Interview: Hilary Mantel, author of Bring Up The Bodies
Man Booker winner Hilary Mantel tells David Robinson the secret of twisting long-dead characters into her readers’ minds
In 2005, Hilary Mantel was writing a novel set in Botswana, but she had become stuck. “It was frightening me to death,” she says. “I was beginning to get spooked by it and have nightmares.”
So she put it to one side and started writing the other book she’d promised her publishers. As soon as she had written the first page, she knew she was onto something. Actually, it was a lot more than that: a feeling every novelist dreams of but few experience. Straight away, she knew she had found her ideal subject, the man she now feels she was always meant to write about.
She had first come across him at convent school in Cheshire, in Mrs Marsland’s history class. When she helped her younger brother with his homework, there he was again, the villain in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons. And when, in 1977, she went to Botswana with her geologist husband, he was there too, hiding in the pages of George Cavendish’s Life of Wolsey which she took with her but which lay unopened on her shelves for two decades. She had always wanted to write about Thomas Cromwell, but life, illness, and all her other books kept getting in the way.
That first page grew to become Wolf Hall, the biggest selling Man Booker winner ever, a book that redefined what historical fiction can do. It took us right inside Cromwell’s skull and showed us his world – the alien and occasionally terrifying court of England’s King Henry VIII – in axe-sharp detail.
I read Wolf Hall long before the hype started and it swept onto more literary prize shortlists than any British novel has ever done. I wasn’t remotely surprised when it did so. Books of this quality are breathtakingly rare: you read them with a feeling akin to shock that anyone can so perfectly spark the dead back into life. Its sequel, Bring Up The Bodies, published this week, and about which she will be talking at the Borders Book Festival next month, is every bit as brilliant.
How, you wonder, does she do it? She gave part of the answer in the advice she gives to would-be writers in her memoir Giving Up the Ghost: “Stop spoonfeeding your reader. Give your reader credit for being the smartest you at least. Concentrate on sharpening your memory, unpeel your sensibility. Cut every page you write by at least one third. Stop constructing those piffling little similes of yours. Work out what it is that you want to say, then say it in the most direct and vigorous way you can. Eat meat. Drink blood. Give up your social life, and don’t think you can have friends. Rise in the quiet hours of the night and prick your fingertips and use the blood for ink.” But now that she has delivered the second book in what what will, it turns out to her mild surprise, be a trilogy, I want more particular answers. Just how is she able to twist historical fiction so firmly into her readers’ imagination? The answers lie in her own past.
We meet in the hotel at London’s Paddington station. Around us, businessmen are loudly setting up meetings and braying instructions to their subordinates. Tannoys echo in the station concourse outside. Through the frosted glass, commuters bustle by, heads down against the rain.
But I need to start this story in another continent It’s 1977, Hilary Mantel is 25 and has been married for three years. We are in Lobatse, the old capital of Bechuanaland, now Botswana, just over the border from apartheid South Africa.
But she is not writing about any of that, or about her job teaching Shakespeare to children who had never seen a play, or about her husband Gerald’s job as a geologist mapping the new country for diamonds, copper and water. Nor is she writing about the illness that has plagued her since she was 19, which doctors misdiagnosed wildly, first as mental illness and then as cancer, before, reading medical textbooks in Botswana, she realised that she was suffering from endometriosis.The illness was dangerously advanced before doctors confirmed she was right.
Instead, her head is filled with history, just as it has been for the last three years, after illness had derailed her first ambition to be a barrister. Back in Manchester, she had taken a job selling dresses and coats in a posh department store, but every weekend and every evening she was reading up on the French Revolution. “Looking back, it seems like a complete folly. I had no connections in publishing, didn’t know anyone who was a writer. But the only thing I had on my side was time and mental energy and self-belief.
“The beauty of the job at Kendal Milne was that it was in central Manchester. And if I ran, during my lunch hour I could get to the central library, look up something that was bugging me and get back, all within the hour. It meant that you didn’t eat, but that didn’t matter. In the job, there was a lot of standing around, so I was there, but not there: my head was somewhere else. And that’s where I got into the whole business of writing in my head. I could write a whole paragraph in my head, take it apart and polish it up. Which is still quite useful.”
In Botswana, to where she and Gerald moved in 1977, there was no comparable library to run to, nor of course, any internet. But she had three years’ worth of notes and a story to finish. From the start she knew that A Place of Greater Safety would have to be a mammoth work – at 350,000 words, more than three times the length of the average novel – and consequently harder to find a publisher.
And so, in the evenings, on the jacaranda-shaded verandah of a detached bungalow on 42 Main Street, Lobatse, opposite the school where she taught George Eliot to boys who might have spent the previous year on cattle trails or in the mines across the border, Hilary Mantel started writing historical fiction.
Why? Maybe it was down to Clare Marsland, who had taught her history at Harrytown Convent in Cheshire for five years. In an article Mantel wrote for the Times Education Supplement, she noted that when she arrived at the school, she’d had a poor primary education and a childhood made miserable by a stepfather who alternated between long silences and sudden explosions of rage. Unhappy at home, she needed a refuge, a place of safety. But Mrs Marsland recognised that she could write, and encouraged her intellectual curiosity about a subject to which she had “always had an almost emotional response”. By comparison, she tells me, her English teacher made no impact at all.
Mrs Marsland didn’t act out the past for her convent girls, but she did show its complexity, its intertwining threads of causality. “She would come in, put down her notes and talk,” she explains. “Fascinatingly, she treated us all as if we were adults. Consequently, she never had any discipline problems.” At O-Level, they studied the French Revolution. “There wasn’t a moment when I was writing my first novel when I wasn’t thinking of her.”
In A Place of Greater Safety, Mantel “took Robespierre as a moral compass – perversely, some people thought”, Robespierre has always been damned as the incarnation of the Terror in British historiography; to Mantel, he was an incorruptible politician, always trying to do the right thing even if abysmally failing. Thomas Cromwell wasn’t remotely like that, even if his reputation has been similarly blackened by posterity. But writing about him felt the same. “They do become as real as living people,” she tells me. “They are so much part of your own psyche. I do feel that they change you.”
You can tell that from the way in which Mantel writes about Cromwell. Ostensibly, it’s in the third person, but it feels as though it’s in the first. She has mastered the history – and that other, even harder art, of doing so without snowing her readers with the fruits of her research – and then worked out from it precisely where and how she can best get inside Cromwell’s mind. She won’t twist the facts, or ignore them: instead, what she writes will imaginatively add to them.
She gives me an example. Cromwell, the protégé of Cardinal Wolsey and Henry VIII’s chief enforcer, was notoriously a hard man, not easily given to displays of emotion. Yet in Wolf Hall, there’s a scene in which a courtier, George Cavendish, comes across Cromwell crying in a corridor with a prayerbook in his hand. We know that actually happened on All Souls Day, 1530: it’s in Cavendish’s biography of Wolsey.
“This is what I love about historical fiction,” Mantel tells me, her eyes gleaming with enthusiasm. “George tells it through his eyes as he is coming down the corridor towards Cromwell. I can switch it around and have Cromwell see Cavendish coming down the corridor towards him and saying to himself ‘Let not George Cavendish talk to me’. Suddenly as I wrote that, I saw what was blindingly obvious but is never realised. Because it’s All Souls Day. It’s the day you pray for your dead family. So although Cromwell says he is crying for the loss of his career after Wolsey’s death, he is probably crying for a lot more than that – for his wife and daughters who had been lost to the plague.
“My account doesn’t take away from the history books; I am dependent on historians for my research and I am always very careful to acknowledge my debt to a couple of dozen Tudor historians. But my job is essentially to put all their stuff side by side to identify the crossovers and the inconsistencies – and where there is a gap, to see, with all the information that I have got, how I can bridge it. But I am only anxious to build on what is plausible, not to imagine wildly without basis.”
That gap is bridgeable because history doesn’t tell us everything. It doesn’t tell us the power of rumour, so Mantel can throw in the story of Cromwell’s collusion in the poisoning of Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, leaving it to the reader to wonder, just as Cromwell’s contemporaries would have done, whether he was involved. Nor does it tell us just how swiftly a royal pregnancy, or miscarriage, or even the injury to the king in a jousting tournament could all shift the ground under the courtiers’ feet, leading to fears of imminent civil war and sudden fretful, wary, dangerous alliances.
All of this mightn’t perhaps have been taught in Mrs Marsland’s history classes, but it is something that her brightest pupil understands perfectly. Her novelist’s eye takes in all of the possibilities that the historical record allows, but allows her to give them her own twist. So when the Duke of Norfolk bursts into Ann Boleyn’s chambers to tell her – wrongly, as it turns out – that the king has died in a tourney, and when the shock leads to her miscarriage just a week after Catherine of Aragon’s death, this is how the tale gets told: “The old queen has reached out and shaken Ann’s child free, so that it is brought untimely into the world and no bigger than a rat.” This isn’t, in other words, the Sunday night TV costume drama version of Tudor history but something more darkly imagined, more bloodily visceral. And far, far more compelling.
She started the follow-up to Wolf Hall intending it to lead right up to Cromwell’s execution in 1540: even when she wrote that first paragraph about Cromwell being beaten up by his father, a drunken Blackheath blacksmith (“One blow, properly placed, could kill him now”) she knew that it could have a virtually identical ending.
In the new book, though, she needed to slow down time. “It is no small enterprise,” Cromwell observes, “to bring down a queen of England.” And it isn’t. The plotting – Cromwell’s as well as Mantel’s – to bring down Anne Boleyn has to be both tight and intricate. And after her execution, Mantel realised, the reader couldn’t just calmly carry onto the next episode. The curtain had to come down until the next – and this time, she says mournfully – definitely final book.
If Wolf Hall was about Cromwell’s rise to power and the state-ordained religious revolution that turned Catholic England inside out, Bring Up The Bodies is about survival, intrigue – and revenge.
Again, look how Mantel weaves her story from the historical record. In Wolf Hall, a masque was staged at Hampden Court in front of the king showing four devils carrying off Cardinal Wolsey to Hell. No history book can tell us who they were, but in Wolf Hall, Cromwell sees the courtiers’ laughing faces as they take off their devil masks. He knows who they were, these four courtiers who brought down his master. And, tasked by Henry to prove Anne Boleyn’s infidelity, he will have his revenge on each and every one of them. “Bring up the Bodies”, goes the order to the Tower of London. The bodies brought up to execution will be theirs.
Mantel’s novel is, I think, nothing less than England’s Godfather: it is every bit as epic and dramatic and tightly focused. It probably won’t win the same dazzling array of literary prizes as Wolf Hall, but only because sequels tend not to. But if anything, it’s even more compelling.
In the blistering, close-written scenes that this one has in which Cromwell interrogates the courtiers, you can’t help catching echoes of the barrister Mantel would have been by now if endometriosis hadn’t blighted her life. This, perhaps, is her own revenge against that illness, as brilliantly thought-out as any of Cromwell’s own Macchiavellian manoeuvrings.
Or does it go even further back? Perhaps it does. To history lessons in a Cheshire convent school in which a teacher helped give back a poor, working-class girl from a troubled family a new sense of self-belief. For it wasn’t just the French Revolution that Hilary Mantel learned about in Mrs Marsland’s history classes. It was Thomas Cromwell too.
• Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel is published this week by 4th Estate, price £20. She will be talking about the book at the Borders Book Festival in Melrose on 16 June at 6pm. Tickets £13 (£11 concs) on 0844 357 1060 and www.bordersbookfestival.org.
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