Wolf Hall, the first in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy based on the life of the Tudor politician Thomas Cromwell, was the writer’s tenth novel. That it quickly became her most famous and won her the Man Booker prize in 2009 was remarkable. What was more remarkable still was that she did it all over again with the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, in 2012. Eight years since the last Cromwell outing, it’s fair to say the final volume of the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, is hotly anticipated. Alec Marsh caught up with the author
Turning firstly to The Mirror and the Light: what do those returning to the affairs of Thomas Cromwell need to know about this book?
The story begins as Anne Boleyn’s head falls, leaving Cromwell poised either for glory or disaster – during the summer of 1536 no one, including Cromwell himself, is sure which it will be. I trace the process by which he distances himself from the dodgy deals he has made in order to bring down his immediate rivals, and follow him through four years of increasing influence and power – to his abrupt fall in the summer of 1540.
The third instalment of the trilogy has taken you far longer than the previous two. Why has it been longer than you had planned?
The years in between have not been barren. I’ve published a book of short stories, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher; delivered the Reith Lectures: Resurrection, The Art & Craft; and become involved in an intense collaboration to deliver a stage version of the first two books to Stratford-upon-Avon, the West End and Broadway.
All these activities fed in some way into the final book. It is also true that the challenge was greater. The historical record thickens up, as it were. Cromwell is everywhere. It takes time to assimilate complexity. I wanted to make my story accessible but I didn’t want to simplify or mislead.
To what extent has the acclaim of the first two Cromwell books affected you when coming to the third?
In a practical sense, success takes you from your desk. But when I’m working, I am only thinking about the line, the hour. Neither past nor future impinge.
With the completion of the third book (and the ending that history decrees), do you think you have now written all you can about Thomas Cromwell?
Not at all. The stage version of The Mirror and the Light is still to come, and the screen version, though that will be written by Peter Straughan, who adapted the earlier books. He’s still very much alive in my mind.
At the end of all of this, what do you think of Cromwell? Do you like him?
At the end of the book a verse is going round in his head, written by his friend Thomas Wyatt:
‘I am as I am, and so will I be,
But how that I am, none knoweth truly…’
That’s my feeling exactly. Wyatt was probably writing about himself, but he could have been writing about Cromwell. In a way, the question of whether I like him has long ago fallen behind me. I’ve started to regard him as a colleague. The important thing is whether you can work together.
Which modern figure do you think most closely resembles Cromwell? And how much fun will historical novelists of tomorrow potentially have in re-imagining their lives and machinations?
I don’t think it’s helpful to compare people who live in different eras. Their whole mindset is different, as well as their challenges and opportunities.
I can’t guess which contemporary or near-contemporary figures will prove useful to fiction writers in the future – it depends on the storytelling mode they choose. When you are close up, only satire seems appropriate, and satire doesn’t last.
In a generation or so you get some perspective and can ‘read’ the past. Individuals may be comic, seen in the moment, but in the long view they may create or inhabit tragedies.
I will be intrigued to see what can be done with Mrs Thatcher 20 years from now. And perhaps, also, writers and dramatists will be able to tackle the myth of the royal family with less reverence and sharper wit.
Do you think fiction can play an important role in reacquainting us with our stories and histories?
I can say yes – with reservations. Fiction can send a reader in all sorts of directions – deeper into his or her own experience, or out into the world of learning, with curiosity refreshed and new lines of enquiry opened.
Every historical novel can act as a portal to the real world behind it. But I need my reader to be aware that, in my case, the story is delivered from a viewpoint. It is not a neutral account, and it is not the only possible version. Historians, of course, are not neutral either – they may try to be disinterested, but like each one of us they belong to a time, a nation, an interest group, and they bring themselves and their life experience to their narratives.
It’s really a matter of negotiation with the reader – I tell you what I think my character would think and feel, and I do it as honestly as I can, based on the best information I can get. I offer you my story – but there are other stories. And there is no place where the ‘true story’ resides.
With television serials such as The Crown proving popular, there is an evident zeitgeist for historical storytelling. Are you a fan?
I was fascinated originally, but I’m not so much a fan of the third series. It remains a visual pleasure, and I think some of the recasting is inspired, but the story arcs were predictable, and the sentimentality makes me cringe.
Perhaps also my reservations relate to my age. I date my awareness of politics – in the micro sense – to around Harold Wilson’s first term. And I am not so easy to convince as when the series was dealing with earlier years.
Martin Amis once remarked that writers were ‘past their prime’ when they reached old age. Do you agree?
I guess it depends what ‘old age’ means, and when your career started. If you publish very young, you might well come to a point where you have nothing much left to say, and it’s gracious to recognise it.
Women writers often start later, and possibly have a different shape to their careers; I’m thinking of Penelope Fitzgerald, who just got better and better.
And it depends what you have done to conserve your faculties. I would guess that substance abuse and complacency damage a writer’s capacity more than the simple process of getting older.