Memory Lane: Hilary Mantel

I’ll put up the links to what’s in The Mag a little bit later, but I found this while rifling through my inbox so thought I’d put up the easier post first. Hilary Mantel fans, enjoy!

So three years ago, when The Tudors was turning our brains into potatoes with its version of Henry VIII’s England (what can I say? So not a fan) and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall came to save the day, I’d interviewed Mantel for Time Out Mumbai. I can’t find the link to my article in the Time Out website She was a very generous interviewee, which meant I was only able to use excerpts of her replies.  Here’s the unedited interview.

‘Who’s interested in what’s easy?’

DP: You’ve written short stories, memoirs and novels. Is there something in particular that made you interested in tackling historical fiction? Did you enjoy the research process?

HILARY MANTEL: Looking back, I think that writing my memoir was a kind of training ground for future novels, and something that was good for me as a writer. There are people who insist that almost all your memories of childhood are later reconstructions,but what I found when writing my memoir was that my childhood rose before me as an utter sensory wraparound, so that I was able to inhabit my past, and my work was to simply describe it. When you write fiction, the object is to achieve that on behalf of a character that you’ve invented or a person who is dead. I don’t think I’ve ever managed to do it as successfully, in fiction, as I have in Wolf Hall.

What I also found when writing Giving Up the Ghost was that whilst I could capture the entirety of my childhood experiences, I often couldn’t tell the reader why things happened, or how the event I was describing linked to another, and I think I carried this discovery into Wolf Hall. When Cromwell remembers an incident from his childhood – for example, he recalls plunging the head of another boy into a butt of water – he has no idea why he did it, and I knew from my own experience that these gaps and holes are part of the texture of memory. In this book I was determined to reproduce a life from the inside. I thought, ‘Let us try to see a man in his full complexity. Even if there are bits that he himself doesn’t understand and can’t add up, let me still include them.

The Tudors are the great national soap opera; their story has been worked over so extensively that we see it as having a kind of inevitable, predetermined quality about it, so I needed to find a way of telling the story that would create an immediacy of viewpoint and cancel out the preconceptions we were brought up with. In writing the opening scene, of the boy being beaten up by his father, I was simply launched into the present tense. And I stayed with it because it was a way for me to capture the soundtrack inside Cromwell’s head – the immediacy of his experience. Also, though we may know how it all ends, Henry and his court didn’t. They didn’t know that the War of the Roses had ended; because the Tudor claim was weak, they dreaded that civil war might break out again. Henry didn’t know he would have six wives – even when he married number five, he couldn’t have known it. The present tense forbids hindsight and propels us forward through this world, making it new, just as it was, in every unfolding moment, for the players.

DP: Of all the characters in Henry VIII’s England, why Thomas Cromwell?

HM: I first came across him when I was a child learning history in a Catholic school. I grew up with the sainted Thomas More looking down from stained-glass windows. As I am a contrarian, it made me ask whether there was more to Cromwell’s story than just his opposition to More, and I carried that question with me. When I began writing, I registered him in my mind as a potential subject. This would have been in the 1970s, before I’d finished my first novel. There seemed to be a lot of blanks in his story, and it wasn’t easy to find out anything about him, but it’s in those gaps that the novelist goes to work.

When I began writing Wolf Hall, it was the arc of Cromwell’s story, the transformation from blacksmith’s son to Earl of Essex, that fascinated me. I wondered, ‘How is that done?’ You’ve got to try to answer that question – it’s the very kind of question that novels are for. But what made me sure that I could work with him, so to speak, was a letter he wrote to a friend in the 1520s, when he was an MP. It is a huge rhetorical description of the course of Parliament and all the business it dealt with, which finishes with a simple, and totally deflationary,line. I paraphrase: ‘And at the end of it, absolutely nothing changed.’ The wry humour in that letter showed me there was a personality that I could write about.

I started out more or less accepting the estimate of him as a villain, but I thought he must be an interesting one. His astonishing rise in the world fascinated me. As I read his letters and better understood his mind, I saw that he had a radical vision of English society and yet he was also somebody who hammered every detail into place. In his adroitness of mind and the completeness of imagination he stands head and shoulders above his contemporaries.

Another thing that drew me was Cromwell’s will, which he wrote towards the end of the 1520s. When you’ve seen somebody’s life so minutely taken apart,when you know who’s going to get his books and who’s going to get his second-best gelding, and you know the names of the people in his household,you become part of that life. You see his daily existence and routine and his whole system of orienting to the world. Seeing the will was like being able to go into Cromwell’s house and take photographs.

DP: The Tudors have received a fair amount of attention, particularly because of the films and television series its inspired. How do you feel about these glamourised versions?

HM: These stories have an archetypical force. A lot of retellings of Tudor history aren’t really about Tudor history at all. They’re about sex and violence and the war between men and women. The story of the Tudors is just a veneer and I think they’ve been used as an excuse for a lot of cheap popular romantic fiction. It used to be a way of writing about sex when you weren’t allowed to, and now it’s a way of writing about the destructiveness of families, and the rivalry between women.

I wanted to actually engage with Thomas Cromwell, whose story isn’t very much told. I wanted to get away from the feminist slant on it. I don’t see any reason why—just because I’m a woman writer—I have to confine myself to writing about Anne Boleyn. No reason I shouldn’t take on Thomas Cromwell. He’s a man at the center of everything, and yet in most fiction and drama he’s pushed into the wings, and he stands there, wrapped in his black cloak, hissing and plotting. I wanted to bring him center stage and put the spotlight on him. So I thought it was legitimate to have another go, even though the story has been told so often, because a different angle makes the whole picture different.

DP: There’s been talk in some British newspapers of introducing more historical fiction in school syllabi since the success of Wolf Hall. What do you think is the importance of historical fiction? Do you think the blurring of the boundary between history and fiction is problematic?

HM: It’s always a tension. When historians read your book they think, “Why did she leave out such and such?’’ and when literary critics read it they think, “Why did she bother to put it in?’’ You just keep your eye on the general reader, who is you by proxy. The novelist has a responsibility to adhere to the facts as closely as possible, and if they are inconvenient, that’s where the art comes in. You must work with intractable facts and find the dramatic shape inside them.

When I started writing fiction, I began with historical fiction. I’ve written a big book called “A Place of Greater Safety” which is about the French Revolution. It wasn’t published first, but it was where I started, so working with facts and data is natural to me. What I had to learn to do is to invent things. I really became a novelist in the course of writing “A Place of Greater Safety.” I try to stick with the facts until the facts run out. I don’t try to improve on the facts.

You can see from the television drama “The Tudors.” Every time they take one decision that’s contrary to the way things really happened, there’s a cascade of consequences, and in the end, the story becomes complete nonsense. Perhaps you’ve left out a vital character, or you’ve given someone a different name because you don’t trust the viewer’s or the reader’s intelligence. The most crass example was that Henry VIII had two sisters, and they decided to roll them into one, but once you take that kind of decision it ripples through everything you’re going to write thereafter.

DP: I believe you’re working on a sequel to Wolf Hall. Does Thomas Cromwell remain the hero?

HM: I’m longing to be back in the thick of the action. Partly it’s because I want to know what’s going to happen next. When I write, there are often times when I go into a scene not quite sure what I think, knowing that the problem I have to solve revolves around one question, ‘How did this happen?’ And by the end of the scene I have an answer, because it’s happened on the page. So I am looking forward to getting back to those puzzles in the new book.

Also, I’ve been so heartened by the way in which Wolf Hall has been received. There’s always the danger with historical fiction that it may fall short as both literature and history. I knew when I took on this project that it was going to be a very difficult thing to do. But, ha! Who’s interested in what’s easy?

What I have got at the moment is a huge box of notes.


8 thoughts on “Memory Lane: Hilary Mantel”

      1. i sure am. does wolf hall end well? or is it all medieval grimness & depression?

  1. Forgive me, but I’m going to have to get on my soapbox. It would be just a smidgeon closer to ok for you to be lookist if you expect authors irrespective of gender to be easy on the eye. But only a smidgeon. Mantel has a complicated medical condition that is responsible for much of what looks monstrous to you. The rest of the credit for her unpleasant appearance can go to the photographer.
    That’s not really the point though. The point is, more often than not we don’t even think of pointing out a male author’s looks unless there’s that incredibly rare situation where he is actually good looking. In fact, usually, we do our best to find plus points in a mediocre to bad male appearance. There’ll be talk about “intelligent eyes” instead of receding hairlines, of how engaging his smile is instead of the not-so-flat tummy. No such allowances for women. Regardless of what she does or who’s doing the viewing, the first thing is to judge her appearance. That’s how conditioned we are to boiling a woman down to her vital statistics. Which is effing infuriating. This is a woman who’s won the Booker. Twice. In a row. She’s the last person who should be rated for prettiness.

    Ok, off the soapbox.

    Wolf Hall ends as well as life in Tudor England could end, but I’d recommend Bring Up The Bodies. Wolf Hall was sprawling and slack in parts. It took a while to get going. Bring Up The Bodies is tight and pacy. I loved it. The really miserable ending is going to be in the third part. Sigh.

    1. yes yes yes of course you are right, in general. Lookism is bad, it’s what’s inside that counts blah blah blah Yes. No one could disagree. And I wish I wasn’t lookist, but I am. I wish I could see part someones bad photo like some saint but I can’t. At least not at first glance.

      At the most I can do is pretend in real life as I would hope people will pretend when they look at me. Because, undoubtedly they do.

      But I take offence that I am more lookist towards women than men.

      1. The majority of my lookism is mainly reserved for the male sex. (Now you will scold for sexism. What can I say. Men revolt me. The hair, the balding, the testicals, the podhuness.)

      If you look around most women are with men significantly less attractive than they are. Let me just say, this infuriates me. Frankly I just can’t understand how more women aren’t gay.

      “There’ll be talk about “intelligent eyes” instead of receding hairlines, of how engaging his smile is instead of the not-so-flat tummy. ”

      No no no oh my god no.

      When I look at S. Rushdie, with his greasy strips of hair plastered on his scalp and then at his pretty wives (ex?) it actually turns my stomach. Or Woody Allen with his crumpled towel face and child lover/s. (I don’t know how that filthy peedo’s utterly tedious movies are still being made) Or Bernie Ecclestone and his towering series of interchangeable brides. (ok so Bernie isn’t an author but still he’s a man and I’m a lookist.)

      So, no. I don’t expect it just from female authors. Or even females in general. the bias is entirely on the other foot.

      2. i’m afraid I’m not high brow enough to care how many bookers she’s won. Consider my usual trash reading material. It’s a bad photo maybe, perhaps its just the dead expression in her eyes. I can’t tell.

      But even your delicious soapbox scold doesn’t make her photo any less scary.

      I dont think I can handle miserable endings. I’ll pass.

      I wish there was a website with a list of books and just a little note if the endings are good-happy, bad-happy or good-tragic & bad-tragic. No synopsis or plot. Just those 4 tags.

  2. I didn’t mean that you were particularly sexist. I meant that it would be better if you were lookist without a gender bias. And I’m glad you’re more demanding when it comes to men’s looks.

  3. Indeed it would, but since you are, please continue to be more lookist towards men than women.

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