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Hilary Mantel

The queen of historical fiction

Text by Seb Emina
Portraits by Alasdair McLellan
Issue nº 21, Spring & Summer 2020

Dame Hilary Mantel believes history is not separate from living people but a thing that we are in, a notion the writer’s global fan base, counting down to the release this spring of The Mirror & the Light, understands. This is the final instalment of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, a Herculean literary feat that’s single-handedly revived the reputation of historical fiction.

While an industry ponders whether this book will follow Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies to win Hilary, 67, a third Booker Prize, a new generation of readers around the world is learning from her meticulously researched novels of the curious hold the Tudor era has had on the English – then and now.

It is 12 December 2019. Rain is sweeping across England, along the way rattling the window of an apartment belonging to Hilary Mantel and her husband, Gerald. More than anything, this heightens a cosy atmosphere: carpet underfoot, ornaments neatly arranged, tea from the pot. “Let me get you a biscuit or something,” says the author of the most anticipated novel of 2020.

We are in Sunningdale, a 53-minute train journey from London Waterloo. This morning Hilary emailed some directions in which she described the facade of the building as “vaguely Tudor”. And so it was: white paint, timber beams, quaint windows, steep angles. That doesn’t, by the way, count as compromising information. Tudor revival architecture (that’s the formal term for mock Tudor) is a ubiquitous sight in the towns and villages of Berkshire. It does look quite nice, but you shouldn’t say that at parties.

It’s also a neat demonstration of how the Tudor era exerts a curious hold on our culture, a fascination that Hilary has tapped into with a level of success both astonishing and justified. In writing Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the first two novels in her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell – who rose from nothing to become one of Henry VIII’s most powerful courtiers – she almost single-handedly revived the reputation of historical fiction as a serious genre. The books have sold more than 5 million copies between them. They have made her the first woman (the fourth person overall) to win the Booker Prize twice and turned her into one of perhaps 10 contemporary British novelists who can legitimately be described as household names.

“Cromwell has been just all-absorbing,” she says. “It has conditioned everything for these 15 years. I feel it’s grown to fill my entire horizon. And, of course, some people think that Wolf Hall was my first book, which kind of amuses me.” Wolf Hall was Hilary’s 12th book. We are here because her 15th book, the trilogy’s final instalment, is soon to be published. This is, as it turns out, her first interview on the subject.

Today is election day, which seems an appropriate backdrop. The Mirror & the Light is about power, how it is won, how it is exercised and how it can be lost again. The power struggles in the novel may be playing out in a very different time, but they are still taking place at the very top of a London-based government. It’s impossible to read this book without finding analogies with the times we live in or wondering what Hilary thinks about it all.

“It’s almost as if we’ve come full circle, so that we’re governed by rumours again,” she says. “There was a time of print and images that people believed in, and there was a feeling that if you lied in print or forged a picture, you’d be found out and there would be consequences. Now we’re back to: nobody knows and there are no consequences.”

Hilary actually lives in East Devon, not Berkshire. In 2010 she and Gerald bought a flat in Budleigh Salterton, a seaside town about 15 miles from Exeter. She voted by post. Asked if she’ll disclose who she voted for, she says, “We have a very good independent candidate called Claire Wright. But she is a remainer and it’s a leave part of the country, so this may go against her.” (Wright will lose by 6,708 votes, 1,328 fewer than at the previous election.)

Hilary’s speaking voice is not like anybody else’s. Among other things, it is both wry and kind, and she has a soft northern accent. In her 2003 memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, she gives some of the credit for her demeanour to the Catholic school she attended from the age of 11. “My convent years left me a legacy, a nervous politeness, an appearance of female timidity which will probably stand me in good stead if I am ever on trial for murder.”

She is wearing a black dress on which are printed floral shapes alternating with another pattern that might also conceivably be vaguely Tudor. There’s a risk, when in Hilary’s presence, that you start assuming this of literally everything.

Hilary and Gerald come to this apartment twice a month. “I began to win things,” she says. “I couldn’t manage without somewhere near London.” She has lived in various locations in this area but never in the capital itself. In her memoir she writes, “I have never come to terms with London as a city, but I like to look at it silently, from taxi windows, and appreciate it for what it is, and for how it makes me feel provincial.” Unlike some of her characters, she does not possess a lot of stuff. She is not sentimental about objects but understands their symbolic power. They bought most of the furniture, she says, from the previous owner.

Sunningdale is “villagey”, but in a way largely played out through the alchemy of the chain. There is a branch of the beleaguered food outlet Pizza Express, another of the paint and wallpaper vendor Farrow & Ball, and a cafe (visited on arriving at Sunningdale a little early) with walls coated in slogans – “comfort & ambience”, “taste & choice”. Hilary sees more than that. Decades of immersion in the forensic detail of the 1530s have endowed her with a sort of personal augmented-reality headset. “You see, to me, when we go around here I’m thinking, Oh yes, well, an abbey would be here,” she says, “and just down the road you pass over into Fitzwilliam territory, and quite close to that would be the Westons. I have the geography of Henry VIII’s progresses in my head.” (A progress being a sort of royal tour much favoured by Henry VIII.) “It’s absolutely steeped in Tudor history, but the only sign of it is the flag flown by the mock Tudor architecture.”

Hilary Mantel was photographed at home. She is the president of the local literary festival — “I just walk around and smile at people, basically,” Hilary says of the role.

Hilary isn’t one of those authors whose routines are choreographed from morning to night so as to free up all available mental space. The one daily habit she does maintain is to take a notebook and transcribe the contents of her mind immediately upon waking. “I feel almost injured if I can’t write in the morning,” she says. “I write about what I’ve been reading. I try to put down any insights I can use for future work. I write my dreams.”

Does she ever dream about Thomas Cromwell?

“I think you very seldom do dream about your main character. But I spend a lot of time in libraries in my sleep. And I’ve always just got the book in my hand that will tell me everything. You’ve pulled the book off the shelf and you turn it over, and it’s almost as if it says all you ever wished to know about Thomas Cromwell, and you’re reading it frantically, but the print is fading and the book’s dissolving in your hand.”

She says that this morning writing ritual evolved directly from a childhood practice in which she would try to think up descriptions of the weather on the way to school. Not in the sense of “it’s raining really hard” but as a sort of creative solitaire, the object of which was to compose something perfect.

“I had a long, solitary walk to school, so I used to just do the weather in my head, and actually it was the beginning of something. I never wrote these things down. I was very frustrated at that time in my life, because I had no privacy to write anything. And therefore I had to keep everything in my head. But I didn’t do it impressionistically. I nailed every syllable, every day. So it wasn’t a case of saying ‘But I cannot write it down, so I cannot make it perfect.’ I would just do it and do it in my head till I got it.”

Was it different each time?

“Yes. Oh, different each time and every minute. There is no same weather. And actually, I think a lot of writing is about that. It’s the art of noticing the finest distinction and being able to capture it. So no two days, no two circumstances, are ever alike.”

During her early 20s Hilary worked at Kendals, a department store in central Manchester. She was employed in the fashion section, “although it wasn’t what you would recognise as such. Ladies’ clothes, let’s say. It was OK, because in the long wastes of boredom you just thought your book, you see. So because I was in the habit of writing in my head, I could do that.”

That was in 1975, and the book she was thinking was about the French Revolution. It was the first book she wrote, and it arose from a strong – very strong – interest in the subject that she decided to try to organise as fiction (the novel would fail to sell when she finished it in 1979 but would be published to great acclaim 13 years later as A Place of Greater Safety). She was unsparing in her research. “I was within a rapid 15-minute walk of the central reference library in Manchester, so if I was prepared to not eat, if there was something I thought I absolutely needed to know, I could get there and back within my lunch hour.”

Hilary is known for the exactitude and exhaustiveness of her research. When she writes historical fiction, she says, she won’t include anything contrary to known facts, whether it’s the broad brushstrokes of history or the colour of the wallpaper in Anne Boleyn’s chambers. So she reads everything, and she travels to the places – today she mentions trips to Antwerp and Canterbury – where the action happened. Even where no facts are to be found, she says, what she puts on the page is her best estimate of what actually happened: an act of imagination but also a good-faith attempt to mediate something real.

A BBC film dedicated to Hilary’s life and work is in production. Speaking by phone, its director, Ian Denyer, describes what he feels sets her work apart. “Whenever I go and visit a Roman ruin, I find it very hard to feel interested because it’s just stone,” he says. “My contention is that Mantel takes us closer than other historical stories can, because there’s some magic in it – there’s some alchemy where she tells you not what people say but what they feel. Historians aren’t free to do that.”

Hilary has a small flat for writing. It’s one block back from the seafront, with a sea view, not far from where they live in Devon. One day last spring, when Gerald arrived to collect her, she made an announcement. “I said, ‘I’m done.’ And we just burst into laughter. I know it seems incongruous as a reaction, but just the idea of finishing – it’s absurd.”

Hilary began writing Wolf Hall in 2005 and published it in 2009. Bring Up the Bodies was on sale three years later. Asked why the new book took so long, Hilary doesn’t accept the premise. “I feel I’ve written it rather quickly,” she says, “odd though that may seem to people.” For a lot of that time, she explains, she was swamped by other obligations. Wolf Hall was adapted into a play, which premiered at the Royal Shakespeare Company in December 2013 (it won two Olivier Awards and a Tony). And the first two books were adapted into a TV miniseries that screened on the BBC in January 2015 (and in turn won three Baftas and a Golden Globe).

Peter Kosminsky, who directed the TV show, recalls driving to meet Hilary for the first time. “I was pretty intimidated by the prospect,” he says. Kosminsky was not known for adaptations of novels (the exception being Wuthering Heights, which he made in 1992 and which he describes as “a complete disaster”) but rather for dramatisations of political events such as the rise of New Labour and the work of UN peacekeepers in Bosnia.

The two became friends. “The most important thing she said to me was that she had tried to write the books as if they were the present day,” Kosminsky says. “These characters didn’t know what was going to happen to them. Anne Boleyn doesn’t know that Henry will have six wives. She doesn’t know that she will be unable to give him a male heir. She doesn’t know that she will be beheaded by a swordsman from Calais, and Henry doesn’t know that he will go down in history as a homicidal maniac, among other things. The pleasure is in watching the slow realisation of what’s going to happen dawn on them.”

Kosminsky has confirmed he will direct the adaptation of The Mirror & the Light. Of their working relationship so far, he says: “I don’t want to over-aggrandise this, but it feels a little bit like the relationship between the Queen and the prime minister. Her role is to advise and warn. She doesn’t attempt to tell me how to do my job, in the same way that the Queen doesn’t try to govern for the elected prime minister. But she has a far greater in-depth knowledge of the material than I do.”

“People think Wolf Hall is my first book, which kind of amuses me.”

The Queen is an interesting comparison. When Hilary was interviewed for The Paris Review, the questioner reeled off some of the pre-eminent themes in Mantel’s work, one of which was “an obsession with ‘the royals’”. This is clearly visible in her fiction – a whole section of 2005’s Beyond Black addresses the boom in business for psychics following the death of Princess Diana – but it is also in tune with her public image. This is at least partly due to a notable slice of the population knowing her not as the author of Wolf Hall but as the woman who, as far as it was presented to them, “hit out” at Kate Middleton for no discernible reason.

To recap: in 2013, Hilary gave a speech at the British Museum on behalf of the London Review of Books. The subject of the talk was the relationship between the public and the royal family, and afterwards the paper made it available through its website. Initially it caused as much of an explosion as any other incisive speech from the world of authors and critics, which is to say: none at all. But a fortnight later, certain tabloids unearthed the piece and ran front-page splashes about how an author had chosen to aim a torrent of exquisitely phrased mockery at the newly pregnant duchess. Quotes from the talk were presented in a way that implied Mantel had simply called Middleton a “jointed doll on which certain rags are hung” or a “plastic princess made for breeding”.

In fact, the talk only mentioned Middleton briefly and in a context that is, as Hilary and others pointed out, entirely sympathetic. The piece is worth reading in full for moments like the one in which Hilary describes encountering the Queen at a function.

“And then the Queen passed close to me and I stared at her,” she writes. “I am ashamed now to say it but I passed my eyes over her as a cannibal views his dinner, my gaze sharp enough to pick the meat off her bones. I felt that such was the force of my devouring curiosity that the party had dematerialised and the walls melted and there were only two of us in the vast room, and such was the hard power of my stare that Her Majesty turned and looked back at me, as if she had been jabbed in the shoulder; and for a split second her face expressed not anger but hurt bewilderment.

Hilary had no intention to cause a row. “I’m not really somebody who engages in controversy for the sake of it,” she says. “I’ve no social media presence. I’m not interested in absurd discussions carried on in tabloid vocabulary.”

The fact that Hilary has become the kind of public figure who occasionally runs into members of the Firm in person adds intrigue. Usually it’s Prince Charles. He carried out her investiture when she was made a dame. He is the president at the Royal Shakespeare Company, where she is a governor. “He’s not evidenced any ill will towards me,” Hilary says. He asked her when the final book would be ready. “If he does read the book – and I think, but don’t know, that he has read the others – I hope he will find the meditation on kingship thoughtful and sympathetic. That’s how I intend it.”

In recent times, of course, the monarchy has been facing more perilous challenges than authors’ lectures. Looking back at the whole furore, Hilary strikes a generous, though not in any way monarchist, note. “My take on royalty is that it’s interesting,” she says. “It’s not really a question of whether I’m for or against. And certainly my lecture for the LRB was not in any way a tilt against Kate Middleton. I was trying to sustain her position rather than attack it, because I felt that something horrible was coming down the path. And actually it’s come to Meghan, who wasn’t a twinkle in anyone’s eye at that time. And the intrusion and the horrible curiosity has been turned on her. So I feel that I was right in a sense.”

A second controversy arose in 2014 following the publication in the Observer newspaper of Hilary’s short story “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher”. It was a year after the former prime minister’s death, and a media tirade was perhaps more predictable. Less so was the fact that a politician would threaten to call the police. “I wouldn’t like to be the lawyer who helped to frame the charges,” Hilary says, “since the murder victim was already dead.”

Giving Up the Ghost is revealing both in the story it tells and for being no less surprising – and no less dark – than her fiction.

Mantel was born Hilary Mary Thompson in Glossop, Derbyshire, 15 miles east of Manchester, in 1952. She grew up in Hadfield, a nearby mill village. A man named Jack began to spend time with her mother, and then he moved in with the family. Hilary’s father slept in a different room. A few years later her mother moved with Jack to the town of Romiley in Cheshire, taking Hilary and her two younger brothers with her. Hilary was 11. She never saw her father again. Jack’s full name was Jack Mantel; they adopted his surname so as to project a conventional family image to their neighbours.

Even as she plucked the weather from the air with words, a future as a writer never occurred to her. “I didn’t think of being a writer,” she says, “because it was so impossible for me to envisage what that might mean. I supposed writers to be very, very remote people, and mostly dead.”

She married Gerald McEwen at the age of 20, in 1973. They divorced in 1981 but married again a year later. She studied law for a time at the London School of Economics before transferring to the University of Sheffield, where Gerald was studying geology. In 1977 his work took them to Botswana, where Hilary lived until 1980. After reuniting, they spent four years in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Hilary drew from these periods for her novels Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (1988) and A Change of Climate (1994).

When in her early 20s she became ill, wracked with strange pains and prone to seemingly random vomiting episodes, the doctors prescribed antidepressants and referred her to psychiatrists. Each drug generated side effects. Doctors responded by prescribing yet more drugs, creating yet more side effects. In her late 20s she examined a surgical textbook and self-diagnosed endometriosis. The doctors concurred, but it had reached an advanced stage. The resulting operation left her unable to have children, and the hormones she was prescribed afterwards resulted in significant weight gain.

“Unfortunately it absolutely des-troyed me,” she says now. “I don’t just mean in terms of being able to have children, but the effects of both the disease and the treatments between them. It just deformed my life, and I’m still living, literally, with the scars.” The long-term effects have contributed to the eight-year wait since Bring Up the Bodies. “I needed major surgery, and there were complications, and it really relates to the problems I’ve had all my life,” she says. “When I won the second Booker, I was still very frail. I was quite ill for about two years after that.”

In conversation with Hilary, the past sometimes bursts through in unexpected ways. After an aside about the monotony of men’s clothing on the Devon seaside, she says, “I can carry
a colour for 50 years the way some people can carry a tune. And I could go out to match it to the thread, you know – something I saw 50 years ago. A particular shade of green my mother had a coat in when I was about four years old, a lovely coat with squared-off shoulders and a swing back. And it’s a shade of green that, again, has no name, and every few years you catch a glimpse of that green, but it’s never been fashionable like it was that year.”

Hilary has a sharp eye for sartorial detail. Here and throughout these images, she wears her own clothes and jewellery.

Every autumn, the city of Vienna hosts a kind of utopian reading group in which a single book is given away to citizens for free. A gala is held in the book’s honour. Viennese bookworms discuss it at staged events and, one hopes, in grand cafes and music halls. Authors are naturally pleased to attend, though it’s not really possible to sign all of the 100,000 copies the city prints for the occasion. The year before last, the chosen title was Every Day Is Mother’s Day: the first novel Hilary published, in 1985.

It’s a great novel, the kind you hope to find on a shelf in a hotel in a strange city just as a bad cold causes you to cancel dinner. It draws on Hilary’s time working in a geriatric hospital in Hadfield and evokes a very suburban strain of despair via a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship, an extramarital affair, a haunted house, a matricide, a filicide, a psychic, and the accumulated junk of recent history that one finds in the lofts and conservatories of almost all English houses. In this, it is completely in line with her later books.

Asked if it was strange revisiting – and in such a public way – a novel she published so long ago, Hilary pauses for a moment, then states, “It was fine, actually, because I realised that the basic issues were still valid. The reality is dated, but the central figures and their problems still held good.” The point here is that while the entire world was braced for The Mirror & the Light, the city of Vienna was getting excited about Every Day Is Mother’s Day. For all the intensity of focus on the Cromwell books, Hilary’s backlist is still being widely read, and new translations mean that for readers worldwide, books that were written decades ago are emerging as if new.

“I can carry a colour for 50 years the way some people can carry a tune.”

The Mirror & the Light is highly anticipated by fans of the series, but when you think about it, the exact nature of this anticipation is unusual. Think of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, even (and this is purely as another example of a series with a loyal fan base) George RR Martin’s ongoing attempt to complete his A Song of Ice and Fire books. In all these cases, at least some of the excitement of a new book being announced has been that of entering the unknown. But broadly speaking, we all know what will happen in The Mirror & the Light. There are no spoilers in historical fiction. We know that Jane Seymour will finally give Henry VIII a son. We know that she will die from complications relating to childbirth. And we know that Thomas Cromwell will not retain his head.

We also know, stylistically, how the story will be told. It’s easy to forget how a lot of the surprise surrounding Wolf Hall was due to the way it presented history via experimental narrative techniques. It wasn’t only that Wolf Hall was all in the present tense. Or that Cromwell, whose perspective we inhabit, was referred to using only the word “he”. Or that the book consisted of scenes of a TV-like brevity, which, combined with astonishingly precise dialogue, made it feel at times like a literary Tudor version of The West Wing. You could emulate all this without achieving anything close to the same effect, which gives a handheld-camera feel to the reader’s relationship with the various courtly conspiracies and politically charged banquets, and makes for a feeling that the outcome could always have been different – that Cromwell might have had a reprieve, that he might never have gained such influence in the first place, that these were just people making choices in a dangerous world.

Another certainty is that everyone will be asking: Will she win the Booker Prize again? Could she possibly do such a thing? She has described the trilogy as “essentially one long book”, so it stands to reason that if the first two won, then the finale must be the most favourite favourite in the history of the award. But nobody has ever won three times. The prize being given to The Mirror & the Light in 2020 seems both a foregone conclusion and an utter impossibility.

Asked what she did the day after that day last spring when Gerald came to collect her and she told him “I’m finished,” Hilary says, “I just went up the road as usual and started revising that chapter again.” It was only on holiday last November, on the island of Tenerife (a choice of destination based entirely on which flights were available from Exeter Airport), that Hilary felt completely free of it all.

Or almost free. We speak about some projects Hilary is developing, including a book of photographs based on the trilogy, with the actor Ben Miles, who plays Thomas Cromwell in the theatre adaptation, and George Miles, his brother, a photographer. “It’s really a little bit hard to explain,” she says. “But I hope it will be clear as day when everything’s put together.” Then there’s the fact that The Mirror & the Light is being adapted into a play and a TV miniseries, and Hilary will once again be involved in both; as co-writer with Ben Miles for the play, and a consultant for the screenplay.

“I’m looking forward to getting back into the rehearsal room,” she says, “because when you’ve spent so much time alone – and since I worked in the department store I haven’t really had colleagues – it’s just a delight to go and work with other people. I think I had the most fun when I got involved with the plays that I have had in my life.”

She is exploring the idea of a non-fiction book: a practical book about the art of writing historical fiction and plays. The draft title is The Working Dead, a pun loaded with supernatural associations, and tellingly so. The book Hilary published before Wolf Hall was Beyond Black, whose protagonist is Alison Hart, a stage psychic who travels between venues just outside London, in counties such as Berkshire, reconnecting people with the dead (the book doesn’t mention Sunningdale specifically but does refer to “Home Counties rain”, which is most definitely what’s making gravel sounds on the window next to us). There is something revealing in the way Hilary speaks about that novel: not as a distinct work but as a “limbering-up exercise” for Cromwell. “It was very much about the English,” she says, “not even the British, but specifically the English and their sense of history.

“I think of the people of that time as infinitely mysterious and rich,” she says of Thomas Cromwell and the other 500-year-olds with whom she and 5 million readers have been communing. “And promising, because what might you not find out? And I suppose that’s the way in which I view it, rather than feeling it’s fixed, it’s dead, it’s gone. I feel it’s active and present.”

Hilary’s one daily habit is to take a notebook and transcribe the contents of her mind immediately upon waking.