Hilary Mantel interview revisited

Wolf Hall cover“Revisited” because this is something of a first for Podularity: a transcript of an interview which I conducted earlier this year with Booker prize-winner Hilary Mantel.

If this feature proves popular, we’ll be doing more of these in the course of the autumn.

And if you would prefer to listen to the interview rather than read it, you can still find it by clicking here.

This transcript was created by Typing Angels, and we’re very pleased to have found them.

George Miller:

Hello, and welcome to this first edition of Podularity for 2010. My name is George Miller, and I’m delighted to say that my guest in this first programme of the New Year is Hilary Mantel, winner of the 2009 Booker Prize for Wolf Hall, the novel in which she charts the rise of Thomas Cromwell from abject beginnings to Henry VIII’s right-hand man.

Shortly after her Booker win in October, I was lucky enough to spend an afternoon interviewing Hilary about the book. An edited version of the interview appeared shortly afterwards on the Blackwell site, Blackwell.co.uk, but this is the first opportunity to hear the whole interview. I took as my starting point the Hans Holbein portrait of Thomas Cromwell, which probably shapes, to a large extent, many people’s view of the man. In it, he looks hard, cold, even cruel. That portrait is incorporated cleverly into the fabric of this novel. Late in the novel, Cromwell is confronted with a vision of himself that others see, and it comes as a shock to him. I asked Hilary to tell me more about what she was doing in that scene, with images and self-images of the man.

Hilary Mantel:

Yes, I think when Holbein painted a courtier, he was, in a way, painting the man’s office, and a Tudor minister didn’t want to look pretty – he just wanted to look powerful, but of course, because Holbein’s a genius, there’s always an extra dimension there. In my book, when Cromwell sees the portrait, he is rather shocked by it. He’s got no illusions about being handsome, but the hardness of the portrait takes him by surprise, and the way his hand is gripping the roll of paper, as if it’s an offensive weapon, and he says, “I look like a murderer”. His son says to him, “Didn’t you know?”, which is quite a shocking moment, really. Now, what I noticed immediately about the picture is how Cromwell is penned into a small space. It looks as if Holbein has said, “Sit there”, and then he’s pushed the table against him. There’s another table at the side of him, he actually can’t move. In my second book, Cromwell learns to live with the portrait, but he realizes increasingly that Hans was right – he can’t move. His scope of action, as an idealist as opposed to a practical politician, is now severely curtailed, and so he says, “Artists know the truth before we do”.

So I wanted to consider what might be the experience of having your portrait in your house, learning to relate to it as another self. Then later though, this is now with the scope of the book, the original gets lost, which is quite piquant, because of course I think the original Cromwell has got lost.

GM:

So it’s sort of moment of confrontation, really, of him seeing himself in an outsider’s perspective, which, in the book itself, maybe he’s not confronted with so very often?

HM:

Yes. I don’t think any of us can be aware, even now in an age when we see multiple photographs of ourselves, of quite how we present ourselves to others. In this age, of course, images were much rarer, and it’s perhaps rather unfortunate that that portrait, and the miniature which is very akin to it, are the only images we have of Cromwell. They’re the only surviving images, anyway. Certainly, you have a sense of a very grim person, which is very much at odds with the picture the Spanish Ambassador gives of him, because he emphasizes that, in conversation, Cromwell is someone who lights up, and that heavy face is mobile, and his eyes are always on your face, and he’s always, the Ambassador says, trying to work out what you make of what he’s just told you, so you get almost the opposite impression. Of course, he was a man of terrific energy, and that’s why it interests me that Holbein seems to have penned him in there, so that he’s forced into stillness. It’s as if someone is forced into taking stock of themselves.

GM:

I know that Wolf Hall is a book that you wanted to write for a long time, and I wondered, did you, those years ago, know that you wanted to write about the Tudor court, but not that Thomas Cromwell was going to be the way to do it? Or was Cromwell always, from the very first time you conceived the project, was he the way into that world?

HM:

Very much I wanted to write about Cromwell. There isn’t any other figure I would have picked. He is the main attraction, because I was really interested in the path he took from very humble origins to the Councils of State to be the King’s right hand man, to be an earl. Other people rise from a humble background, but they invariably come through the church. Cromwell didn’t take that path. He very much created the conditions in which he could succeed, but by doing so, a huge backwash of resentment and ill-will, which I suppose must have seemed in his own mind indefeasible at times. He had the example before him of his patron and mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, and his force and power. So you might say he must have known that all along he was bound not to succeed. You know that say, “All political careers end in failure, sooner or later”, but he obviously thought the game was worth the candle. With the stocks against him, he persevered. If he had been able to do even a fraction of what he would have liked to do, the country would have been a very different place, but he was always fighting against a self-interested parliament, and against entrenched conservative interests. I’m interested in the radicalism of his thought, which I will be able to unfold more in the sequel to Wolf Hall.

GM:

As a novelist, it must have been attractive to you that there was a big blank from his mid-teens to his mid-twenties, when he goes abroad. We know really very little about what he was doing, and I imagine that allows you certain imaginative freedom, as a writer.

HM:

Yes, it did, although I chose not to construct his story. I chose to construct it only through his memory, which comes in flashes. I wanted to catch the process of memory as it’s happening, which is haphazard really, not logical. We never know what triggers episodes of the past to come back and possess us. So that was the way I wanted to work it.

I think we’re pretty sure that he did join the French army, after he’d run away from home at the age of around 15, and then there are various sightings of him in different Italian cities. The various rumours, some of which are collected by John Foxe in his Book of Martyrs. All these stories can’t be true, but they’re all of interest. Because I’m without sources really for this time of his life, there’s a really rubbishy Elizabethan play about Thomas Cromwell, which is obviously the product of many different hands, and seems to be various different plays as well, mixed together, but in this play, Cromwell is a kind of trickster figure. He goes around Europe with his comic manservant, and they have adventures. I thought that I would try to preserve, in my presentation of his character, something of this tradition, which is obviously how the Elizabethans saw him.

Many of the stories that John Foxe tells about him, though you wouldn’t think it of The Book of Martyrs, but they have a certain blackly comic flavour, and I wanted to try to preserve that as well. This is Elizabethan tradition, but it’s the nearest thing we have to go on. It wasn’t until later that Cromwell became the unsmiling and grim figure of the portrait.

GM:

The obvious thing to do, I suppose, for a novelist, would be to take the blank, and to fill it in and to use the blank in order to explain what comes later. I thought what you did was so much more subtle, because you refused to fill in the blanks. In a way you allow that blank to be something which everyone meets him has to confront, because so often there are people saying, “Who are you?” I think the Duke of Norfolk says, “You are a person”, and that’s about as far as he can get in defining him – he’s a person, but he can’t sort of place him and ascribe any kind of lineage or identity, or explain him away – he cannot be explained away. I thought it was very interesting, the way you allowed little things from his past to kind of seep through, as you say, in memory, but didn’t give an explanation of who he was.

HM:

I think this is true to what happened, because it would have soothed the feelings of the court, if they could have found him a pedigree, but when they actually came up with some obscure Cromwells who had been great men, but had lost all their money, and they said, “You’re one of these, aren’t you?”, he refused to be, which is a very singular thing for a courtier of that time to do. I think maybe the mystery was valuable to him, that he didn’t want to be added up by people.

There were all sorts of rumours over who he was. It’s interesting that people said, his father was an Irishman, which he was not, as far as we know, but what did that mean in the context of the time? It puts him as even more of an outsider. I think he may have been someone who was content to accept other people’s projections and mirror them back. He doesn’t seem to have taken any interest in putting the record straight.

GM:

And Henry at one point says he’ll get his heralds onto the case, and we’ll construct him, sort of manufacture him a pedigree. Wolsey, his great mentor, creates all sorts of outlandish stories for him. There’s clearly a desire to try to construct something that will explain the man that he has become.

HM:

Yes, that’s right. This is my device, that Wolsey tells elaborate lies about him, which of course don’t fit at all the persona he projects, and this is a sort of running joke. The thing about the construction of the pedigree is, it’s actually real. Cromwell’s reaction was to say, “I wouldn’t wear another man’s coat” (that is to say, another man’s coat of arms) “for fear that he should rise and pluck it from about my ears.” He obviously had a feeling that it was essential to preserve that integrity, even if he was the only person who knew where his integrity lay.

His past, I assume, was a source of shame as well, because it wasn’t simply the fact of coming from “such a low place”, as his contemporaries said; it was the fact that his father was always in court, that he was a drunk, he was violent. If it hadn’t been for his long record in the local courts, we wouldn’t know anything about the Cromwell family at all.

GM:

When you say, “come from a low place”, and the book starts literally with Cromwell on the ground, as low as he can go, but he’s been beaten, he’s been abused by his father, and that relationship, from the start, is clearly one that has set the tone for much of the man he goes on to become, that deeply troubled relationship with his own father.

HM:

There were all sorts of stories current in his lifetime about why he’d run away from England, that he was in trouble with the law. I’ve really chosen to believe that he was potentially in trouble with the law. He was certainly in trouble with his father. I start him off, as you say, at the point where he thinks, “My father could actually kill me now”, so you start this great project with your character half an inch from death. This scene brought, in its way, of course, lots of decisions that I hadn’t yet made about the book, because as soon as I saw this picture in my mind, I realized that my viewpoint was actually behind Cromwell’s eyes, as the boy looks at the stitching of his father’s boot. I had realized the viewpoint, and that brought the present tense with it, so all of the decisions about the book had really been taken in one line.

I think Henry VIII has an ambivalent relationship with his own father. In many ways, Wolsey stepped in to be his father, and a much more indulgent and cheerful father, much more understanding than Henry VII had been. In a sense, I think, although there was not much more than about 15 years between them, I think it’s possible that Cromwell found a good father in Wolsey also.

Then there’s this interesting relationship between Cromwell and Henry, in that Henry’s shadowed by his older brother, Arthur, who should have been king, and everyone is bound to ask, what would Arthur have been like, if he was king, if he had lived? The age gap between Henry and the elder brother is the same, roughly, as between Cromwell and Henry, assuming Cromwell was born around 1485. Then, of course, for Henry, there’s the question of not being able to have a son himself. I raised the question in the book – is it possible that some men actually can’t grow up, until they have a son? That’s a question I leave dangling, but there’s certainly something unresolved in Henry, until he has his heir, but unfortunately it does nothing to improve his character thereafter.

I think also about Cromwell himself. Whatever his detractors say about him, one thing he was was a good father. His little girls died, we presume in one of the summer epidemics, so he only had one child left – his son, Gregory. Like Thomas More’s son, Gregory seems to have been a rather underpowered character. I’m thinking a lot about how does a son live up to a father like Thomas More, or Thomas Cromwell? – more of that in the second book. Thomas Cromwell seems to have been assiduous in making sure that Gregory was educated as a prince would have been educated, and then he married him, so to speak, into the royal family, because Gregory Cromwell married Jane Seymour’s sister. So for the blacksmith’s grandson, then, to be related to the King, this was obviously a very purposive path Thomas Cromwell was walking, but he took the utmost care with Gregory. It was obvious that Gregory would not pass through any of the experiences that he had had himself, which of course does raise the question: if your father arranges every step of your growing up, how do you ever manage to do it?

GM:

And although he lost two of his three children, his own children, he does act as a surrogate father figure for many other young characters in the book, doesn’t he?

HM:

Yes. His nephew, Richard, took his name, and became Richard Cromwell. He’s the ancestor of Oliver Cromwell. He was a talent spotter, and he was a nurturer of talent, wherever he found it. Obviously, he didn’t mind about people’s backgrounds, and sometimes you think it was a commendation to him if someone who came along was a bit rough around the edges, because he could see his own story mirrored in theirs.

There’s a wonderful letter he wrote, recommending someone to be taken in to a household, a young man, whom he says: “I grant you, appearances are against him, and he’s somewhat wild.” But then he goes on to say that he thinks he will prove a very loyal servant, if he’s properly trained, and he’s very intent that people should have their opportunities, and that one mistake should not be held against them.

He also seems to understand that young people in love do incredibly peculiar things, like when his lieutenant, and a kind of surrogate son really, Ralph Sadler, he made what looked like a disastrous marriage to a very poor woman. Cromwell backed him up in that, and in fact they were very very happy. There’s another instance where a young man he’s sent to Calais falls in love with one of the daughters of the ruling Calais families, and the family say, absolutely not. Cromwell digs his heels in, and he gets involved, and he raises an almighty fuss, and they are allowed to marry.

One doesn’t, as one historian thinks, of him as a sentimental matchmaker. One historian says, “But he does seem to understand that young people cannot live their lives with the accumulated experience of half a century; they do certain things because they are young.” He wants, in other words, to give people a chance to retrieve their position, after they’ve made a mistake, which makes us think about his own life. One thing that was said of him was that he was always grateful and attentive to anyone who had shown him kindness in his early life. So we must assume that he felt that sometimes he’d come to the brink of disaster, and someone had hauled him back, person or persons unknown, unfortunately.

GM:

You mentioned the point of view, and how it really sprang from that first scene, and feeling you’d found the voice. I think you compared it to the sort of camera, and I thought that was a very good analogy, because in a way it’s not a first-person narrative, it’s a third-person narrative, and it’s as though the camera is maybe on his shoulder, or sometimes identical to his eyes, but sometimes just at one slight remove. So it’s not coming through the first person, but it’s coming through a third person that is very close to, but not identical with, Cromwell’s own consciousness.

HM:

I think that’s right. It’s another way of doing things, it’s very intimate. This is why I always say “he” and not “Cromwell”. I try to call him by his name as little as possible, because we just assume that he is Cromwell, unless we’re told otherwise, and we’re looking through his eyes. Then it came to me that actually I should organize this book as if it were a series of films. This is why, in each chapter, I have three sections, and you have a third act, which is shorter and some kind of pay-off to the rest. Once I’d got that idea, it helped me to organize the material into a dramatic shape, because the facts are so intractable, and the facts are so many, and when you want the facts, they simply aren’t there. Just handling the data, and finding the form for it, is one of the challenges of this sort of book, I think. It’s not something I expect the reader to notice. I think that the organization and structure you put into a book is not directly perceived by the reader, but indirectly it’s what holds the thing together, and helps the reader feel safe in a complicated narrative, that there are these repeating patterns. That seemed to work quite well, I’ll carry that over into the next book.

GM:

Do you have a set of rules, or is it more intuitive than that, for how you deal with historical reality? – what you allow yourself, and what you disallow, in transmuting history into fiction?

HM:

I suppose I do have a set of principles, in that I have to give the reader a plausible version, I think. So the personnel have to be in place, the dates have to be right. So if I tell you that the King is having a conversation with the Duke of Suffolk, I might have made that fact up, but I have to be sure that Suffolk is within conversational range, so that I can say, could have happened that way. I draw the line pretty tightly around what we can establish as fact. I don’t make things up unless I have to, I suppose. I think I probably draw the line more tightly than many historical novelists, but then once you’re getting into people’s heads, what they thought is just the perpetual mystery. So I suppose you would say that the greater part of a novel is made up, no matter how reliant on facts it is.

I try, for every little speculation, I try to have a grain of evidence. For instance, the fact that, through the book, from childhood, Cromwell always contrives to have a little dog, this all comes from some letters of exchange between England and Calais in 1534, which is all about “getting Mr Secretary a pretty dog”. He’d heard of this new kind of spaniel, and expressed a wish for one, and it caused a great foment in the London/Calais axis, because the question was, who would get there first with dog, and so, please Mr Secretary. And of course, that’s the kind of tiny personal detail that’s a gift to a novelist, and you think, I can really do a lot with that.

So there’s very little that solely originates with me. It will originate in some tradition about Cromwell, or some footnote or some … at worst, I’ll be reading between the lines of something. There is probably an exception to that in that Cromwell had an illegitimate daughter, and beyond the fact that she existed, we know very little about her. She comes briefly into the records, in an incredibly obscure way – she’s in the archives of the county of Chester. Her story will unfold in the second book. I feel that this is something that a historical novelist can’t afford to lose. A biographer would say it in a line or two, but when you’re a novelist, and you’ve got this character who’s lost his two daughter, and then another daughter appears, then that has got to be a story. So the set up for it occurs in novel one; the pay-off will be in novel two. Beyond the fact of her existence, I can’t account for her, and yet it seems to me, the fact of being a novelist demands that I get down and do the work, and work out a story which will be plausible for this girl.

GM:

And that reading between the lines that you just mentioned is presumably even more important when it comes to capturing the emotional life? – because you can extrapolate the factual realistic details from those. Tell me about how you try to recapture those sixteenth-century mentalities, because if you read, if someone reads the dry documents that are preserved, often they will seem very remote, they’ll be linguistically remote. Their ideas will often seem preoccupied with things which are very remote to us, and yet on the page, in your book, they are living, breathing people with passions. So how does that act of imagination come about, do you think?

HM:

That’s a really good question, because this is the nub of it, I suppose, and it’s almost impossible to answer. There’s a certain document which is a list of figures, sums of money. When I saw this, I got incredibly excited about it, and wanted to rush around showing it to people and saying, “Look – look at this, isn’t it beautiful?”, whereas actually it’s just a list of figures. What it is, it’s Cromwell saying to Henry, “This is where your money comes from”, and it’s all one piece of paper. The idea that someone could boil down something incredibly complex and casually push it across the table, and say, “That’s all you need to know”, tells you a great deal, I think, about Cromwell’s mind, and about his relationship with Henry.

Yes, I mean, first of all there’s the fact of the gap between them and us. I think the only way to start bridging that is to try to get a sense of their cultural hinterland – think what books they had, what stories they’d grown up on. Books are actually a very important part of Wolf Hall. I wanted to know, if someone had read a certain book, what did that book actually look like, and what were the illustrations in it, and so on? The story of King Arthur is very much knitted in to the Tudor legend, and there’s a very exciting moment when Gregory Cromwell gets a new King Arthur book, and everyone clusters around to look at the illustrations.

I think you want to sense, in that way, of what people’s cultural hinterland is, and also how they as individuals perceived the world. Cromwell had been in the cloth trade. He’d been with his father-in-law in a wool trading concern. He’d also lived in Venice and Florence, where the luxury fabrics were made, and the world to him is very much a matter of texture, weight, dyes, colour. So that gives me a fix on how he might have looked at things. Then only way then, I suppose, is to try to feel your people’s lives from the inside out. You want to get so that you can feel their clothes on your back. You need to know all the basic things about daily life, it goes without saying, but not as easy as it may sound, because I think you have to assimilate it, rather than just be aware of the facts.

For a long time, I couldn’t see the Tudor world, because I was used to looking at the eighteenth-century world. It’s surprising how you can go about with a pair of, sort of magic goggles, where you only see eighteenth-century beauty, eighteenth-century proportion, and when you look at a landscape, you slap a frame around it in a particularly eighteenth-century way, and you’re aware of the picturesque, and so on. I had to junk all that, and I had to start looking at landscape – let’s say you look at a piece of countryside, and you’re thinking, “What are we going to do with this? – is it down to sheep, or is this agricultural land? What will we make it yield per acre?” You fall into that utilitarian, mercantile mindset, where everything can be costed out and put down in the page of an accounts book. How you do that, I don’t quite know. I think it’s just one of the reasons why a book like Wolf Hall takes a lot of time, because you can’t just slap the facts together, and get on with it.

You have to be aware with psychological shifts as well. The fact is that they are much more fond of authority and tradition than we are. Questioning, which is a virtue with us, is a vice with them. The same goes for ambition. You have to recast your moral universe, so that ambition is a dirty word. Someone like Cromwell has to spend a lot of time and mental energy denying that he is ambitious, while manifesting that he is ambitious in every fibre of his being. The psychological tenderness is not all on our side, either. I was surprised sometimes to find what care people took of each other’s feelings, in an age when they did the most deplorable things to each other’s bodies.

So some of the clich├ęs, for instance, about romantic love, go out of the window, and the problem with Henry, he’s such a modern man. He can’t make a marriage with a woman without being in love with her. The people around him don’t understand this. He is far closer to us than some of the other characters are. So when he married Anne of Cleves, it was no mystery really that he couldn’t make a go of it, because he simply felt nothing for her. It’s rather pathetic and sad that the people around him don’t understand that. They think, why don’t you just take her to bed, and get on with it.

You’re feeling the ground shift beneath your feet. You’re in a great period of refashioning, of ideas as to whom one is, and how one lives. There’s a great deal of thinking going on about the outer man and the inner man, and this is why one of my chapters is called “Arrange Your Face”, and it’s all about the presentation of self to society.

GM:

I mean, if Henry is a modern man, then Cromwell must be a modern man par excellence, because he, coming from the humblest of origins, rising so high – but also, he’s intellectually questioning, he’s rational, he’s sceptical, he’s ironic. We’ve talked about the self-fashioning, not relying on the lineage and the pedigree. He seems to me, at any rate, to embody many of the characteristics which would then travel on at great speed through European history for the next several hundred years.

HM:

I think that’s true, but I think that it’s seldom that all aspects of ourselves are in congruence. I think Cromwell was one of the people who, although he understood that people were led into marriage by love sometimes, I think he was one of the people who did not understand what was happening with Henry and Anne of Cleves, and thought, “Why can’t he simply go to bed with her – that’s what we do?” So parts of one’s personality get left behind, as it were, in the Middle Ages, whilst other parts are proceeding very fast towards the twenty-first century.

It seems to me that Cromwell probably understood money, understood economics, at a level that perhaps many of his contemporaries didn’t. I think he was probably an economist, and they were accountants. I think that many historians who have tried to work out what Cromwell’s achievement was have done him a disservice by seeing him as a kind of ultimate civil servant, as a brilliant administrator, but of course you have to have something to administer first. I do accept the idea that Geoffrey Elton had, that there was a revolution in government under Cromwell. It’s perhaps now not sustainable, because there’s also a great deal of continuity there as well, in the practices carried on in government for centuries.

But Cromwell was someone who moved and thought very fast, and to a large extent, as he said himself at the end of his life, he was making things up as he went along. So this perfect civil servant begins to look like something else. He said, when he was called upon to account for this action and that, that he had moved so swiftly through circumstances, that sometimes there wasn’t even a paper trail. He seems to have grasped two things: the need for innovation, but the need to persuade his countrymen that what he was doing wasn’t new at all; it was actually something very old that had just been lost. This was the only way to smuggle new ideas into Tudor England was to say, actually, there were traditional and fundamental ideas, but for various reasons, the passage of the years has obscured them. So the Church of England wasn’t new in this formulation, the Church of England was old, and the Kings of England used to be Supreme Head of the Church, the Pope is a usurper. He had therefore to accommodate the predilections of that mindset of his contemporaries. He knew how to do that, but a lot of his ideas were astonishingly radical. The welfare state would have begun there, it would have had its small beginnings. He would have imposed income tax to finance it, had he been able to persuade parliament to look at his radical Poor Law.

Interestingly, it wasn’t Henry who dragged things back. Henry was often in favour of these measures, but although Cromwell was very good at manipulating parliament to raise taxes for the King, he couldn’t entirely drag them into a new world. It’s the same problem as now really, the House of Commons packed full of lawyers who look after their own interests.

GM:

I wanted to ask you, Hilary, too about Cromwell as a communicator, because very early in the book we see him speaking Welsh, and no-one thought he could speak Welsh. As the book goes on, we discover he can speak French and Italian and German, and the day his wife dies, he’s had a Polish lesson. At first, you may think, that’s just a little sort of sidelight on his character, but towards the end of the book he says that he seems to be forever translating, he’s translating between language and language and person and person. I wondered if you thought that this sort of linguistic facility that he has is somehow an essential part of his character, this ability to transmit messages, or to find the right register, or the right tongue to speak to someone in order to get something done?

HM:

Yes. This is all based in fact, he does seem to have picked up languages very rapidly. We don’t know when he learned Latin. He was learning Greek. He picked up several modern languages. I myself thought he probably didn’t speak Spanish, or not to any degree, until, to my surprise, I found out that Catherine of Aragon wrote to him in Spanish.

There’s a certain ventriloquising ability here, and a certain ability to shapeshift. It makes him the consummate eavesdropper, because nothing gets by him. You can’t get by Cromwell by changing languages.

GM:

Yeah, there’s a scene, isn’t there, where Mark Smeaton’s speaking in Flemish, and he’s overhearing and he can understand it. I was surprised, because you say, “… and he was speaking his native Flemish tongue”, and I thought, goodness – he can speak Flemish too.

HM:

Yes, well of course, he’d lived in Antwerp, he’d been a wool trader in Antwerp. Probably that’s where he learned Spanish as well, because they were the occupying power, and you would learn the language of the oppressor, so to speak. So yes, I kind of make that his trademark in the book. He was, of course, Henry’s chief propagandist. Probably something I won’t be able to go into, because of constraints of space, will be the use of the stage, of drama, as propaganda for Henry’s new regime. Cromwell was a friend of John Bale, the playwright, and they cooked up together some unlikely scenarios, plays in which King John was the goodie and not the baddie, and all sorts of subversions of the legends of English history. We had Lord Cromwell’s players going around the country. Unfortunately, we don’t know what plays they were putting on much of the time, but he’d obviously grasped the point that the new truths had to purveyed to people in an accessible and highly colourful form.

So you see, what he’s not, he’s one of these people of fine and subtle intellect, whose ideas are so fine that they cannot be mediated to the ordinary man. On the contrary, he can write them on placards, and parade them around. He knows, I think, how ordinary people think, and how they learn.

GM:

Tell me about finding your own language for this book. Did that come naturally, intuitively? – or did you have to think quite hard about what the sort of linguistic texture of it would be like?

HM:

I begun writing this book by accident, really. I was working on another novel, which had developed a few problems – not insoluble ones, but I thought I’d take a day off, and see what Wolf Hall was going to sound like. I was just curious, because that’s so fundamental to a historical novel. Then, when I wrote my first scene, my first chapter, the chapter in which Cromwell runs away from home, and so our speech is demotic, he’s with his own family, this is not courtier speak, and I had to find a language for them. It seemed to emerge fairly naturally, and I felt the important thing was to try to catch some of the vigour of Tudor English; not to let them have ideas they couldn’t have, rather than become fixated on whether a certain word was in use. Having said that, I did spend long sessions with dictionaries, and I often threw out certain words, because they did come in too late.

Probably when people read the book, and they think its idiom is very modern, this is really hidden from them, that I did do a lot of work in that way. What you can’t get at, of course, is how people spoke, but through letters, which were so often dictated, you can get some idea of the rhythm of language. Also, there’s the invaluable George Cavendish, who was a servant of Cardinal Wolsey, and who wrote a memoir of him, a very pacy autobiography – biography, rather. George was at the Cardinal’s side through his glory years, and through his fall and he was at his deathbed, and twenty years later, he decided to write it all down. He did it as if it were a novel, or almost like a film, with wonderful jump cuts, and he writes dialogue. You think, very well, some of it he’s reconstituted, but some of it, you think, it must have lodged in his mind. So through George Cavendish, you can hear Cromwell and Wolsey talking to each other, and this was so valuable to me. I would say I used that book for a template for much of the language.

It’s a difficult exercise, because you’re going back pre-Shakespeare. It’s almost impossible, when you’re writing English characters, to stop them thinking in the language of Shakespeare and the King James bible. So I’m sure I slipped very often, but I did try … it’s just like facts, you try to make it, your version at least plausible. But I think also to me, accessibility was the great thing. I don’t want language to get in the way, and I didn’t want the book to become about language.

GM:

I also wanted to compliment you on your virtuoso use of punctuation. I mean, it’s something which maybe a lot of readers don’t pick up on, but I thought there was an immense subtlety in the different weight that you accorded to punctuation, and the difference between a colon here or a semi-colon there, and that really, the rhythm of the prose was really enabled by the way that you thought about those things.

HM:

That governs everything for me. I hear what I’m writing, and so punctuation, I’m really using as the rest for the voice. It’s a breath pause, as far as I’m concerned. I spend a lot of time trying to balance sentences, and rebalance them. Then, once you’ve done that, then there’s the bigger unit of the paragraph in which to balance the rhythm. This can be frustrating, if you’ve got to pull a word out because you’ve decided it’s too modern a word. So you can find, because you’ve got one syllable less, or the stress is in a different place, you find yourself then rewriting a whole paragraph. I don’t mind that, as long as it come out right. Again, it’s something that’s invisible to most readers, but that is … I think style is about that, to me.

This sounds really pretentious, I suppose, but I actually think of composing, rather than writing, because in a novel there is so much more to be done than slapping the facts down on the page. Of course, you’re using dialogue especially to characterize people, and to push the plot forward. So again, every line of dialogue has to be thought through, and it has to be sayable. I think, whether it’s narrative prose or dialogue, if you can’t speak it out loud, you probably shouldn’t be writing it.

GM:

Well, I mean, I reached page 19 in the book, and I rushed to show my partner, and say, “Look at this bravura use of punctuation” – I just picked out this paragraph. I think it’s where you’ve just recently introduced Wolsey. Just the different weights of dashes and semi-colons and colons, it does seem to me … and then, as I read on, I saw that that was something that was sort of part of the texture of your prose, which is this incredible sensitivity to the different weights and the balances of the parts of sentences.

HM:

Thank you! You wonder whether people notice, but it’s fundamental to me. I love Annie Proulx for the way she weights and balances a paragraph. I think some writers do think at the level of the individual sentence, but it actually has to work as part of the larger unit, and what goes along with it is an appreciation for how it should sound. If you had this perfect actor, who would read it out for you, the parentheses is a little drop of the voice, a little hasty demurral, and at other places you’ve got the sort of thump of the colon, the rest there. So I suppose, in a way, it’s … I can’t write poetry, because I don’t see the subjects, I don’t pick the subject for a poem, but I do take a lot of care in the way I imagine a poet would about rhythm and balance. I find myself – it’s difficult to talk about it, because it’s so much taken for granted, as I write.

GM:

If Wolf Hall rehabilitates, in a sense, Thomas Cromwell’s reputation, I suppose Anne Boleyn is one character who, in your estimation perhaps, has been over-valued by history – would that be fair? She’s quite a hard, calculating … I think, what did you say – “not a carnal being, a calculating being” – at one stage, and her eyes, you depict as very hard and black, like the beads on an abacus. So she’s clearly not a character who endeared herself to you.

HM:

From Anne’s portrait, you do get this image of these very black eyes, not very large. From the moment I got that image of her eyes flicking like the beads of an abacus, she was done for, I think, in terms of how her characterization was going to go. Obviously, she was not going to emerge as a feminist heroine in this book. It’s much more the kind of old tradition of Anne as the mistress on the make, which used to hold sway in romantic fiction before the feminist slant was put on her story, but I think she’s something else in this book as well. Cromwell sees her as a fellow trader. She’s trading her body, part by part and inch by inch, and he respects her for that. They don’t like each other, but it’s as if they see … she knows what Cromwell is, and he knows what she is, and they are two desperately ambitious human beings. For a moment, for some years, in fact, they can form an alliance. They’re both going in the same direction, until, at the beginning of the new book, suddenly they are not.

Of course, as soon as that image came to me, of the abacus, you see I’m trying always to look through Cromwell’s eyes, and I thought ah, now the secret here is that this terrific sexual allure she has, for most of the men in her circle, for him it doesn’t work. Whether that was true or not, I can’t say, but it was part of the building of the character of both of them. He treats her, if you like, better than most of the men around her, because he treats her as a rational creature with rational desires, which is to be Queen, and they know exactly what is in each other’s minds, but he doesn’t flatter her. This is perhaps why they are successful in working together, because they can come clean with each other, I think.

I don’t think my portrait of Anne is unsympathetic, but then, you see, I don’t think my portrait of Thomas More is entirely unsympathetic. I think I’m coming at both of them through Thomas Cromwell’s eyes, and we’re completely unused to looking at them from that viewpoint. That’s why it’s slightly shocking, and seems harsh.

GM:

Let me ask you finally, Hilary – you’re writing the second volume at the moment. Are you still making discoveries about your characters? Are they still able to surprise you in ways you didn’t expect?

HM:

Yes, absolutely, because when I go into a new scene, I’ve by no means decided how it will unfold. I’ve obviously got the basic shape, but I research and write at the same time. I know where we’re going and I know what information must be conveyed to the reader, but the interactions of the personnel in each scene are completely hidden from me till I set them ticking, as it were, and I think it’s the only way to keep a book lively, is to constantly surprise yourself. To work creatively, it has to appear that your characters have free will. If you’re writing a historical novel where you’ve essentially made all the decisions on the basis of research before you start, you’re going to have something that’s dead on the page. What you have to do is, at least to appear to turn the people loose in each scene to do their best, or do their worst. So I try not to over-plot. I try to do it in the same way as I would do a contemporary novel. So what I have to do (because I do know the end, and we all know the end), I have to suspend that knowing. Actually, in the New York Review piece, Stephen Greenblatt put it far more neatly than I can, because he said that, “for Mantel, the idea of the historical novel is to arrive at a position of ignorance”, and that’s absolutely right. We’re trying to, not exclude irony, but to exclude hindsight.

GM:

I was talking to Hilary Mantel about Wolf Hall, the book which one the 2009 Booker Prize for Fiction. I hope you’ve enjoyed this programme, which is sponsored by Blackwell Online. There are lots more Podularity interviews in the pipeline across a wide variety of subjects, so I hope you’ll find inspiration for your winter reading in the weeks ahead.

For the moment, it only remains for me to thank you for listening, and to say, until next time, goodbye.

2 Responses to Hilary Mantel interview revisited

  1. Nancy Dyment-Travers 26 June, 2013 at 18:29 #

    I just finished reading “Bringing Up the Bodies”. and am only now about to start “Wolf Hall”. Thomas Cromwell and that era, are of particular interest to me, and obviously that first book that I read, has only wetted my desire to get on with “Wolf Hall”. I have a question, is the second book that was mentioned in your interview, “Bringing Up the Bodies”?……Is there still another as yet unpublished book out there, that delves into a relationship with a woman other then his wife, and their daughter Jane? I believe Jane married a man of Chester, whose last name was Hough. I am attempting some research about that family, and would dearly love to read more about Cromwells time, and “doings” with the Hough family in the 1500’s. “Stories” come down through generations of families, and after hundreds of years, often only a grain or two of truth, may be retained in each telling, so in my attempt to tease out a bit of the past history of my childrens ancestors, and the story of one of their ancestors being Thomas Cromwell, a daughter of whom married a Hough, and then after a bit of time coming a child or grandchild of theirs, arriving in Gloucestor, Massachusetts as a Puritan around 1630….I find it of interest that these wisps of tales could and still my be recounted somewhere……Thank you so for this adventure my mind has had in reading these books and reading the interview.

  2. Jenna 8 December, 2013 at 19:56 #

    This was very interesting since we have just found out that we are directly descended from the ‘base child’, Jane.

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