw Cromwell as a great man, a moderniser of the state, and his account was of a man who loved the bureaucracy he created. Mantel changed that: she made Cromwell her tolerant, omincompetent hero.

In this, her sequel to Wolf Hall, she has no truck with the feminised Tudor history denounced by David Starkey, but sticks firmly to her agenda - male point-of-view, Cromwell's point-of-view, a political point-of-view, with no lust in the Tudor shrubbery. Her historical fiction might be called the squeezed middlebrow, refusing bodice-ripping bestseller-land, but also rejecting wildly experimental writers of historical fiction like OrhanPamuk. As all historical novelists must, Mantel forces us to recognise ourselves in people whose different minds could easily alienate us. Her Cromwell is practical, as we are, a battler, as we are, with no religion or love of the monarch, because we have none.

Mantel is an extraordinary novelist, a remarkable stylist, and rather a commonplace historian: a careful 2.1 and not a daring First. She aims to please us. For Cromwell, and hence for us as readers, the monasteries at the point of dissolution are inventories – lists of treasures, lists of crimes. Mantel never lets us suspect that the inspectors Cromwell sends to the monasteries are her rivals as fiction writers, and she squares their crass homophobia with our 21st-century sensibilities by allowing Cromwell to think all monastic homoeroticism is paedophilia – "prey[ing] on the younger and weaker novices" – rather than consensual relations between adults, with which their reports are in fact concerned.

This is pitch-perfect for readers whose ideas derive from CJ Sansom's detective fiction Dissolution. Omitted is any genuine empathy with an unintelligible world of religious sensibility; the monks who pathetically re-established their library in a front room and went on trying to keep their vows, for example. We need writers of imagination to help us understand what none of us will find it easy to grasp without assistance. Current Tudor historical fiction comforts us by assuring us that our thoughts are inevitable; the past is not a foreign country, but one where warm beer can be obtained if you know where to look. Mantel's Tudor era is alienating only because human beings are, and not in any more nuanced historical way.

In Bring Up The Bodies, we tumble fast into violent absolutism, 21st-century variety. Cromwell's improbably secularist sensibility is the precursor of a passion for state power. Why would anybody be afraid of change, just because change has placed Cromwell in command? As he becomes director of the terrible, bloody drama of Anne Boleyn's fall in 1536, we see exactly what there is to fear.

Mantel's Henry, with the band of pink sunburn in his forehead, is about to launch the destruction of another woman. "Cromwell," Henry says, "what if I. What if I were to fear, what if I were to begin to suspect, there is some flaw in my marriage to Anne, some impediment, something displeasing to Almighty God?" A few broken words, uttered hesitantly, and the heads will fall.

Bring Up The Bodies is about interrogation, about the minds Cromwell seeks to rule by dread, not pain. Henry Norris wrongly believes rank will protect him: "You will not put gentlemen to the torture, the king would not permit it." Cromwell replies: "I could put my thumbs in your eyes, and then you would sing 'Green Grows the Holly' if I asked you to." "Are you threatening me with the rack?", asks George Boleyn. Cromwell answers, "I didn't rack Thomas More, did I? I sat in a room with him... here at the Tower, such as the one you occupy."

Others have compared Mantel's Cromwell to Stalin's Beria, or to O'Brien in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, but neither of these strikes quite the right note. In these scenes, Cromwell is Jeremy Bentham, peering through the prison of the panopticon into the guarded thoughts and dreams of men, turning minds into lenses. By renouncing the rack, Cromwell becomes more and not less oppressive, more and not less invasive and intrusive. An actual racking might prompt resistance and even courage; Cromwell offers nothing to fear but fear itself.

Mantel's style is a treat. Anyone bored with the lean, mean style imposed by creative-writing schools will revel in her lush metaphors. I can't love Mantel's insistent present tense, which creates immediacy at the expense of narrative, but it brings the characters into close-up, with a concomitant loss of overall perspective. Sometimes her writing is overtly at odds with her historical agenda, and such moments are often her best. "Anne was wearing, that day, rose pink and dove grey. The colours should have had a fresh maidenly charm; but all he could think of were stretched innards, umbles and tripes. Grey-pink intestines looped out of a living body; he had a second batch of recalcitrant friars to be dispatched to Tyburn, to be slit up and gralloched by the hangman. They were traitors and deserved the death, but it is a death exceeding most in its cruelty."

This is a Cromwell who no longer even asks himself if opposing the Act of Supremacy is really treason. Does Mantel want us to think he is stupid, or callous, or both? Or does she not want us to think of such questions; are the umbles and innards mere set-dressing? Philip Larkin said once à propos James Bond that we believe Hugo Drax will nuke London because he wears a Patek Philippe watch. The amassing of irrelevant detail makes historical fiction seem real, and also makes it dangerous, because we believe it for reasons not connected with any weighing of evidence but as children do, mouths open. We will believe anything. We will, like Henry, believe in Anne's behaviour, turning "about and about in the bed", the body of experience.

The events we have all been expecting rush breathlessly on all of us. Anne goes to the Tower, and so do her father and her brother. Cromwell needs guilty men, and he rounds up those who have mocked his own late master Wolsey. It is karmic justice and horrifying reading. The swirling fear, the claustrophobia of knowing that the game is over, that it is too late, that protectors are deserting, is compelling like a bad motorway pile-up in fog.

The most wrenching moment Mantel contrives is Anne's neck-speech, protracted, hoping against hope that a reprieve might come. Anne's sexual magnetism doesn't survive in Cromwell's chill rememberings, but her pathos does, and it sticks to Cromwell too, saying an early modern version of "I only obeyed orders." It is for us to condemn or pardon him.

Diane Purkiss teaches at Keble College, Oxford; her books include 'The English Civil War: A People's History'

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