Hilary Mantel – History in the making

Mary Hammond 29 October 2009

Hilary Mantel is the author of the moment. Her latest novel Wolf Hall has just been awarded the Man Booker Prize, seeing off competition from writers such as A.S.Byatt and J.M. Coetzee, both former winners. She spoke with Thursday writer Mary Hammond about her latest book, a story focused on the character of Thomas Cromwell, and the work that goes in to writing fiction within the bounds of historical fact.

This is Mantel’s third historical novel; and the sequel to ‘Wolf Hall’, which she is currently working on, will be her fourth. Though Mantel has penned contemporary fiction, short stories and even a memoir, her first ever written work was also set in the distant past. At the age of 22, in a year out from University, Mantel began work on ‘A Place of Greater Safety’, a novel she calls “the French Revolution book”. This was not her first published piece but it was the first fictional writing she undertook, and she continued to work on the text throughout her twenties. During this time Mantel discloses that she “didn’t really look ahead”, this was “the one book I knew I wanted to write and, at the time, I wasn’t at all sure I had any other books in me.”

Thank goodness for contemporary English writing she did.

Writing historical fiction is neither quick nor easy. Wolf Hall took “between five and six years” to complete, with this time being shared between factual research and imaginative creation. The issue of accuracy within this genre is a contentious one. Should a general sense of the atmosphere of the period be enough? Or should every element be as accurate as possible? Writers as well as readers take various views, Mantel herself asserting that “every detail on the page should be correct”, adding, “not every detail makes it onto the page, ninety percent of the research goes unused” – what makes it into the book is only “the tip of the iceberg”.

But, whilst she takes her research seriously, Mantel’s job is not that of a historian. The point is to be “well-informed but not necessarily neutral”, to present a history as seen from certain characters’ points of view. For a novelist it is acceptable to side with individuals in a way that it is not for a historian. Mantel feels “obliged to correctness but not to impartiality”. And her ability to present actual facts from particular viewpoints is part of what makes her such a breathtakingly impressive writer.

From the talk she gave at an English Arts Festival earlier this autumn, it is clear that, in Wolf Hall, Mantel’s partialities lie with Wolsey and Cromwell. She describes Wolsey, the “local boy” from her native Suffolk, as a child prodigy of intellectual brilliance. Awarded his BA from Oxford at the age of fifteen he was known as “Bachelor Boy”.  He was not only a brilliant, but also an ambitious scholar, for whom the church was the only available channel through which he could further his career. “Wolsey didn’t just intend to be Cardinal, but Pope, at least” and for many years, before his fall from power, was “in effect, the second King of England.” Mantel describes his voice in her head as “charming, charismatic, and very pleased with himself” – it is this voice which dominates the early parts of the book, along, of course, with that of Thomas Cromwell.

Much of Wolf Hall focuses on the curiously close relationship between these two men, suggesting not only that many of Cromwell’s social policies “must have been discussed round Wolsey’s dining table”, but also that Wolsey was not only Cromwell’s mentor, he was also his friend. To put it simply, “Cromwell respected Wolsey. He loved him.” Historical evidence for this? Cromwell’s “daring and strong statement” in incorporating details from Wolsey’s coat of arms into his own, effectively claiming the kinship to this by now dead, disgraced man.

The development of such a high level of inquisitiveness and inventiveness as is clearly required to discover such details and then to turn them into the characters is a mental preparation which Mantel herself admits “takes a lifetime”.An interest in history seems to have started early on in the writer’s 56 years.

The germ of the Cromwell idea that was to become ‘Wolf Hall’, and its sequel, was sown in lessons in Tudor history at her secondary school; and whilst she did not continue with this subject at university, choosing instead an undergraduate degree in law, the past has always held a fascination for Mantel. She says she is unsure why she didn’t take academic study of history further, “perhaps it was because I didn’t want to end up as a teacher, no disrespect to the profession, but it’s hardly what you aspire to when you’re seventeen”. This may be true but I have a sneaking suspicion that Mantel would make a fantastic teacher – the hour spent listening to her discuss and read from her book gave just as much, if not more, insight into the world of the Tudors than could ever be received during an hour’s worth of formal school education.

Mantel is undoubtedly a highly deserving winner of the Booker Prize. Wolf Hall is a work both of immense scope, deliciously characterized historical figures, and incredible detail.

Mary Hammond