In the 1980s, after a period in Botswana, Hilary Mantel lived for four years in Jeddah with her husband Gerald McEwen, then a geologist. That experience of Saudi Arabia, which she likens to "living in the Middle Ages in some respects", underpinned the culture-clash satire of her 1988 novel Eight Months on Ghazzah Street. It also helped to plant the seed that, a quarter-century later, has led to such an abundant harvest for the novelist and her readers.
"Living in a society where no one can speak freely is a powerful lesson," she told me just after her Man Booker Prize victory in 2009 with Wolf Hall, the first of a planned trilogy of novels about Thomas Cromwell and the treacherous Tudor court of the 1530s. "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."
This week sees the publication of the middle passage in her Cromwell sequence. In Bring Up the Bodies, the capricious king transfers his affections to Jane Seymour. Cromwell, his supremely agile factotum, soon contrives the downfall of Anne Boleyn and her haughty, detested family in a bloodbath of executions. The book, published ahead of schedule, has been awaited by admirers with the bated-breath excitement more often associated with new albums by spangled divas or CGI-driven Hollywood blockbusters than with serious, dense and exquisitely crafted historical fiction by a former social worker from Derbyshire.
The antithesis of bodice-ripping Tudor romps, Mantel's Cromwell novels create an electrifying dialogue between past and present. Readers will recognise at every step both how near we stand to these elite intrigues of the 1530s – and how far away they remain. The supreme fixer, charming and ruthless, Cromwell figures in the fiction – as in fact – as the bureaucratic pioneer of the modern English state after Henry's break with Rome, and of the hard-headed alliances that made, and make, it run. "The days of the moneylender have arrived, and the days of the swaggering privateer," Bring Up the Bodies tells us: "Banker sits down with banker, and kings are their waiting boys."
Yet Mantel also gives the fierce, divisive faith of the age its rightful due. As she explained to me, her characters must live "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 hellfire... 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 catches this double perspective, with Cromwell, Anne, Henry and the courtiers appearing both as intimates and strangers, thanks to her swift and salty present-tense style. It eschews costume-drama folderol while keeping a slight alien flavour: a "light spice of period language", rooted in her immersion in the competing narratives found in contemporary documents. "It's a beautiful thing to be able to do," she told me. "I just walk across the room and we switch viewpoints. That brought me great joy because I love using people's actual words – and I also love thinking up the reply which didn't get on the record."
Her Cromwell novels have not only drastically raised the bar for intelligent historical fiction in Britain and beyond. They have, in terms of reputation, allowed their author to leapfrog many of her showier male peers. Prior to Wolf Hall, published in 2009, her literary star had burned steadily for two decades. But a mass public had yet to pay it much heed.
Mantel was born in Glossop in 1952, into a Catholic family of Irish descent and into a faith whose fading left her with a textbook sense of guilt. Mantel is her stepfather's surname; she last saw her biological father at the age of 11. In Wolf Hall, she famously redressed the historical balance between Thomas More – a saint of her (former) church – and Thomas Cromwell that Robert Bolt had tilted so far in More's favour with A Man for All Seasons. She had first read that play when her brother studied it for O-level, and told me that "I completely bought into that at the time. But I think that what I came to see was that this notion of More as a Sixties liberal – he would have been absolutely outraged."
A law student at Sheffield and the LSE, Mantel became a hospital social worker for a while. Readers of Wolf Hall will recall that her Cromwell, the Putney blacksmith's boy, begins the book as an abused child, savagely beaten by his father. The child is father to the man. She reported to me that being a social worker "really made a mark", and reflected that: "There's a point where you decide to be a victim or not. You see that again and again." Her Cromwell refuses victimhood: his triumph, but others' tragedy.
Later, her husband's profession led to those long years of expatriation in Africa and the Middle East. The experience not only broadened her insight into other cultures but allowed her, during spells of annual leave, to inspect her homeland with an outsider's gaze: "Being an exile makes you so much sharper. You come back and you're dipping into the flow of the national narrative – and it can suddenly seem quite bizarre."
A more intimate kind of estrangement also helped to shape her outlook, and her art. Mantel has suffered since youth from endometriosis: the gynaecological condition whose devastating effects – from constant pain to weight gain and infertility – she recounted in an astonishing memoir, Giving up the Ghost. Worse, her symptoms were for years misdiagnosed as psychosomatic in origin. So she languished under a medical reign of terror, and ignorance, that surely felt as frightening and bewildering as anything a Tudor politician could devise. It's hard to consult that memoir and not find a faint echo of its author's ordeals in the Cromwell novels. There, the bodies of Henry's queens – Katherine, Anne, Jane – become state property, under the endless controlling scrutiny of quacks, divines and courtiers.
Yet, far from curling up into injured introspection, her novels stretched their settings and their sympathies ever wider. In Fludd (1989), a mill village is menaced by a sinister incomer. The Giant, O'Brien (1998) gives us a gloriously subversive Irish "freak" turning the tables on 18th-century London society. The travelling medium in the darkly comic Beyond Black (2005) brings trances, traumas and séances to the downbeat suburbia of modern Middle England. Her previous historical epic, A Place of Greater Safety (1992), revisits the French Revolution and foreshadows the ecumenical understanding of the powerful as well as the powerless that lends such depth to the Cromwell novels. "I am in a way sympathetic to politicians," she explained to me. "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."
Bring Up the Bodies again leaves us with Cromwell, his cronies and his foes, stranded in history's mid-stream. We may know full well the deadly consequences of Henry's fickle favour; but, for now, their future is as dark as our own. So Mantel's spirited and startling reanimation of the distant past goes on. "Mr Secretary," her author's note tells readers, "remains sleek, plump and densely inaccessible, like a choice plum in a Christmas pie; but I hope to continue my efforts to dig him out."
A Life In Brief
Born: Hilary Mary Thompson, 6 July 1952 in Glossop, Derbyshire,
Family: Her parents, Henry Thompson and Margaret Mary Thompson, split up while she was a child, and Jack Mantel became her stepfather. She married Gerald McEwen in 1973. They have no children.
Education: Read law at the LSE, but transferred to the University of Sheffield and graduated with a degree in jurisprudence.
Career: Worked in a geriatric hospital and as a sales assistant in a department store. Published her first novel in 1985. Won the Man Booker in 2009 for Wolf Hall. Its sequel, Bring Up The Bodies, is out this month.
She says: "It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires."
They say: "Mantel's writing is so exact and brilliant that, in itself, it seems an act of survival, even redemption." – Critic Joan AcocellaReuse content