If Anne Boleyn appears on the scene, the reader frequently wants to know: does the novelist find her guilty, or innocent? Victim, plotter, or some combination of the two? In Hilary Mantel's sequel to Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies, these questions prove entirely irrelevant. We have no access to Anne except through Cromwell's POV, and Cromwell's primary motivations in this novel are serving his king, who wants Anne gone, and serving his own need for vengeance against those men who mocked his beloved former employer, Cardinal Wolsey. "'All the players gone,'" one character remarks, neatly summing up the plot's outcome, "'All four who carried the cardinal to Hell; and also the poor fool Mark who made a ballad of their exploits'" (400). Readers familiar with the scholarship on Anne will recognize traces of it quietly surfacing and subsiding--Retha Warnicke's suggestion that Anne might have been persecuted as a witch, for example, which appears as one of the manifold reasons for bringing down the queen. But Mantel's Anne remains tantalizingly out of reach. The Constable of the Tower, William Kingston, is puzzled by her willingness to receive the Eucharist, for "surely she would not do [...] if she were guilty?" (392); Cromwell, meanwhile, keeps seeing things like "knives" when he looks at her (38). This opacity about Anne's beliefs, motives, and ultimately acts never comes clear. We are not even allowed to hear Anne's self-defense, in which she demonstrated that some of the charges against her were chronologically impossible. In the end, though, Anne herself does not matter. Cromwell's ability to weave an airtight fiction about her does.
In that sense, this novel--leaner and tauter than Wolf Hall, but also talkier, now that Cromwell is no longer young--is far more openly self-aware about itself as a historical novel than its predecessor. Relatively early on, Henry VIII tells Cromwell, with considerable self-satisfaction, "'I can do as it pleases me [...] God would not allow my pleasure to be contrary to his design, nor my designs to be impeded by his will'" (58). Bring up the Bodies juxtaposes the monarch's fantasy of perfect free agency, of living in a self-driven plot entirely aligned with the divine "will," with Cromwell's intricate plotting--in both senses of the term . For Henry VIII, the monarch's "pleasure" is inextricable from history's unfolding, for all intents and purposes is history. He need not be self-conscious about himself as a character in God's providential story, for what he does can only be what God wants, and vice-versa. In practice, the king is less of an independent agent than he believes. ("If he wants a wife, fix him one," the spirit of Wolsey mutters in Cromwell's head. "I didn't, and I am dead" .) It is the job of his servants to think in terms of making and remaking the king's reality, and Cromwell is the novel's chief artificers, always fixated on human beings as both storytellers and characters. "It's interesting, George Boleyn's version of his life" (60), Cromwell reflects (with some irony) at one point, aware that he, too, figures as an apparently passive figure in someone else's tale. But even though Cromwell's POV is necessarily limited, he comes far closer than the king to the state of omniscient narrator: after all, "[t]he affairs of the whole realm are whispered in his ear, and so plural are his offices under the Crown that the great business of England, parchment and roll awaiting stam and signet, is pushed or pulled across his desk, to himself or from himself" (71). It is Cromwell who can see the farthest into past, present, and future, who can admit to himself that the Princess Mary is "the future" (89), and who, much more ominously, can pick up a fleeting insinuation from George Boleyn's sinister wife that will "affix itself and adhere to certain sentences of his own, not yet formed" (96).
And here the past grows malleable, for, far more than the king, Cromwell makes history. Although Cromwell thinks her as almost his own double--"[e]verything she does is calculated, like everything he does" (204)--Anne Boleyn's fatal mistake, in fact, is to believe that she is equally capable of doing the same. "'Since my coronation, there is a new England,'" Anne tells Cromwell. "'It cannot subsist without me.'" To which boast, Cromwell silently replies, "Not so, madam [...] If need be, I can separate you from history" (110). Anne imagines herself part of the modern national body, a kind of new Eve in a revitalized (Protestant) English paradise; Cromwell, whose day-to-day work is all about modernization, sees history as something constantly in flux, amenable to careful handling. Sometimes, these changes are merely a shift in perspective, as when Cromwell learns that his abusive father saved him from criminal prosecution; how, he repeatedly muses to himself, should he re-envision their relationship, under those circumstances? Or should he? At other times, though, the past can be deliberately reworked. Both he and Anne are the constant subject of unfortunate rumors, but Cromwell can afford to be amused by the accumulation of increasingly fantastic tales about his deviltry, none of which can be marshaled into a coherent story. The same is not true for the rumors about Anne. "What is the nature of the border between truth and lies?" somebody wonders (perhaps Cromwell, perhaps a different narrator). "It is permeable and blurred because it is planted thick with rumour, confabulation, misunderstandings, and twisted tales" (159). Cromwell's ability to make a desirable past, as it were, derives from his ability to operate precisely in this liminal space. "Of course, it never happened," he cheerfully tells someone about the king's apparent death in a jousting accident (173). The king believes that his "pleasure" and God's will coincide perfectly; Cromwell, making no such grandiose claims for himself, tells stories that will appear real enough to suit present needs.
There have been debates about the ethics of historical fiction since historical fiction has been around. One could argue that Cromwell models exactly the kind of narrative that opponents of historical fiction have always denounced: the sensationalized tale of private crime, mucking about with the images of history's heroes. Cromwell thinks to himself at one point that "[i]f he acts against Anne he hopes for a cleaner way" (223), but the narrative he puts together is unavoidably dirty. Anne's relationship with Harry Percy, revised once to suit the king, Cromwell now revises again to suit the king in a very different way (251); Anne's cousin Mary Shelton "does not know what she has witnessed" when Anne quarrels with Henry Norris, but Cromwell hears "treason" (260); Anne's brother George visits Anne in private, and Cromwell finds a "'crime against nature'" (267). As I said in the beginning, it makes no difference at all to the narrative if any of these things are true. Cromwell understands verisimilitude: from the wispiest of evidence (the charge of incest explicitly derives from things neither seen nor heard), he can craft a fine realist narrative that certainly appears to refer to the world beyond itself. If obvious referents do not immediately present themselves, then he can force them into being. Thinking of Mark Smeaton, Cromwell observes that "[i]f he told the truth about Anne, he is guilty. If he lied about Anne, he is hardly innocent" (282); every possible option rebounds to the benefit of the particular tale he wants to tell. Cromwell takes guilt and innocence, unanchors them from commonsensical notions of their meaning, and reframes them. As he pithily sums it up to himself, "He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged" (330). However, the tale will be to the audience's liking; the king will buy. Buying, of course, means real-world effects: Cromwell's fiction becomes historical reality, at least until it is eventually unpacked, some centuries down the road.
Here, though, is where things break down. Cromwell prides himself that he is essential: "Let them try to pull him down. They will find him armoured, they will find him entrenched, they will find him stuck like a limpet to the future" (406). And yet, what the reader hears at this moment is Anne Boleyn, insisting on her organic oneness with the new England. Cromwell the storyteller is not, after all, omnisciently telling his own tale; he cannot hear the echo that predicts his coming destruction, any more than he registers the greater significance of his own admission that he and Anne are very similar. A novel's narrator may aspire to figurative godhood, but Cromwell turns out to be a limited point-of-view, in more ways than one.
 Although she doesn't develop the point, Frances Wilson puts her finger on it when she suggests that "his job was to edit Henry's plots: to erase his queen, cancel his inconvenient daughters and terminate those chapters in the narrative which were getting tedious."