Hilary Mantel: 'I am sympathetic to politicians'

Man Booker winner Hilary Mantel has injected new life into Tudor turmoils but, as Boyd Tonkin discovers, she has first-hand experience of living in the shadow of arbitrary power

When Hilary Mantel lived for four years in Saudi Arabia during the 1980s, reading between the lines became an everyday art. Official media told no sort of truth. "The Jeddah papers were just wonderful. They were fiction," she remembers. On television, two high-status gentlemen would be shown "shaking hands and then sitting down for a parley. 'Prince So-and-So lauds Prince So-and-So.' They loved this word 'lauds'. And you would see them in dumb-show, lauding each other."

Long before Mantel pleased pundits and punters alike by taking the Man Booker Prize on Tuesday evening, readers had sought parallels between the intrigues and manoeuvres of the 1530s Tudor court in her novel Wolf Hall and the ruses of contemporary politics. But perhaps her own experience of a secretive despotism – commorated in her stingingly satirical 1988 novel Eight Months on Ghazzah Street – lies somewhere near the roots of her fascination with the shadow side of power.

"Living in a society where no one can speak freely is a powerful lesson," she says as we talk on the morning after a long-predicted but still widely hailed victory. "Because what happens is that, if no one can speak freely, then rumour and innuendo become the currency. I think it must have been like that at Henry VIII's court. You'd always be checking out the person you were talking to. Could you trust them? Probably not. Living in the Kingdom [of Saudi Arabia] gave people that feeling."

As its legion of admirers know, Wolf Hall (Fourth Estate, £18.99) both inhabits and reinvents a familiar tranche of English history. Its zest and velocity combines a profound inwardness with the period and people and an outsider's, or newcomer's eye. Born in Derbyshire (in 1952), a law student at Sheffield and the LSE and a social worker for a while, Mantel has in her fiction given a subversive shake to deeply English themes and motifs. They range from the mill village threatened by a mysterious incomer in Fludd (1989) to the 18th-century London tavern life turned upside down by an Irish freak-show celebrity in The Giant, O'Brien (1998). Meanwhile, the searing memoir Giving up the Ghost (2003) casts Mantel herself as the disruptive outsider. It transforms into ravishing prose the heartbreak of long suffering in her twenties at the hands of patronising doctors as they tried – and dismally, despotically failed - to understand and treat her severe endometriosis.

As in the case of Thomas Cromwell, the Putney blacksmith's boy, her charismatic interlopers enter a tired old world from a transforming angle. For almost a decade – she spent five years in Botswana before the Saudi stint – Mantel herself parachuted back into Britian as a keen-eyed expat rather than a native. "You got a kind of snapshop about what was going on": a perspective that helped to shape her 1986 novel Vacant Possession. "Being an exile makes you so much sharper," she says. "You come back and you're dipping into the flow of the national narrative - and it can suddenly seem quite bizarre."

Her Cromwell, no longer a bloodless fixer but a gifted, victimised child in search of new freedoms for himself and others, makes the iconic tussles and tantrums of the Tudor "national narrative" feel fresh, and even strange. As her chancers and careerists tiptoe on thin ice over the abyss of royal disfavour, he emerges not merely as the great winner in this deadly game but – in his pragmatic tolerance – something of a hero too. It may portray, with near-hallucinatory clarity, a time when cynics flourished – but readers have found that Wolf Hall is far from a cynical book.

With the Protestant reformer Cromwell, as with his great Catholic rival and competitor Thomas More, self-interest and genuine idealism always intersect. Mantel, who in the early 1990s published her first feverish historical epic in the French Revoluion novel A Place of Greater Safety, looks without rancour on "the accommodations and compromises forced on people operating in the political sphere. I am in a way sympathetic to politicians," she admits. "It's too easy in hindsight to write people off as ruthless opportunists. What I'm trying to do is to get my reader to walk forward with them. They didn't know the end of their story. They couldn't draw the moral. They didn't know the consequences."

Mantel takes Cromwell's reformist zeal seriously, but accepts that "there's always a flavour of the practical" with him. "He wouldn't be caught with an idea whose time was over. What he is is nimble. He's quick to shift his ground when he needs to, but with a long-term aim in view. I think what Cromwell is really committed to is the Bible in English in every church". He won that war.

Famously, Wolf Hall restores the moral and artistic balance between the great rivals that Robert Bolt tilted so far towards Thomas More in A Man For All Seasons. Mantel first came across the play when her brother studied it for 'O' level: "I always seemed to be doing other people's homework. It's wonderful drama, and that's why it has taken such a hold on people's imaginations. I completely bought into that at the time. But what I came to see was that this notion of More as a Sixties liberal – he would have been absolutely outraged by it. But it was of its time – just as my novel's of its time."

Mantel disputes the charge that her portrait of More, for whom the heresies that undermine a community's cohesion merit not just the rod and the cell but the stake, is "unsympathetic". With both Catholics and reformers, she works hard to make us grasp the mind-set of characters living "in two worlds... on the scale of time and of eternity. Almost everyone believes that there's a reckoning to come and most people believe, literally, in hell fire." She emphasises that when her Tudor people "took an action, they had to calculate the consequences in this world and the next. What we do find difficult now is how deeply they cared about theological ideas – at what a deep and primal level this battle between the Catholics and Evangelicals was fought."

Mantel shows Cromwell forging a route into the individualistic future where – for good or ill – we all now live and breathe. "More was hanging on grimly to an idea that had had its time – for which I respect him. But I'm not on his side." She acknowledges that "You have to be aware of the power of the fictionalised version. Nothing illustrates that better than A Man For All Seasons. You have to use that responsibly." All the same, "a novelist doesn't have to be impartial. There is a sense in which you're trying to redress a peerceived injustice, because I think Cromwell has had a really bad press."

That Mantel makes him live so bracingly owes much to the firepower of her pithy, pacey, present-tense narration. Her modern style, dusted with the "light spice of period language" that she found in sources such as George Cavendish's life of Cromwell's patron Cardinal Wolsey, grabs us from the off. Here, the brutal blacksmith's son is thrashed not into submission but rebellion. "That first scene just came onto the page fully armed," she recalls. "I had no idea the book was going to sound like that... All the decisions you have to take were taken in a moment, because once I saw this boy lying on the ground I was looking through this eyes - and it was unfolding like a film."

Mantel mentions of these keynote pages that "I gave them to my husband to read, and he said, 'God – they sound as if they're on a sink estate'. That's exactly what I want." I wonder how far the former social worker still thinks of the early patterns of opportunity and deprivation that make or mar our lives.

That period "really made a mark", she says. "There's a point where you decide to be a victim or not. You see that again and again. And, actually, I think that most people do go under, subject to that kind of repression." Cromwell, like several of her protagonists, opts to swim rather than drown. "I suppose a novelist is in the business of turning your characters loose and making them appear to have free will," she reflects. "Maybe it's more like being God than being a social worker."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution
    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state