Hilary Mantel has a recurring anxiety dream that takes place in a library. She finds a book with some scrap of historical information she’s been seeking, but when she tries to read it, the words disintegrate before her eyes.
“And then when you wake up,” she said, “you’ve got the rhythm of a sentence in your head, but you don’t know what the sentence was.”
As deflated as she feels upon waking, the dreams have been instructive, Mantel said.
“There’s always going to be something slightly beyond your comprehension, but you must go reaching for it,” she told me last month. “If you thought the record was the whole story, the dream is teaching you how fragile the record is.”
To an unusual degree for a novelist, Mantel feels bound by facts. That approach has made her latest project — a nearly 1,800-page trilogy about the 16th-century lawyer and fixer Thomas Cromwell — more complicated than anything she’s undertaken in her four decades of writing.
The trilogy, which began in 2009 with “Wolf Hall,” traces Cromwell’s unlikely rise, from his origins as a blacksmith’s son to the court of King Henry VIII. It concludes with Mantel’s next book, “The Mirror and the Light,” an account of the last four years of Cromwell’s life, as he amasses more wealth, influence and power but loses the king’s favour and later, his head.
The Cromwell series has turned Mantel into a literary celebrity and something of a national icon. The first two books collectively sold more than 5 million copies and have been translated into more than 30 languages. Both “Wolf Hall” and its 2012 sequel, “Bring Up the Bodies,” won the Booker Prize, making Mantel the first woman to win twice, and the first author ever to win for a sequel. The books were adapted into an award-winning pair of plays by the Royal Shakespeare Company and a BBC miniseries. In 2015, Prince Charles anointed Mantel with the title of Dame Commander, Order of the British Empire, the equivalent of knighthood, prompting some in the press to sneeringly draw comparisons between the modern-day royals and the louche, backstabbing behaviour of the Tudors.
Throughout her rise to prominence, Mantel has remained aloof. She’s never been part of the London literary establishment and seems to prefer the company of her long dead characters to the demands of being a public figure. For the past decade, she and her husband Gerald McEwen, a retired geologist, have lived in Budleigh Salterton, an idyllic village on the coast of Devon.
She’s far from shy, though. A staunch iconoclast, Mantel has occasionally stirred controversy with her heterodox attitudes about British royalty and politics. In 2013, the tabloids pounced on comments she made during a lecture in which she called the Duchess of Cambridge “a shop-window mannequin” with no personality. A year later, she angered conservative British politicians and set off another media maelstrom when she published a short story that imagined the planned assassination of Margaret Thatcher by an IRA sniper.
Writing “The Mirror and the Light,” which at nearly 800 pages is the longest and most intricately plotted book in the trilogy, was at times a gruelling undertaking. In the final months of writing, Mantel, who is now 67 and has endured chronic pain and illness throughout her adult life, kept herself on a punishing schedule. She didn’t realize what a toll the project had taken on her until she was done.
Now that she’s finished the grim final chapter of Cromwell’s story, Mantel says she’s done with historical fiction and plans to focus on writing plays, an entirely new medium for her. She’s abandoning the genre in part because she feels she doesn’t have the stamina to take on a big research project, and because she can’t imagine finding another historical figure as appealing as Cromwell.
“I’m not going to meet another Thomas Cromwell, if you think how long he’s been around in my consciousness,” she said.
‘They’re more real and solid to you than actual people.’
Mantel and I met over two wet, windy days in Budleigh Salterton, where she lives with McEwen. Their apartment looks out on a stretch of rocky beach, and the choppy waves were gray and a dull red, stained from the eroding sandstone cliffs.
Though I expected to find her in mourning, it became clear as Mantel began to talk about Cromwell that for her, he isn’t really gone. She writes and speaks about him in the present tense. After finishing the final novel, she began working on a stage adaptation of “The Mirror and the Light,” so Cromwell is still very much in her head.
“She talks with him as if he’s a living presence,” said Ben Miles, who played Cromwell in the 2014 Royal Shakespeare Company stage adaptation and is expected to resume the role when “The Mirror and the Light” has its premiere. “She seems to know him intimately but is always striving to understand him.”
Mantel’s work on the play has also kept Cromwell and his contemporaries vivid in her imagination. Even when she’s not at her desk writing, she can still hear them chattering away.
“Once those voices begin, it’s like having the radio on in the background for 15 years. It never actually fades. It runs continuously with whatever else you’re doing, and that means you’re never off duty to the book, you never stop working on it. You fall asleep with it, you wake up with it,” she said. “There’s a point where you’re living with these people and only with them. They’re more real and solid to you than actual people in your life.”
‘I am used to “seeing” things that aren’t there.’
Mantel in many ways is perfectly suited to the task of excavating and reanimating the past. Ever since she was a child, she’s been prone to visions of ghosts and spirits. “I am used to ‘seeing’ things that aren’t there,” she writes in her memoir, “Giving Up the Ghost.”
Growing up in an Irish Catholic family in Hadfield, a village in Derbyshire, Mantel was obsessed with myths, folklore and the supernatural. Before she was old enough to read, she insisted that relatives read to her tales from King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. “I had a head stuffed full of chivalric epigrams, and the self-confidence that comes from a thorough knowledge of horsemanship and swordplay,” she writes.
At 18, she went to the London School of Economics to study law, with the hope of becoming a barrister, but she couldn’t afford to continue with professional training. By then, she’d met McEwen. They married when they were 20 and moved to Manchester, where he found a teaching position and she worked various jobs and started writing.
Around that time, Mantel’s health began to deteriorate. A doctor dismissed her symptoms as a bid for attention and referred her to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist gave her tranquilizers and an antipsychotic drug and told her to stop writing.
Years later, when Mantel and McEwen were living in Botswana, she researched her symptoms and diagnosed herself with endometriosis. Doctors confirmed her suspicions, and when she was 27, she had surgery to remove her uterus and ovaries. The pain didn’t abate, and Mantel suffered from complications that still afflict her: her weight increased, her legs swelled, she felt exhausted and alien to herself.
Her illness made a normal day job impossible: “It narrowed my options in life, and it narrowed them to writing,” she said.
‘The real story is better than anything I can come up with.’
When she began writing “Wolf Hall” in 2005, Mantel was still relatively obscure. She was also entering a saturated marketplace for Tudor historical fiction, territory that had already been mined by novelists like Philippa Gregory, Antonia Fraser and Alison Weir.
Mantel had been fascinated by Cromwell for decades, ever since she learned, while she was attending a convent-run high school in Cheshire, about Cromwell’s role in dissolving the country’s monasteries. In her research, she found he was often reduced to a thuggish caricature. “I realized that some imaginative work is due on this man,” she said.
By bringing a historian’s rigor to her fiction, Mantel has had a profound effect on history itself. Before “Wolf Hall,” Cromwell was often cast as a cartoonish villain who persecuted the pious and helped a lustful king dispatch of unwanted wives. Mantel rehabilitated Cromwell, depicting him as a strategist and visionary, and convincing some scholars to reevaluate his place in history.
“Hilary has reset the historical patterns through the way in which she’s reimagined the man,” said Diarmaid MacCulloch, an Oxford theology professor who published a new Cromwell biography in 2018. “It’s fiction which is extraordinarily probable, and it’s remarkably like the Cromwell I’d been excavating myself.”
There was never any question how Cromwell’s story would end. Not long after she wrote the opening of “Wolf Hall” — a young Thomas Cromwell lies bleeding on the cobblestones, beaten by his abusive father — she wrote about his beheading.
“All I had to do was fill in the middle,” Mantel said, then laughed. “There wasn’t a day when I woke up and thought, ‘Today I have to kill Cromwell,’ because I’d already killed him and brought him back to life so many times.”
As Mantel spoke about Cromwell and how he endures for her, it reminded me of a moment in “The Mirror and the Light” when Cromwell realises that he’s losing the king’s confidence, and thinks of his beloved master, Cardinal Wolsey, who still speaks to him from the grave.
“The dead are more faithful than the living,” Cromwell thinks. “For better or worse, they do not leave you. They last out the longest night.”
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