When Hilary Mantel's new book opens, the spark has gone out of Henry VIII's second marriage. His roving eye leaves Anne Boleyn and begins to settle on Jane Seymour, another woman at court. The monarch doesn't go to a marriage counselor or divorce lawyer, not when Thomas Cromwell is his chief adviser.
Bring Up the Bodies is the sequel to Wolf Hall, which won the Man Booker Prize and worldwide acclaim. It is also the latest in a planned trilogy about Cromwell.
Historically, Cromwell is considered a dangerous and unscrupulous bully. In Mantel's books, he is — like any other man — much more than his reputation.
"He's a work in progress, as far as I'm concerned. I'm far from being able to add him up. I'm not even trying at this point," Mantel tells Weekend Edition host Scott Simon.
She says some people expected the follow-up to Wolf Hall to be about Cromwell's fall, since the first book narrated his rise.
"But actually it's not like that at all. He will go on and on rising in the world until he becomes Earl of Essex," Mantel says, "and then his fall, when it came in 1540 — long after the action of this present book — was very, very sudden. In a few weeks, it was all over."
Mantel says Cromwell knows how to "work" the king — but only does so up to a point.
"Because, in the end, Henry needs to be told the truth, and he needs someone strong who can stand up to him," she says.
The king's attraction to Seymour was puzzling to his contemporaries, Mantel says. They had known each other for years, so it wasn't love at first sight.
"But contemporaries said maybe it's because he's such a contrast to Anne Boleyn ... She was sexy, and she knew she was sexy, and she knew how to work life her way," Mantel says. "Jane was muted, she was soft, a complete opposite sort of woman ... In Jane, he saw the woman who would reflect him back at twice his size."
In the midst of this story, Cromwell tries, unsuccessfully, to pass an employment law through the parliament. Cromwell, Mantel says, looked at the endemic poverty across rural England and saw that people didn't have work. At the same time, the country needed infrastructure. He proposed putting the two together.
"But the state [would] have to finance it, and the way he seemed to be proposing to finance it was by imposing income tax," Mantel says. "But parliament did not like that. They comprehensively trashed his measure. But he was, in lots of ways, a man ahead of his time in thinking of the relationships between the state and society. It all seems startlingly modern."
She says she wants her readers to try and put themselves in Cromwell's position and find turning points they would have handled differently.
"But I myself think that Thomas Cromwell's end was written into the beginning," Mantel says.
The nobility felt they should have his job, and he was envied by his colleagues. Even the common people eyed him with suspicion, believing such a "low-born" man rose to eminence through sorcery.
"His only friend, really, was the king, and the moment the king turned against him, then it was all over," Mantel says. "But the marvelous thing about it is that he managed to keep on winning for so long. And I hope the reader will take pleasure in watching him do so."