IN READING or writing, Hilary Mantel has always been drawn to the moment of change. Here’s one of them.
It’s the end of a wet summer, and Henry VIII is at Wolf Hall, the Wiltshire home of Lady Jane Grey. Thomas Cromwell is upstairs going through his papers. From a window he spies the king taking Lady Jane for a walk in the garden. He can see them talking, but can’t guess what his royal master is saying. So he goes back to his letters. A battle in Europe has left 50,000 dead, says one. His coat will be arriving tomorrow, says another.
Something draws him back to the window. The king’s head looks bigger, but it could be a wobble in the glass. He seems to be acting differently too.
A romantic novelist, Mantel pointed out, would have take the reader down to the garden straight into that new couple’s hearts. She can’t. What she has got to do is to dissolve hindsight, to make that couple’s – and Cromwell’s – present every bit as ambiguous and their futures every bit as open as our own.
James Runcie’s skilful interview of Mantel drew out that one scene into something more than a masterclass in the writing of historical fiction, though it was that too. Instead, the audience caught a glimpse not just of the depth of her fascination with Cromwell but all the research and tricks of technique she uses to bring him to life.
Of course, we all know how the story will end in the next book – bloodily, with an axe, in 1540 – in a scene that will almost mirror the opening of the first book. “But readers won’t know the tortuous and convoluted way we get there,” Mantel pointed out. “All the time I’m trying to hold contingency back, to encourage the reader to be complicity with the characters.” It’s still early days, but I find it hard to believe that I’ll see a more engrossing event this book festival.
And will any be a more enjoyable than the one with Val McDermid and forensic anthropologist Sue Black? The tent rocked with laughter at the banter between two old friends, but it was enlightening too. Did you realise, for example, that most people’s DNA is already on record (the Guthrie test after hospital births)? That DNA tests on teeth can reveal roughly where we were born? Or – get this – that McDermid is rewriting Northanger Abbey?
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Weather for Edinburgh
Tuesday 21 May 2013
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