“I’ve always been on the side of the man on the make,” says the English novelist Hilary Mantel, speaking of Thomas Cromwell, who has consumed her creative life for the past decade. Like her protagonist, “my story is climbing, climbing, climbing ...” she says.
When Mantel won the 2009 Man Booker Prize for her historical novel Wolf Hall, she was the favorite with the bookies and the booksellers, but an outsider at the ceremony. Attired in a shapeless, glittery gold dress, she seemed a cross between a star pupil and a Star Wars extra, both doll-like and otherworldly. Her acceptance speech was odd, earnest, and faultlessly delivered in schoolmistress periods. There were no jokes, a lot of thank-yous, some awkward candor, and the breathless admission that she was “happily flying through the air.”
Wolf Hall and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, which has just been published worldwide, are of a piece with Mantel’s appearance that night. Both books are conventional (a retelling of Tudor England’s great marital and state drama, the many wives of Henry VIII, and the Protestant Reformation) yet innovative and highly original (narrated in the “historic present,” using 21st-century dialogue). The first takes the figure of Thomas More (the saintly hero of A Man for All Seasons) and subverts his image to that of a religious fanatic. He’s viewed through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chancellor and sinister enforcer, who rises to power and influence within the court. All of this takes place against the backdrop of a raucous Tudor London, high intrigue in the royal palace, and Henry’s desperate need for an heir. The new novel narrates the fall of Anne Boleyn. Each volume is spellbinding, by a writer whose craft has been hard won, against the odds.
Success came comparatively late for Mantel. Somehow, from the day she was born in 1952, it’s always been a struggle. Her parents were of Irish descent from working-class Manchester. For much of her life she has had to fight terrible illness and misdiagnosis. Despite all of this, Mantel’s default position is true northern grit. Her prose is sharp and bracing, shorn of sentiment or whimsy. “Trust the reader,” she says.
Since that dizzy moment in 2009, the old struggle has returned. She would not let the Booker go to her head. “You could spend your life going round literary festivals,” she says, “so I just said, I already have a full diary.” Many Booker laureates disappear into a limbo of signing sessions and frustrated expectations, but not Mantel. “I knew I was living on borrowed time,” she confesses.
Even before prize fever took over, her health was deteriorating. From July to December 2010, she suffered a medical nightmare. Mantel describes her terrifying sequestration in a provincial hospital as “a strange time, but it drew a line under Booker.” It also brought her face to face with the limits to authorship. Pitched into her own medieval world of pain and degradation, already explored in Wolf Hall, “there were times when I thought I was dying,” she says. High on morphine after a botched operation, she found that illness stripped her back to an authentic self, though it was not one she wanted to meet. “I live in two simultaneous realities,” she wrote at the time, “one serene, one ghastly beyond bearing.” She dreamed she was meeting the devil.
Mantel has always described her investigation into the life and times of Cromwell as “the Project.” Finally convalescent at home, in the spring of 2011, she began to reengage with her Project, but from a different perspective. Her brush with death “made me start again,” she says. After approximately six months Mantel realized that she had actually completed the sequel. She called it Bring Up the Bodies, a quotation from the brutal summoning of the accused in the treason trials of Henry VIII. This new installment carries Cromwell’s story forward to a cathartic climax, but it stands alone and delivers a crisper, sharper, and more confident narrative than Wolf Hall.
Mantel says: “Only at a very late stage did I realize that I had written the book. This should have been the beginning of The Mirror and the Light [the third volume in the series].” Was she surprised? “Novels are inherently unpredictable. I found the atmosphere of dread—at the court of Henry VIII—and the urgency of events building and building.”
When she reached the terrible climax—the indictment and execution of Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second wife—she had an epiphany. “I said to myself, I don’t think the reader will want to turn the page after the death of Anne Boleyn. It’s too shocking. No one comes out of that moment—in 1535—undamaged. From Cromwell down, everyone is tainted.”
Mantel’s hero, Henry’s enforcer, the commoner and public servant, whose Holbein portrait hangs in New York’s Frick Collection, is at the heart of these extraordinary events. So how much of Mantel can be found in Cromwell? There’s a long silence. “That is a killer question,” she admits. Pressed, she concedes the fascination of exploring her opposite, a man at the center of a powerful establishment. Cromwell, she says with approval, “has this terrific nerve. He has a great ability to hold his line, come what may. Dealing with Henry VIII was a ghastly business.”
When Mantel considers her own unlikely life story, she says, with justified hyperbole, “I always tumble from disaster to disaster.” Hers was a dislocated childhood. She was 11 when her father left the family home and the lodger, Jack Mantel, took his place, becoming her de facto stepfather (and giving her a name). At about the same time, she lost her faith. A spiritual crisis sponsored both a sense of guilt and what she describes as “a very intense habit of introspection, a terrible severity with myself.”
As a provincial teenager, Mantel’s instinct was less toward writing than “climbing”—years of dogged self-advancement. In 1970 she began to study law at the London School of Economics, later transferring to the University of Sheffield, from which she graduated in 1973, with no clear future purpose.
Meanwhile, she had fallen in love with and married Gerald McEwen, a geologist whose work took the young couple first to Botswana and then Saudi Arabia. At this point, in a mood she now describes as “delayed adolescent rebellion,” young Mrs. McEwen began work on a long novel about Robespierre and the French Revolution.
More disaster. Her 20s became blighted by a mysterious, debilitating, and painful affliction that was first diagnosed as psychiatric and finally identified as a severe form of endometriosis. Surgery left her unable to have children. Subsequent steroid treatment further tortured her body with obesity and a change in her appearance.
These were very difficult years. Only a woman of Mantel’s robust good humor could have come through so comparatively unscathed. Her French Revolution novel, A Place of Greater Safety, was comprehensively rejected by London’s publishers. In a calculated, and desperate, last-ditch attempt, she wrote another novel, appealing to the women’s market, Every Day Is Mother’s Day, which was published in 1985, and followed a year later by Vacant Possession.
Having returned to England, Mantel pursued a late-flowering career as a freelance writer and reviewer. Her Arabian experiences inspired Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (1988), but she would continue to defy categorization. Her next, Fludd (1989), is a quasi-historical novel about the impact of a mysterious stranger on a fictional northern English village and its Roman Catholic convent.
In fact, it was not until A Place of Greater Safety, finally published in 1992, won a major award that Mantel began to get much traction with the British reading public. With new self-confidence, she began to explore her strange childhood in a powerful and widely admired memoir, Giving Up the Ghost (2003).
Mantel insists she never had ambitions to write, and doesn’t, even now, think of herself as a writer. However, speaking to me last month, she said, “I write something every day—even if it’s only my journal, which is a kind of working notebook.” She’s up to volume 58. “You have to keep a journal to realize how boring you are,” she says, deadpan.
With the publication of Bring Up the Bodies, her Project has become a three-volume series about one of the most fascinating and turbulent moments of English history. It has also made Mantel part of the vigorous continuing debate about the tragic downfall of Boleyn. “My identity as a pseudo Tudor historian is now central to my life,” she says. Already there are radio, television, and stage versions of Wolf Hall in progress. “Everything else that I’m interested in has just had to go on hold.”
This will probably not cause Mantel much loss of sleep. She says it had always been “a big regret” that she was not a historian, or possibly a Shakespearean scholar. “I adore Shakespeare,” she says. “He’s a major force in my life.” We agree it’s convenient that the political sensitivities surrounding Henry VIII and his daughter, Elizabeth I, inhibited the playwright from writing a great Cromwell drama.
Looking ahead, Mantel has a clear field. She will publicize the global launch of Bring Up the Bodies and then return to work on The Mirror and the Light. She sees this as the culmination of a decade’s struggle, and she’ll complete it in her own way. “By the end,” she remarks with grim geniality, “I really aim to shake the reader. I hope I will go with him [Thomas Cromwell] right to the end and explore the process of dying.”
It’s a gruesome prospect—Cromwell’s execution in 1540 was a notably hideous public butchery in an age not known for squeamishness—but an opportunity she relishes. “I’ve a lot of work to do before I get to that point,” she says, worrying about her limited amount of energy. For this, she will rely on her husband.
“Gerald does the schedule,” she says, with rather queenly grandeur. “It’s nice to have someone to travel with. He’s very good at looking after me, a wonderful support system. He’s never lost faith and picks me up when I fall over.”
“Booker made me need someone to organize my life,” she continues, though you sense that there’s no one better at organizing her life than Hilary Mantel. The woman who speaks without hesitation in perfectly phrased paragraphs and who marshals evidence from thousands of pages of historical documents is no slouch at organization.
In the past, some have described her as a control freak, holding things together by force of will. Today she and Gerald live in England’s West Country, in Budleigh Salterton, Devon, a town famous as the home of the Elizabethan adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh. There are fewer “disasters” now, no more “masquerade,” and much less “climbing.” Mantel concludes our conversation with serenity, “Everyone knows who I am and what I do. It’s very nice. I can be myself. My various identities have now coalesced, which is restful,” she says, allowing herself a tiny smile of satisfaction.