Joanna Mathers talks with Booker winning author Hilary Mantel about her latest 16th century epic
The end is a beginning. Sword severing neck, arms wide, tiny body stomach down in pool of blood. A French executioner and a job well done. Anne Boleyn's head is bundled in clothand secreted away by a veiled woman who shudders at its weight.
Having done his job, Thomas Cromwell is hungry. Executions are dirty work but necessary. Killing a queen is new but he's a man of appetite and there is food and wine at hand. His earthly hungers will end soon enough. But they'll be no razor-sharp sword for this man of blood and books. Nothing so elegant.
This isn't a spoiler, it's historical fact. In Hilary Mantel's trilogy Wolf Hall, Bring Up the
Bodies and new release The Mirror and the Light, Cromwell is the axis around which the
novels spin. And his end is gruesome.
The son of a blacksmith, born in 1485, Cromwell made his way, via France, to Italy in the
company of French mercenaries. Here, around 1503, he was rescued, starving, from the
streets and moved into the service of a Florentine banker, before returning to England. In
his homeland, he became a top lawyer, his reputation made in the services of Cardinal
Wolsey, before becoming a favourite of Henry VIII.
His life is heady stuff and Mantel has woven it into a glorious epic. For fans that have
waited eight long years for the final instalment of Cromwell's life, it's unlikely to
The Mirror and the Light begins with Boleyn's death, juxtaposed against Cromwell's hunger. It's as visceral and jarring as the rest of the series: sex, death, hunger and intimacy played out in the backdrop of Henry VIII's court.
Two-time Booker Prize winner (for Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies) Mantel has spent the past decade-and-a-half ensconced in the 16th century. An exhaustive researcher with a commitment to history fidelity, her books are full of the colour, intrigue (and horror) of life in Henry VIII's court.
Cromwell, she felt, had been overlooked by history. His master, King Henry VIII, is the source of perennial fascination but his chief minister had been largely ignored. Having become interested in him when she was student at a Cheshire convent school, Mantel wanted history to serve him better than the brutish fixer it had cast him as.
He was, after all, the orchestrator of so much English history: the brains behind the
annulment of Henry VIII's first marriage to Catherine of Aragon, the break from Rome and
the King's marriage to paramour Anne Boleyn.
Then later, the orchestrator of her execution and that of her five so-called lovers.
Given his bloody history, Cromwell's thuggish characterisation is understandable. But in
Mantel's hands, we are given a different man.
Her Cromwell delights in the small moments of domesticity, his wife and three children (of which only his son would outlive him). A man who has grafted his way out of poverty into power. A human. A mortal.
At 9am on a winter's morning in an apartment near London, Mantel answers the phone. Despite feeling like she has been doing the media rounds "for months", she's a delight with a lilting voice and is eager to converse. She stays in this apartment when she needs to be close to London: the rest of the year is spent in a quaint seaside village in Devon.
She says it's been a year since she "scrambled her way to the finish" of the book. "It was
the first of many finishes," she shares.
She worked over the last chapter extensively; and thought, once she'd submitted the work, that she would be awarded a brief pause.
"But the publishing process started immediately, so I didn't get a break."
The Mirror and the Light, at 882 pages, is the longest book in the series. It was also the
longest to write, being released nearly a decade after 2012's Bring Up the Bodies.
Given the depth of her research, the space between the final two books is unsurprising.
She is meticulous, to the point of having a card catalogue detailing Cromwell's likely location at any given time. This research, she says, allows her to add flesh to the facts of history. Reading between the lines of letters and contemporaneous documents gives tantalising glimpses of Cromwell's nature.
"The more you dig into the records, the more it helps you," she says. "Cromwell has been
slowly self-revealing. You find glimpses in records from other people. With this sort of
research, you need to cast your net very wide and investigate people who you may not
actually use in your book."
She says that the eyes of others "offer more vivid glimpses" of Cromwell.
"The more you read, the more you get a sense of who a person is. Research builds up
possibility and helps you to understand the texture of your subject."
There's a great pleasure, she says, discovering something and realising "I can use that".
She speaks of an early revelation, the use of a first name, that opened the door on
Cromwell's deep kinship with his mentor, Cardinal Wolsey.
"Before I started Wolf Hall I read a book by George Cavendish, who was a gentleman
servant in Wolsey's entourage. He was an eye witness to Wolsey's and Cromwell's
relationship, and in the telling of his story he reproduces a conversation in which Wolsey
says: 'Thomas Cromwell said ...'
"This was an era in which people used surnames, and this gave me a glimpse in the
closeness of their relationship."
Her findings informed the work of Cromwell's preeminent biographer Diarmaid MacCulloch, whose book 2018 Thomas Cromwell has been much lauded. "He told me that Wolf Hall made him rethink the relationship between Cromwell and Wolsey," she says.
"I think he was probably the most important figure in Cromwell's life: he was a father figure, really," she continues. "More important than Henry VIII."
Mantel lives far from the literary establishment. Immersed in her 16th century world, in her apartment by the sea in Devon (which according to New York Times seems like "a secular shrine to Tudor England, with shelves of books on Cromwell and his contemporaries and titles about medieval fashion, food and metallurgy") you wonder if the 21st century seems surreal.
"After a long period of writing, I do feel like I've been away," she says. "I don't have the
luxury of complete seclusion, sadly, so I'm never completely cut off. But when I sit at my
desk to work, it is a little like Alice falling down the rabbit hole."
Mantel's relative distance from the hubbub is partly due to a health condition with which
she's wrestled throughout her life. She suffered undiagnosed for years with a severe form of endometriosis, being prescribed tranquilisers and labelled mentally unwell, before a
diagnosis that meant the loss of her reproductive organs and a life without the possibility of children.
Being tiny and frail, the operation brought on early menopause and left her
bloated, struggling with weight. In her 2003 memoir Giving up the Ghost, she puzzles over whether her medical condition, and the attendant side effects of medication, have shaped her into a different form – whether biology has been as tyrannical to her as Henry VIII was to those who fell from favour.
She still suffers today, but doesn't let it stand in the way of her arduous schedule. The pain and the terrible mental symptoms are constant companions.
In Mantel's books, "ghosts" are everywhere. Ghosts of possibilities, ghosts of the past, children never born. After her operation left her unable to have children, she ponders in her biography:
"When you turn and look back down the years, you glimpse the ghosts of other lives you
might have led; all houses are haunted. The wraiths and phantoms creep under your carpets and between the warp and weft of fabric, they lurk in wardrobes and lie flat under drawerliners. You think of the children you might have had but didn't. When the midwife says, 'It's a boy,' where does the girl go?"
I ask her about ghosts; she was apparently visited by apparitions as a child. Was she
haunted by Thomas Cromwell or Ann Boleyn while writing her magnum opus; holding their heads, trailing blood?
"'Ghosts' was just the name I gave them when I was a child, and no, I didn't experience
visitations when I was writing the books. I do think that the dead are close by though. You
can't see the dead, but you can bring them to life with an active imagination."
Her book series may have ended but the relationship with her protagonist has not. She is
working on a stage play of The Mirror and the Light with Ben Miles, the actor who played
Cromwell in earlier Royal Shakespeare Company adaptations of Wolf Hall and Bringing up
She was on hand to inform his performance in the first two plays, the pair working so well
together that she decided to bring him on board to help recraft the story for stage.
Mantel says that she very much enjoys "going back to being a beginner" and learning the
skills of the stage.
"Production is far more collaborative than writing a novel and it's refreshing to work with a team. It's nice to get out of my room," she laughs.
She likes the immediacy of the work played out in front of her in the rehearsal room. "If
something needs fixing, you have to be there on the spot with answers."
After the stage play is complete, she says she has "a few novels partly written" but it's too early to say if they will be completed. She's admitted that it's unlikely she'll find another Cromwell, having been so intimately acquainted with him for so long.
I ask her if she "likes" him: a question she says is off (and maybe irrelevant), given her
relationship with the character.
"It's not really about 'liking' him. My job has been to put him where readers can see him. In a sense, I get behind his eyes, and see the world through them.
"I'm writing what I think Cromwell felt. He was an extremely ruthless man, a clever man,
personally kind and compassionate. I want me readers to ask themselves what they would
do in the same situation."
Mantel, when not "doing" Cromwell, spends time acting in her capacity as a governor of the Royal Shakespeare Company and being the president of a cricket team called "The Authors' Eleven".
"I'm a non-playing member of the team but I hope to show my face at some the matches
The Authors' Eleven compete against The Publishers Eleven and The Actors Eleven. I ask her who is top of the table. "Diplomacy decrees that I should not answer that question," she says, wryly.
She does, however, share that Damien Lewis, who played Henry VIII in the television
dramatisation of Wolf Hall is in The Actors Eleven. She loved the series.
"There will be another series, actually," she says. "Which should be out, at the earliest, by
Mantel fans will be heartened to here there is more to come from the 67-year-old. It will be interesting to see if The Mirror and the Light is her Man Booker trifecta – it's bound to fly off the shelves whatever the outcome.
Through her book series, Mantel has been able to achieve something both remarkable and rare– a reimagining of one of history's villains as a man of emotion and nuance. And for this, her legacy as one of the United Kingdom's greatest writers is assured.
The MIrror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel, $50, Fourth Estate/strong>