This might well be the most exciting thing that has happened so far on The History Girls blog. Today the sequel to the marvellous Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies, is published by Fourth Estate.
And we have an interview with its author, Hilary Mantel. She is a friend of History Girl, Leslie Wilson (see below) and we are very grateful to Leslie for securing us such a coup.
First, some facts about Hilary Mantel:
Hilary Mantel grew up in the Peak District in Derbyshire and was educated at a Cheshire convent school, the LSE and Sheffield University, graduating in law in 1973. She was subsequently a teacher and a social worker, living for 9 years in Africa and the Middle East. She became a full-time writer in the mid 1980s, and is the author of eleven novels, a short story collection and a memoir, Giving Up The Ghost. She writes both historical and contemporary fiction, and her settings range from a South African township under apartheid to Paris in the Revolution, from a city in twentieth century Saudi Arabia to rural Ireland in the eighteenth century. A former film critic of the Spectator, she reviews widely for papers in the UK and the US. Her novel Wolf Hall is about Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to Henry VIII. It won the 2009 Man Booker prize, the inaugural Walter Scott prize, and in the US won the National Book Critics Circle Award. She is married to Gerald McEwen, a former geologist, and moved to East Devon in the spring of 2011. Bring Up The Bodies is the second of a trilogy and Hilary is currently working on The Mirror & The Light, the third book in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy.
LW: Your Cromwell is a very live, vigorous figure: he doesn't understand some people's desire for martyrdom, and one of the great ingredients of the book, to me, is his sensory enjoyment and knowledgeability - the bits about cooking and baking, about textiles, his fruit trees, and so on. I love his effortless and yet utterly convincingly realised way with children and animals. And he's a compassionate man, often even to his enemies. But in Bring Up the Bodies, he will bring death to Anne Boleyn. How did you feel about that when you wrote this narrative?
HM: First I should say that when I wrote the narrative leading to Anne’s death, it was one of the most testing few weeks of my writing life. I couldn’t have predicted the strength of emotion it would arouse: as if, when replayed, it might come out different this time. It was only during those weeks that I decided this novel must end with the execution; I want to close the book, and I think the reader will too. I found it frightening to write, and difficult, precisely because of the conflict you mention. Cromwell was certainly a man capable of great personal kindness; and politically speaking, his method was to try conciliation and negotiation. If that didn’t work he had, as we know, no scruples about the use of violence.
In Anne’s case, his back was to the wall; she had threatened him personally. Diplomatically, she had become a liability; it was clear by 1536 that no state in Europe was going to recognise her marriage to Henry. The king was out of love with her, and not persuaded that she would ever give birth to his heir; and Cromwell, after all is said, was his servant, and before him was the example of his mentor cardinal Wolsey, who had lost everything because he could not negotiate an end to the king’s first marriage. So realpolitik dictated the end of Anne; but I think Cromwell might have been content with her ‘retirement’ and an annulment of the marriage. Certainly he explored this, and it may have been Anne’s own fierce character that made it impossible. Whatever she was, it’s hard to see her as a victim; she was one of the few women of the time who shaped her own fate, and this remains true even if you argue that the prevailing masculine values of the time were what ruined her. She presented a picture of the sexually predatory, dangerous woman, an image deeply embedded by religion and culture in the male psyche of the age; but she was an individual as well as an archetype, making choices for herself, a well-educated, articulate and courageous woman. In other words, no mean opponent.
I tried to chronicle the days leading up to the coup quite closely and, of course, to see them from Cromwell’s point of view. I believe that, even when the arrests began, he may not have known what would happen next or what the result would or should be. He had to take a gamble on how Anne would react, and it was her own panic-stricken words in the Tower that enabled a case to be built against her. He also did not know how the men accused with her would react. It is important to say that torture was not a factor, as many people think. One source suggests that torture was used on the musician, Mark Smeaton, who was not protected by his social status. This may be true, but no one remarked on any evidence of ill treatment, and if Mark had been racked he would have been in a bad state afterwards. My bet is that an interrogation by Cromwell was terrifying and mystifying and quite enough to induce Mark to confess, with the threat of force but possibly without the use of force. But this is not special pleading on my part. I know that there were instances where Cromwell employed torture; I’m just not sure this was one of them.
It’s also important to say that the charges of adultery against Anne were not received by her contemporaries with the incredulity with which posterity has treated them.
There is a sense, though, in which the whole episode is mystifying. Evidence is lost or partial. And it happened so fast, within three weeks. It’s impossible for a chronicler of these events not to feel a sense of panic, which must have been exactly how the whole court felt at the time.
HM: I don’t really think of myself as a rehabilitation service, a sort of Priory clinic for reputations. But I am interested in why certain figures are demonised, or their impact vastly exaggerated. Popular discussion of history always centres on the individual and his character, and one thing that can be worrying about historical fiction is that it reinforces this preoccupation with the individual, at the expense of analysis of wider forces. To some extent, we can compensate for this deficit by being nimble in the way we look at our characters. Instead of accepting the accretions of years of prejudice, we can try to wipe the slate clean and go back to the sources. Any worthwhile historical novel must also be a historiographical text. It must consider where it comes from, and where it fits in the history of representation. No one can say the last word.
But when considering individuals, my focus is on the moment of change. When bad people do bad things — I mean, people with no moral capacity — it’s hardly surprising. It’s more challenging when good people do bad things, when private virtues yield to public imperatives or fear and the need for self-preservation overwhelm the conscience. I’m interested in the bargains people strike with themselves, how they live with actions which on the face of it seem to contradict their ideals: I have to survive, they say to themselves, for the greater good: I have to hurt or kill this man’s body for the sake of his immortal soul.
And the demonization process is interesting in itself. In Robespierre’s case, you can catch the process at work, as his enemies sort through his papers within days of his death. In Thomas Cromwell’s case, it was much more gradual. Soon after his death, Henry was wanting him back. He knew that he had made a calamitous mistake. To the Elizabethans, Cromwell was still a hero of the English reformation. Cromwell’s great valoriser, the historian GR Elton, thought that common old snobbery was at the root of a Victorian idea of Cromwell which carried over into our own era: he’s not a gentleman, and not even a ’varsity man. Cromwell also suffered because the editing of his letters in the early twentieth century fell into the hands of a Catholic scholar who clearly detested what he stood for. And as a man, he’s hard to pin down; his private life is well-concealed, but we do not know whether he took pains to conceal it or whether that is just an accident of time; though those born into the gentry and nobility are better chronicled than those obscurely born, there are many prominent courtiers in Henry’s reign of whom we know very little, who did not leave a portrait or a single letter.
You have to work hard for evidence of what Cromwell was like, but if you wipe your mind clear of recent representations of him, and go back to near-contemporary sources like Foxe, and if you wipe your mind clear of recent literary representations and start with a fresh page, you can uncover the traces of a cultured man who inspired great loyalty and was loyal to his own friends, who was generous and conceded not only humanity but integrity to his opponents. He had to deal on a daily basis with a nervous, capricious, demanding and complex employer, and one can make an argument that the years of his ascendancy could have been far more violent if Henry had taken advice elsewhere. Above all, what interests me is the gulf between where Cromwell began, as a blacksmith’s son, and where he ended, as Earl of Essex: what attracts me is the nerve and the willpower, the diligence and the self- belief, the optimism and bounce.
LW: Why do you choose to write about actual historical figures, rather than invented ones?
HM: I have a general faith that true stories surpass invention, in their twists and turns. I enjoy the research, and being ingenious in what I do with it. I like to see what can be made from a little scrap of evidence, without distorting it. And I like putting my hand out to the dead and seeing who will take it. I think that from childhood I have felt permeated by the past and baffled about the nature of time. Nothing touches me so profoundly as the traces the dead have left; it’s an intellectual fascination but also an emotional pull.
LW: What structural challenges does this face you with, and how do you deal with them?
HM: I actually like the constraints, enjoy solving the narrative problems that arise when you have strict guidelines of fact. One problem is that real life does not have a neat dramatic shape, so you have to find it. There are techniques: you can’t falsify the order of events, but you can control the order in which you report them, and the emphasis you give them. You can’t change the facts of an incident, but you can change its whole feel and meaning by the angle from which you report it. Another problem is the vast complexity of real history; your art as a writer becomes the art of selection. You are looking for the telling detail in the big picture. Your characters, as they moved forward through their lives, were working with incomplete information; you have to persuade your reader to walk with them. Your retelling of events will always be partial; you will not cast a steady, even light on your era, you will use spotlights. You will frame your story; outside the frame, the reader will be aware, another story is going on, just as, outside a photograph or a film, a vast contingent reality is shuffling towards the future, out of shot.
LW: How far do you think can we actually get under the skin of someone who lived in the sixteenth century? Does it matter?
HM: I think it does matter; the novel is a form that is ideally suited to the exploration of individual psychology, and you can argue if you don’t have access to that psychology, then some other form— perhaps poetry— is more apt. Where people explain themselves through myth and allegory, we have to meet them on their own ground, and perhaps if you go back much beyond the Tudors you’re in difficulties, but individual personality emerges strongly in this era, and is expressed in portraiture and in writing; and despite the vast differences between them and us — their idea of gender roles, their religious faith, their innate conservatism and respect for the past — they come alive as we watch them and listen to them. If you read, for example, Thomas Wyatt’s poems, you don’t know whether he’s speaking generally or autobiographically, the context is lost for much of what he says, and the meaning is ambiguous. But there’s no doubt who he’s speaking to: he’s speaking to you.
LW: You've said in the past that Cromwell had a radical vision of English society. Could you expand on that?
HM: Cromwell’s household was the central point for a ferment of debate and new thinking, and not just about religion. He can be seen as part of a group known as ‘commonwealth men’ or ‘commonweal men’ : ‘commonwealth’ in this sense having nothing to do with Oliver’s republic, or with the political entity so described nowadays; ‘commonwealth’ in the sense of concerning the commons of England, the ordinary subject. Tudor England was prosperous because of the wool trade, but the result of keeping land under pasture was a decline in arable farming and widespread unemployment. In years of poor harvests governments tried to tackle by ad hoc measures to control grain price and distribution (this is a breezy summary of a highly complex topic) but in 1534 Cromwell introduced into parliament a radical poor law, which involved a work creation scheme which would have been financed by income tax. It is an early recognition that a system that makes some people rich will make some people poor; that the poor are casualties of the system, not feckless or shiftless, or created by God to give the rich an opportunity to exercise charity. The bill was massacred in the Commons, and its radical intention completely subverted. The king himself favoured it; this is worth remembering, when people insist that Henry was a dictator. Cromwell didn’t give up and seems in the last year of his life to have revisited the measure. His plans for radical law reform also fell foul of a parliament packed with lawyers; his scheme for registering land, which would have hugely simplified property law, was finally (and only partially) adopted in 1925.
On the other hand, one of his lasting achievements was the institution of parish registers – the records of baptisms, marriages and deaths. People didn’t want this to happen at the time – they usually put the worst construction on his measures, and they thought it preceded the introduction of a new tax. It was, indeed, a potential means of gathering information for government, and information was what Tudor governments were short of. But, taking the long view, it seems a necessary step in creating identity – to know who you are and where you come from.
Another area where he succeeded, though it required tenacity, was the acceptance of the English bible. Cromwell had been a patron and protector of translators since ever he had influence, and acting as Henry’s deputy in the English Church he issued injunctions that the bible in English was to be placed in every parish church, for anyone to read freely. He organised the printing and he paid the printer’s bill, and bargained to keep the selling price down, for wider distribution. Once given, the bible in English could not easily be taken away. This was a huge cultural shift. People cared profoundly about the new bible. We know how much, because government issued successive injunctions telling people not to argue about the holy scriptures in ale-houses: so we know that was just what they did. A great and lasting debate was fuelled then, in 1538. Cromwell also suggested what clergymen should preach. Go into the pulpit, he said, and tell people that their children could have a better life than they did. They should bring up their children, he said, in ‘good literature,’ or in a trade – that was the way to stop them becoming criminals. He wanted them to buy into the social contract. This was disturbing talk – why should your children be in anyway different from you?
What was working against Cromwell was the weight of a traditional society. He was trying to break its rules. He’d broken them in his own person. Unlike other councillors from humble backgrounds, he hadn’t made his way up through the church. When he first he joined the king’s council, it was put to him that he must have some ancestors worth talking about. Wasn’t there a noble family called Cromwell, whose fortunes had declined? He must be one of them. Would he like their coat of arms? No, he said. He wouldn’t wear another man’s coat. For an man on the make in the sixteenth century, it was an astonishing gesture; but what, to us, seems an instance of integrity, seemed to his contemporaries plain alarming. This is where the Tudors are so different from us. They did not admire Cromwell’s struggles, nor did ordinary people think he might be on their side; they inclined to think he was a sorcerer, who had got power by illicit means. They valued hierarchy and stasis. If you wanted to do something new, you had to smuggle it through, in the disguise of something old.
LW: The story of the 'King's Great Matter' and Cromwell's role in it could be interpreted as a retreat from Europeanness and towards insularity. Is this a misinterpretation?
|Henry the Eighth|
HM: I think insularity was the result, but not the intended effect. Cromwell’s predecessor and patron Cardinal Wolsey had been a great pan-European diplomat, and raised England’s status in the diplomatic game. When the ‘Great Matter’ was broached, there was no reason to think it would mean a break with Rome; other kings who wanted to make new marriages had been accommodated by Rome in similar circumstances. But in the end, to set up a national church was the only way Henry could succeed; and of course, there were plenty good reasons for doing so, apart from his wish to grant his own divorce. It was reasonable to think that other nations might follow England in setting up national churches or in changing religious custom and belief, as the Lutheran states of Germany already had done. Looking back, we can see many points where the course of events could have been different. If Henry had married, not Anne Boleyn, but a French princess, he could have built a new set of alliances, and rehabilitated himself after the divorce. After Anne’s execution, several princesses were offered to him, but he had an English candidate in mind; so there was a chance lost to build bridges. After Jane Seymour’s death, Cromwell arranged the alliance with Cleves precisely so that England would have a European ally; Cleves, like England, was a nonaligned state, neither papist nor Lutheran. Cromwell himself seems to have had a pro-Imperial bias, doing what he could to calm the Emperor’s wrath at various points and to strengthen trade links; as someone who had been an agent in the wool trade, he knew the importance of English links with the Low Countries. He was himself the most cosmopolitan of Henry’s courtiers, speaking several European languages. He was not by instinct an isolationist; but the hostility of the European powers meant that England had to turn itself into a fortress nation. And as always, external threat breeds domestic repression.
Then Mary Hoffman could not resist asking some supplementary questions:
MH: Your use of the third person singular pronoun. Personally, I got used to it very quickly and understood when Cromwell was being referred to and when someone else and I adored the book. But I know some people were put off and it IS very unusual so I'd love your comments on that.
HM: I think that once you grasp that the ‘he’ of the narrative is Cromwell (unless you’re told different) then you don’t have a problem, and most readers picked up on this quickly. The risk seemed worth it to me, for the peculiar intimacy it creates. I wanted to arrive at something between first and third person. The camera is on the man’s shoulder, the world is viewed through his eyes. I didn’t want to use first person; it would have been too limiting, and somehow impertinent. So I tried out this device. It isn’t something I planned. It was there from the first words of the book: the 15 year old boy is lying on the cobbles, looking up at his father’s boot, which he thinks is about to come down on his head. He’s living what may be his last moments. This is no time to be dispassionate.
MH: I watched the very good TV interview you did with James Runcie and was particularly fascinated by your account of your childhood experience in the garden. Beyond Black seems to address this aspect of your creative self very well. Can you tell us anything more about it here?
HM: For short, I call this episode ‘the Devil in the Garden,’ though that suggests that I’ve made up my mind about what it was I sensed, whereas in fact, 50 years later I still can’t fathom it. I’ve written about it in my memoir, Giving Up The Ghost, which explains what happened better than the film could. This experience is set apart from anything else in my life because it presented me with something that has been a problem to me ever since; it put into my mind and heart the suggestion that evil might exist as a force in itself, not attached to a person. This of course was exactly what my childhood Catholicism wanted me to believe, but I was remarkably resistant to conditioning and had my own private beliefs even as a small child.
Interview copyright © Hilary Mantel 2012
A note from Leslie Wilson: