Welcome to Mumsnet!

We’re delighted you’ve found us. Join in the conversation on the UK's busiest site for parents

Get started »

Book club Q&A with Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel

Bring Up the Bodies, the second instalment in Hilary Mantel's Tudor trilogy, scooped the 2012 Man Booker prize, managing the remarkable hat trick of becoming the first sequel to win the award. Hilary is the first British author - and first woman - to win the Man Booker prize twice.

Pre-Booker, by a stroke of luck genius, the novel was our September 2012 book of the month. Hilary gave brilliant responses to book clubbers' questions on topics ranging from Thomas Cromwell's true nature, the meeting point between historical research and imaginative speculation, and how she used her own vulnerabilities to enrich her work.

Thomas Cromwell | History and research | Tudor politics Narrative Other 


Thomas Cromwell

Letter QBring up the BodiesKatieScarlett: Cromwell is portrayed as having very little romantic interest in women. Is this portrayal designed to emphasise how controlled he is in every aspect of his life, or do you feel that he simply wasn't interested in women romantically?

Letter A

HilaryMantel: As you can imagine, I've thought about why he didn't remarry a lot. We don't know anything about his relationship with his wife. Though I imagine it was she who gave him his turquoise ring in the shape of a heart. I have wondered if he found her hard to get over; her mother and sister stayed in or close to his household, even after the little girls had died, so a new wife would have meant changing many of his close relationships. In part, I think, there was just no time. He didn't actually need a wife, I suppose. He had people to run his household, and no space to make a close relationship. He worked very long hours, and Henry must have been emotionally exhausting.

Cromwell was a gregarious man, with plenty of company both at court and at home, and he seems to have actually liked women more than a lot of his contemporaries. But I've wondered, who could he have married? If he'd chosen one of the merchants' daughters or widows from the city, it was doubtful whether he could take her to court. But could he marry a titled lady? His status was so equivocal. A generation on, it was different. (I don't want to spoil the story, but Gregory marries Jane Seymour's sister.)

So I've set up these possible turning points, where he might have married again, but doesn't. And in the end, the fact that he is a single man has a horrible payoff.

Letter Qculturemulcher: I've been nursing a Cromwell crush. Are you, Hilary?

Letter A

HilaryMantel: Ah, that's not my job. My job's not to be in love with my characters, it's to be them, at least for a few years.

I haven't cut anyone's head off yet. But I have described elsewhere how robust I felt during the initial months of writing Wolf Hall. It was like a holiday from myself, time off from being weak and feeble, as I usually am. If I'd known, I'd have picked healthier characters early in my writing life. The conventional wisdom is that the author puts herself into the character, but what if it's the other way around?

Letter QPanicMode: We read this for our book group and actually had a small review published in Mslexia recently. How much manipulation of history did you have to do in order to portray a more sympathetic Cromwell? Some of our group felt it wasn't a believable portrayal of someone who would have had to be utterly ruthless to rise from such lowly origins to his position.

We disagreed about whether there should have been more of Anne Boleyn in the book - was it a conscious decision not to let her personality intrude too far into the narrative?

Letter A

HilaryMantel: I saw the Mslexia review. I felt your group were hoping for a different kind of book. If they want a novel about Anne Boleyn, there's a very wide choice. I never thought for a moment about adding to that pile.

"Isn't it possible that Cromwell got on because he was an omni-competent workaholic, a self-starter with a brilliant mind and a devotion to those who helped him? I don't, ever, deny or downplay his ruthlessness. A blushing and sensitive soul probably can't achieve what Cromwell achieved."

Maybe, also, the group were too keen to accept a view of Cromwell as a pantomime villain. The whole thrust of the enterprise is to persuade the reader to open her mind, and question what she thinks she knows. Just ask yourself this: when you are from a 'lowly' place, with no power, does ruthlessness help you? Initially? Isn't it possible that Cromwell got on because he was an omni-competent workaholic, a self-starter with a brilliant mind and a devotion to those who helped him? I don't, ever, deny or downplay his ruthlessness. A blushing and sensitive soul probably can't achieve what Cromwell achieved.

But, there is no cupboard in which eternal verities are kept. The 'historical record' is constantly being rewritten. There are a few incontrovertible facts, and a vast sea of interpretation. I am sailing that sea. I don't have to 'manipulate' history. What would be the point? What would I get out of it? You may not agree with my interpretations, but I make them in good faith, and on the basis of what I have learned, rather than prejudice.

Letter QOatyBeatie: Cromwell seems to re-evaluate his brutal father during the course of BUTB (Bring Up The Bodies). He understands him more and perceives some strength. And at the same time he is becoming more openly brutal himself, in a way that makes us revisit the death of Thomas More and retrospectively mistrust Cromwell's stance there.

When you wrote of this re-evaluation by the son, did you conceive of it as a case of, "Perhaps his dad was not as bad as the surly child Cromwell thought him to be," or a case of, "Perhaps the urbane adult Cromwell was never in fact as good as the readers want him to be"?

Letter A

HilaryMantel: I think it's universal, that we re-evaluate our past as we move away from it, and we see our parents in a different light as we grow older. TC (Thomas Cromwell) is beginning to see just what it was about himself that was so annoying when he was young. He doesn't exactly feel sympathy with his father, but he begins to understand him a bit more. And in general, as we move into the third book, some of the earlier events will have a different light cast on them, or be seen from a different angle. I think his attitude to More has already moved on in Bring Up The Bodies. He's surprised he misses him; he wonders where he went. Did he fall into a hole in the road?

Of course he knows, he knows all about his own part in More's death. But More's death was a defeat for TC, not a victory. Victory would have been the propaganda coup of getting More to recognise Henry's second marriage. If you read More's late letters, you see how hard TC struggled to make the end different. I'm trading all the time in what could have been, and trying to locate the turning points where history could have changed; and working with people's shifting and ambivalent attitudes to their own past.

Letter QDevora: The skill of the books is to get us to understand Cromwell and the internal logic that drives his often less-than-lovely deeds. Yet, reading the books made me think of Nazi Germany and the 'banality of evil', how vast numbers of NOT evil people end up colluding with very great social evils.

Cromwell is not evil, but he is a survivor. He is fiercely loyal to 'his' people, and they in turn to him, but has a utilitarian briskness when it comes to anybody outside that circle. He does not favour gratuitous cruelty, but he is perfectly prepared to dispose of anybody who gets in his path. He is an expert technocrat - the kind of man who could have devised the most efficient methods for transporting millions of Jews to death camps, for example, without actually holding any particular ill will towards Jews.

Letter A

HilaryMantel: I agree with you on his utilitarian briskness, Devora, but I'll have to part company with you on the death camps.

Letter QHarderToKidnap: Cromwell always maintains his motivation for everything is his loyalty to Henry and his wish to do his bidding. Even when we read his thoughts, he does not express any dislike or disloyalty to Henry. And yet, the Henry in BUTB (which is of course how Cromwell perceives Henry, because every character is viewed through the prism of Cromwell) is a weak, annoying, borderline lunatic, totally unlikeable and seemingly incapable of inspiring loyalty. His main strength seems to be his politeness. Do you know what really motivates Cromwell in BUTB, and how he really feels about Henry?

Letter A

HilaryMantel: I really love it when a reader feels so strongly - even if it's not quite the way I feel - it shows how much our judgment is knitted up with our own personalities, how much a reader brings to a book. Here and there I feel a sneaking sympathy for Henry. I think Cromwell revered Henry simply because he was the king, the source of the law, the only source of stability and guarantee of peace. He could never talk about him in an unreserved, personal way, and I wonder if he could ever think of him just as another man. If he did, he may well have felt some contempt. But you'd do a lot to stop yourself thinking in that way, because without Henry, it's anarchy, it's chaos, it's back to civil war. You will see their relationship evolve further in The Mirror and the Light.

Letter QMatsikula: I am fascinated by Gregory. Clearly Cromwell wants to bring him with all the advantages he didn't have, but given who his father is, he seems pretty vacuous, and almost stupid.

Was that grounded in historical accounts, or did you want to illustrate Cromwell's fatherly instinct to protect his son from cynicism?

Letter A

HilaryMantel: I wish we knew a lot more about Gregory. I don't think he was stupid at all, but he wasn't his father, and that was the problem. I think maybe TC was expecting far too much of him. He was an ordinary boy. Liked hunting, jousting, etc. (It may not have endeared the Cromwell family to the aristocracy that they were so good at the sport for which young noblemen trained so assiduously from their early years.) Gregory seems to have been very likeable. People refer to him as 'the gentle and gracious Gregory'... phrases like that. It must hurt, to know that you're not living up to what your parent wants for you. Richard and Rafe are far more like TC's true sons. So I've supposed Gregory had to find a role for himself and (in my telling) he doesn't mind being the boy who believes anything.

He's a bit like Jane Seymour. Everything he says, you have to read twice. And in the next book the desolating scene will come, when the reader must look at the world through Gregory's eyes, and see how he's been almost killed with kindness; and will learn what he's really thinking.

Letter QPortofino: I was quite in love with Thomas Cromwell all the way through both books. Do you think he genuinely was so lovely, unbiased and really tried so hard to live up to his morals as opposed to seeking power/avoiding execution?

Letter A

HilaryMantel: I think many of his actions are equivocal. That's what makes him so fascinating. There's genuine idealism, alongside acutely focused self-interest. I think his loyalty to Wolsey tells us a lot about what kind of man he was; that's one of the things that made me think that he has been undeservedly vilified. He changed, of course; it's a long career we are looking at, and it never got easier to work for Henry, only harder all the time. He was a natural negotiator, a compromiser; it's believed that, as a lawyer, some of his early work was in arbitration.

But more and more, the politics of the reign go beyond compromise; as we move into the third part of the story, England is isolated and under threat from both external and internal enemies, and the stakes are very high, decisions highly pressured. He believed in economy of means, I think, and if you were in his way he would (after fair warning) push you out of it. I think in the end he was a bit like a mafia don. It was lovely if you were on the inside track with him, but if you were outside, it was a cold and dangerous world.

Letter QHackmum: You've done a fantastic job of making Cromwell a compelling and likeable character. But I can't help thinking to do this you've had to elide some of the historical reality, particularly in the second book which ends with Anne Boleyn's execution. Cromwell was, after all, capable of some very brutal and ruthless behaviour. Did you feel that you were distorting the historical facts at all? Or did you feel that Cromwell's behaviour was justified in the context of the time?

Secondly, I saw an interview with you where you said that most biographies of Cromwell were still very unfair to him and there was yet to be a biography that did him justice. What did you think of John Schofield's 2008 biography? It seems to take a much more sympathetic view of him.

Letter AHilaryMantel: I think it was justified in the context of his personal survival, which is ultimately what counts for most of us. Again, we're looking, in this book, from Cromwell's viewpoint, so the angle does seem unfamiliar. And I don't think I hold back on showing what he is capable of. I would have no motive for distorting the facts; if I found I couldn't sympathise with Cromwell, I'd go and find someone 'nicer' to write about. But who would that be? The Duke of Norfolk? Anne Boleyn, who reportedly wanted Henry's first wife and daughter murdered? True, maybe she's been misreported. That's always the risk. But it's the risk with Cromwell too.

You have to bear in mind that TC is a work in progress. The third book is yet to come. Circumstances are changing, he's changing. Times are getting harder, and so maybe are his methods. And my view on him changes too, and will go on evolving till the last page of the last book (probably even afterwards).

Most biographies have been hostile. John Schofield's isn't, and it's a very fine book. You'll also find a positive take on Cromwell in GR Elton, AG Dickens, and Neville Williams. But what I'd like to see is something more accessible to the general reader. The difficulty is the hidden nature of Cromwell's private life, and the manifold aspects of his public life. GR Elton, who was the greatest Cromwell scholar, thought he was 'unbiographable'. I've been thinking about that from the start. Are there some people about whom you can't write a biography, but can write a persuasive novel, given you have that extra permission to speculate?

Letter QDozer: BUTB offers a sympathetic, even romantic portrayal of Thomas Cromwell, do you think of him as a good character? Why did he appeal to you?

Also, the novels show the terrible position of rich women at the time, eg traded by their families. Was it hard to write about this without being either cold or obviously indignant?

Letter A

"I don't think of TC as a subject for romance, but I don't either see him as the villain we've been living with since the Victorians. It's an odd fact that his place in academic history and his place in popular history are quite different."

HilaryMantel: I must say I don't think of TC as a subject for romance, but I don't either see him as the villain we've been living with since the Victorians. It's an odd fact that his place in academic history and his place in popular history are quite different. Academic historians have long seen him as central to Henry's reign. But they don't necessarily consider what he was like as a man; that's not their job. In popular history, he's been vilified on the basis of very little information. I wanted to try to put aside prejudice, wipe the slate clean, and see what I found. I wanted to know how he did it: blacksmith's son to earl.

Arranged marriages, you do feel for the women, and the men as well, but you have to stay within the age's own framework of thought. It's false to apply 21st century standards to their conduct and customs. So if I am indignant, I try to be indignant in a 16th century way.

Letter QOatyBeatie: I really enjoyed both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. I struggled with two things though. One was the enormously conspicuous 'he, Cromwell' device - your decision never to refer to Cromwell simply by name but instead always with the third-person pronoun, clarified where necessary by the addition of the name. Was this done in order to keep the camera close to his person - ie to keep the book always more intimately present with him than with other characters? 

Letter A

HilaryMantel: The whole of the action is seen through his eyes. To put it another way, the camera is on his shoulder. It would seem false to start referring to him as 'Cromwell' as if he were across the room somewhere. I thought the gains of this approach outweighed the disadvantages of it. I realize not all readers agree. But the viewpoint is so intrinsic to the whole project that I had to back my own judgment. In the second book I tried to consider the readers who were unhappy, by sometimes reinforcing 'he' with 'he, Cromwell.' But then a group of readers (see below) have said that they preferred the unadorned 'he' of the first book. So you just can't please everyone! 


History and research

Letter QMooncupGoddess: I absolutely loved Cromwell's flashbacks to his younger days abroad. Are there any sources for this period in his life, or did you have licence to make up whatever suited the wider narrative?

Was it liberating to have so much freedom, in comparison to the fall of Anne Boleyn section, which presumably required much painstaking work with the sources and subsequent scholarship?

Letter A

HilaryMantel:  The lucky thing (for us, not for Thomas Cromwell) is that his father Walter, being such a thug, left his mark on the records of the local law courts. Otherwise we might know nothing about such a humble family. The sources for his early life are confused and you can't make it all fit; when someone unexpectedly becomes famous, semi-legendary stuff aggregates after the event. An Italian writer called Bandello, who gave Shakespeare a lot of his material (Romeo & Juliet, Twelfth Night etc) told stories about Cromwell in Italy. John Foxe, writing a generation later, told anecdotes about TC after he was a 'great man'; Foxe did know people who had known Cromwell, including some of the 'singing children' in his household. It seems to be accepted that he ran away from home at about 15 because he was in trouble with the law. It's accepted that he got himself into the household of the Italian banker Frescobaldi, though no one knows how. And his uncle John really was a cook at Lambeth Palace, as I say in Wolf Hall.

I don't feel equal to reconstructing the whole of his lost years, nor would I feel at ease with it. So I try to let memories drift up, partial and fragmentary, the way they do. My guess is — and this is something that occurred to me very early in my work on the books — is that TC's lost years are an aspect of his power. There's an area of darkness, into which his contemporaries project their fantasies and fears.

Letter QQWERTYmonster: Can you tell us a bit about the research you did for Wolf Hall? I re-read Peter Ackroyd's biography of Thomas More after reading it, and wondered whether you had drawn much from there.

Your historical novels are so wonderfully compassionate and empathetic; can you say much about why certain historical figures (St Just in A Place of Greater Safety, and More in WH) seem to fail your 'human empathy' test? Is it to do with fanaticism?

Letter A

HilaryMantel: I don't think my portrayal of More is particularly unsympathetic. I think you must feel for him, wandering about London without his gloves: and at the end, where he's in his prison room shut in with his lonely choices, and they take his books away and he closes the shutters and sits in the dark. But many accounts of More do soft-peddle his heresy hunting. (Some readers even think I've made it up.) It's true that he was acting like a good papist of his era, and one mustn't judge him by modern standards, but there's something indecent in the relish with which he persecuted people whose consciences led them in a different direction from his own.

Readers don't expect this portrait. They expect 'A Man for All Seasons.' But whatever More was, he was not a 1960s liberal. I've read many biographies, plus many of his own letters and writings, and whatever I can find on his family. I didn't find Ackroyd's book stood out, though as always he's original and personal in his approach. I think research generally is a great web, where it's impossible to separate the strands. Major figures in one biographical study crop up as minor figures in another, and you see them as part of the larger story, and discern their connections to yet a third set of characters... and so it goes. There's the big background reading, on the continental Reformation, let's say, and then there's the story of a particular abbey, told through its inventories, through its legal documents. There are the big players everybody knows about, and then there are the recessed, background figures: Wolsey's illegitimate daughter, Rafe Sadler's happy wife, Harry Percy's unhappy wife, who never makes it on to the page, but still I need to think about her, she's in there changing the course of history. There are really baffling figures, like the 'Holy Maid of Kent' (in Wolf Hall) who seem to belong to the middle ages when everybody around her is racing into the modern world. And people who can never be more than shadowy and marginal, like Humphrey the spaniel keeper or Hugh the falconer; they were real, and I love knowing their names. The only totally invented character is Christophe, and even he has a backstory which fits neatly into a true story; he claims to be the little boy who stole Wolsey's silver plate when the cardinal was in France. I don't expect my reader to notice all these people; they're like a background of whispering, but they give depths to the soundscape. Or like those little figures you see in religious or landscape paintings, dots in the distance on the hills. What happens is that for Cromwell, for a moment, on a particular day, they come sharply into focus. Then they fade.

"I think empathy falters where you feel a person tugging away from reality, swimming into an inner world that's very dark, and perhaps heading ultimately to the true break with reality that is psychosis."

To go back to your question of natural sympathies, I guess I've got more sympathy with pragmatists than dogmatists. I think on the whole they do less damage. What you've got to remember about More is that in Wolf Hall he's being seen through TC's eyes. What I think doesn't matter very much. But here I should say something about St Just, because in A Place of Greater Safety, I'm not looking through the eyes of any particular figure, though I am trying to represent the separate reality of the three very different men who are the main characters. I wrote APOGS in the 1970s; it was essentially my first book, though not first published. I know more about St Just than I did then, but to be honest, he looks even more worrying now I have more facts about his early life. I think what's most chilling is his proposal to separate parents and children and have the children brought up by the state. You have to remember he was very young. He didn't live to be a husband or a father. His own childhood was no doubt very unhappy but even so, there's something not quite human going on here. His physical perfection somehow makes him all the more frightening. I think empathy falters where you feel a person tugging away from reality, swimming into an inner world that's very dark, and perhaps heading ultimately to the true break with reality that is psychosis. I can't imagine what would have happened to him if he had lived. Most people get more reasonable, accept the need for compromise. I wonder if that would have been the case; was he just posing, in which case there was hope for him, or did he really believe what he said?

Letter Qflickor: In terms of research did you go back and review the primary sources? How did you get inside the head of Thomas Cromwell? Do you think Jane Seymour was more intelligent than we've been lead to believe?

Letter A

HilaryMantel: I go back as far as I can, and read as widely as I can, but I have no secret cache of documents. I'm not a trained historian and don't do original research, but it's essential to get back to the sources where you can, rather than take the word of historians or biographers. I cast my net widely and I'm quite prepared to read a whole book for one fact or one image.

As sources I count pictures and music as well as the written word, poems as well as polemics. I think that to get inside a character's head you have to know as much as you can about the context in which they live. It's not just the obvious things, like what do they wear and what do they eat; you have to ask what formed them, who have they met and what have they seen and, in any given situation, what details would strike them; what would they like, what would annoy them, what would they take for granted and what would strike them as new?

For example, having been in the cloth trade, Thomas Cromwell notices what people are wearing, and can price it up. It's part of his characteristic way of looking at the world. He's a pleb looking at aristos, an outsider looking at insiders, a clever man looking at the stupid; he's got an angle on things. Once I've grasped his unique perspective, I can try recreating him. This is an imaginative reconstruction, of course, I just try to make sure my imagination works with the facts, not against them.

Letter QCulturemulcher: Wolf Hall soared straight to number on my list of 'books I have to read from the start straight after finishing'. How much of Cromwell's early life do you feel you invented and how much came from research? Could you give a percentage?

Letter A

HilaryMantel: I can't really give a percentage, but see my answer to MooncupGoddess. There are all sorts of stories on the record that hover between likely and unlikely. If I can't give a percentage, maybe I can give a 'for instance'? Could Thomas Cromwell cook? Well, there's Uncle John at Lambeth Palace, but there's also the story John Foxe tells (the Book of Martyrs is more fun than it sounds) about how the young Cromwell made jellies for the pope. That one seemed to be stretching the reader's credulity so I didn't include it directly, but you'll notice jellies are on the menu quite a lot: that's my nod to a semi-mythical episode.

I'm so happy you say you will read twice. I think one of my aims is to make books that aren't easily used up, books that yield different meanings and details on each reading. Maybe the reader finds her sympathies have changed, between one reading and the next, or that something strikes her quite differently second time around.

Letter QPeevish: You've said in interviews that you don't understand why some writers write the same books over and over again - did Bring Up the Bodies feel like a completely different novel to Wolf Hall as a writing experience, despite all their obvious similarities?

How do you make the leap from historical research, reading biographies etc of your 'real' Tudor characters, to making them live as much as the characters you've invented from scratch? 

Finally, is part of the appeal of writing about Cromwell his sheer ultra-competence and success at everything from cookery to languages to statecraft? 

Letter A

HilaryMantel: I think there's a crucial moment, hard to define, sometimes hard to remember, when you grasp your main character's way of looking at the world. I get a sense of Cromwell as someone who's very grounded in his body and in the sensory world. He's clever, but he's not an intellectual; his response to the world is from the gut. So I had to learn how to imitate that, because I just live in my head.

"Bring Up The Bodies is intense and compacted. I never relaxed during the writing of it; not the way I did when we were chatting to Wolsey."

The two books feel very different, and I'm sure the third will be different again. Bring Up The Bodies is intense and compacted. I never relaxed during the writing of it; not like the way I did when we were chatting to Wolsey. And of course you're right, Cromwell is exhilarating company because of his sheer ingenuity; he always seems to have a surprise in store (though sometimes an unpleasant one).

They say all political careers end in failure. But that doesn’t mean they all end in futility. The wonder is that he got so far as he did. 

Letter QStanleyAccrington: I find it amazing that I am so gripped by a story whose ending I already know to some degree, given the basis in fact. Was it more challenging writing a novel where you are constrained by history, or was it easier having the parameters clearly defined from the outset? 

Letter A

HilaryMantel: I find the facts inspiring, rather than limiting. Of course, when we look at history, we often know what happened, but not why. I like trying to reconcile the many different versions of events, and I like using an unfamiliar viewpoint; when you change the place you stand to look, what you see is sometimes quite different from what you supposed. I think it's a historian's job to work out what happened, and a novelist's job to try to imagine what it felt like while it was happening. 


Tudor politics

Letter QOatyBeatie: On the topic of Cromwell as a political leader, when you have Cromwell pondering the possibilities of aiding the poor by strengthening the state's role in the economy, on the back of expenditure made possible by extracting money from the monasteries, do you envisage those as thought-processes that might actually have been likely among Tudor political actors? Or was that a (very pleasing) literary strategy for referencing our current politics?  

Letter A

HilaryMantel: When I am writing about the 16th century, I actually am writing about it. Modern parallels are pleasing but incidental. I haven't invented the Cromwellian social programme. It's startling, it's revolutionary even, but it's not anachronistic; in fact, along with what's new, there's some continuity with medieval paternalism. The sad fact was, though, that by the time the money from the larger abbeys came in, England was under threat and the cash went on defence. The church bells were recast into cannon.

Letter QTriathlonwannabe: I was really struck by the contrast between the healthy, cooperative atmosphere of Austin Friars, with merchants coming in and out, the loyal team of Rafe etc. supporting Cromwell, where everyone knows their place and value, and the poisonous atmosphere of Henry's court. 

Did you want the reader to pick up on this and see Cromwell as an alternative, better leader, as the start of the modern state, based on merit, not birth?

Letter A

"Many of the measures he projected, but did not manage to put into place, suggest a radical thinker who wanted a fairer society. I don't suggest he was a premature socialist or an egalitarian, but he did know that education changes the face of a society. And he knew that an economic system has casualties, and posited that it might be up to the state to create jobs."

HilaryMantel: He says somewhere (in my novel, I mean) that he wants England to be like Austin Friars, where everybody knows what they have to do and feels safe doing it, and not like his childhood home, with banging and shouting all the time and people hurting each other. I think what he valued most was peace and order, and that meant strong government. That was the choice in the sixteenth century. You didn't have a choice between autocracy and democracy. You had a choice between strong government, which meant the rule of law, or weak government, which meant a free-for-all. Of course, in pursuit of strong government, it's possible to become highly repressive. Who can draw the line? Many of the measures he projected, but did not manage to put into place, suggest a radical thinker who wanted a fairer society. I don't suggest he was a premature socialist or an egalitarian, but he did know that education changes the face of a society. And he knew that an economic system has casualties, and posited that it might be up to the state to create jobs.

I think he was a living reproach to the principle of inherited power. No wonder he was unpopular with the nobility. No matter how carefully he treated them, they must have wondered how many more Cromwells were lurking out there.


Letter QOatyBeatie: Were some elements in the book 'experiments' motivated by the sense of curiosity about source material, rather than being motivated by narrower, strictly narrative demands? Do you think that could explain why the books are sometimes quite a challenging read?

Letter A

HilaryMantel: I think that one factor that explains the movement of the narrative is my effort to capture the working of memory. I'd never write a scene just to squeeze in some bit of research that appealed to me. What gets on to the page is honestly the tip of the iceberg. Each scene, if you think about it, has to achieve so much. But it is true that sometimes little details grab you (the man-bags is one that seems to appeal to readers) and then I try to slide it in: if it's piquant, or unexpected, or throws an unexpected light on characters and events.

What pleases me most is when you find something so good you couldn't invent it, and you immediately see the place it fits, the snowmen, for instance, in the shape of the papal court. They were real, but they weren't made at TC's house; the man who built them wrote to the king about them. I transferred their location, and what they serve to do is to lighten that dire day in his life, break the tension; to remind you that he exists as the centre of a bustling young household; to tell you what people are thinking about the pope. Also to make you feel the winter cold, and see the firelight, and feel the drip of the thaw.

Letter QFridascruffs: Could you please not let Thomas have his head cut off? Just make it up. We won't mind.

Letter A

HilaryMantel: I can't offer not to cut off Cromwell's head, but I'll be working on an ending that leaves us sad, but not miserable.

Letter QAnagallisarvensis: Do you have a detailed story plan before you start writing or do you have an idea of a character and let the story evolve as you write? Is it different planning a book based on real events from writing pure fiction (such as your books Beyond Black and A change of Climate)?

"My experience of all writing is much the same, whether its memoir, pure invention, or a spin on historical events; you can only plan it so far, then it takes on what feels like a life of its own; what you're doing is making the decisions so fast that they never bob up to the surface of consciousness."

Letter A

HilaryMantel: I think that a story has to grow like a plant, and in its own time, rather than be made, like a machine. With historical fiction you have the facts as a guideline, but within those lines there's a great deal of scope for how you handle the story: the pace, the emphasis, the details you will choose. You often don't know, till you're right in the middle of the novel, where the stress should fall. My experience of all writing is much the same, whether its memoir, pure invention, or a spin on historical events; you can only plan it so far, then it takes on what feels like a life of its own; what you're doing is making the decisions so fast that they never bob up to the surface of consciousness. It's like riding with soft hands; you are in control, but it's light, it's just a feather touch. Sometimes, I realise, you have to sweat over your writing. You have to wrestle it on to the page. But the best ideas, phrases, seem to shape themselves out of the air. Sometimes you're grappling with apes and sometimes you're entertaining angels.

You need to surprise yourself. The main thing I like about writing is that at the beginning of the day you never know where you'll be by the end. Initially I set out to write Thomas Cromwell's story in just one novel. But then the material seemed to broaden, deepen, and it became two books, now three. (No more than three: I can be pretty sure of that.) There were facets that I had not appreciated, and then again, the evolution of a human being...who can say the last word?

Letter QMumOfTheMoos: Will you, like Henry, miss him when he's gone? What do you like best about him and what do you like least?

Letter A

HilaryMantel: A big question. I like his sheer energy, his appetite for whatever life throws at him: his fearlessness. I think what's negative will emerge more strongly in the third book, and emerge out of complex circumstances too difficult to foreshadow here. He was a Protestant at heart, but had to watch Henry burn Protestants as heretics. Could he have done more? Was a wish for self-preservation over-riding everything else, by 1539? I don't yet know what I'll conclude.
In a sense your characters never go away. But you are sorry to have said the last word. You feel a terrible responsibility: this was my chance to get it right, have I taken it?

Letter QSevillemarmalade: I found in Bring Up the Bodies that the scene where Cromwell interviews Mark Smeaton changed the mood of the book and suddenly Cromwell did appear a much darker and more ruthless figure, easily capable of systematically destroying the men who brought down Wolsey. How do you create the tension and deliver it at just the right moment?

You note that some historians read and commented on WH while it was in development - what was the most useful contribution you received?

And a personal question - when you have finished a book do you mark/celebrate the occasion? 

Letter A

HilaryMantel: Let me take the middle question first: historians. I didn't actually know any when I started Wolf Hall. I just had a contact in California, Mary Robertson, who'd written her doctoral thesis on Thomas Cromwell's ministerial household many years ago, and who had walked away, I was told, with a very good impression of the man she was writing about. We got into email correspondence and now we've met a couple of times. Knowing her stopped me from feeling isolated. It wasn't any one single piece of knowledge that made me dedicate the books to her. It was the fact that she was open and sympathetic to my project, though it was fiction. She knew I was serious about my research and she was prepared to bounce ideas around. Since Wolf Hall came out, I have had interested letters from several historians, and I have built up a little network of contacts. But when I'm writing, somehow, I don't ask for help. I think I need to work things out myself. It can be frustrating because I am not working with the resources of a great library. But then, I don't go to the obvious sources of knowledge. My knowledge base is shallower than that of a professional historian of the period, but my inquiries are wider.

There are certain scenes (the interrogation of Mark Smeaton is a good example) where my inner playwright gets unleashed. I have to keep this animal under control because it would create plays that were a year long, but often I am making a scene in my head, hearing the various voices, shifting bodies in space. Instinct tells me that if you make the shape in space, you will make it on the page, and that if you are prepared to live the scene in real time, and internalize your characters' emotions, you will be able to express them 'out loud' for the reader.

"There does come a moment when the closing paragraph is written and then I'm a husk, I'm an empty shell. I'm pathetic. I'm useless for any practical purpose. I can barely talk, much less celebrate. I just sit staring into space, green as a peapod, actually nauseous and shaky."

When I've finished...it's hard to say when that is, as I rewrite most scenes many times, and am always revising. But there does come a moment when the closing paragraph is written and then I'm a husk, I'm an empty shell. I'm pathetic. I'm useless for any practical purpose. I can barely talk, much less celebrate. I just sit staring into space, green as a peapod, actually nauseous and shaky. Then I start the checking, which can take weeks, and which I do in a climate of fear, in case I find I have misunderstood some vital point. Before I've recovered, the manuscript has gone to my agent and publisher for an opinion, and I sit staring into space again, this time gnawing my knuckles. This stage never gets easier. 

Letter QRoselover: How do you get into the mind of someone facing such horrors - you do scared, really well. Where did the idea for the image of the birds as angels/spirits of Cromwell's lost children come from?

Letter A

HilaryMantel: I know this sounds pathetic, and also like a sales pitch, but I spent much of my childhood in a state of fear: as explained in my memoir, Giving Up The Ghost. So yes, I know it intimately. The end of Bring Up The Bodies was truly harrowing to write, because you're dealing with multiple characters who are in a state of dread. And that was also the case with A Place of Greater Safety. People think of the victims of the guillotine as being aristocrats; they are the glamorous high-profile victims who attract the attention of romantic novelists. But in real life, a disproportionate number of the casualties were young lawyers and journalists, the people who had started the Revolution, but who failed to move nimbly enough to keep up with the drift towards Terror. Within that small world, the rate of attrition is terrifying.

The falcons, lost souls, dead children - it's a case where a fragment of your own life seems to embed itself in your memory, and surface at the right time. About 30 years ago one of my friends made a kite and called it after his wife. I'd never known that kites had names. I was really touched by it. Well, then they got divorced. But I still liked the image of her soaring into the blue, a woman who could fly. Then, to move into the world of the Tudors, in the 16th century it becomes such a big theological question: where are the dead? Are they shut up in the dark in purgatory, doing penance? Evangelicals like Cromwell didn't believe in purgatory. And he loved falconry (and archery). And so you arrive at the image of the daughters, wives, sisters, flying free.



Letter QTschiffely: What and who do you read?

Letter A

HilaryMantel: Lots of history, psychology, soft science. Oliver Sacks, my great hero. Annie Proulx (short stories, not so much her novels.) Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Ivy Compton Burnet, Molly Keane, William Trevor, John McGahern, lots of more modern Irish fiction. Not Dickens, Shakespeare, a lot (sorry if that sounds pious or predictable) and poetry.

Letter QFannyBrawne: Do you think your Catholic and/or legal education has in any way influenced your 'Tudor' novels?

Letter A

HilaryMantel: I was taught so badly about Catholicism, in such a superstitious way and with such a low level of sophistication, that I reckon I can get into the mind of an illiterate worshipper of the 1500s. So that helps! And so does access to the very specialised way lawyers think about innocence and guilt, the way they present facts. I wish I'd taken more notice in my land law lectures, but the bit I know does help me understand the radical implications of some of the measures TC and his colleagues proposed. I've written quite a lot about lawyers, if you include A Place of Greater Safety.

To be serious about the first part of the question: if you've been brought up as a Roman Catholic, however badly, I think it does help you to understand the pre-reformation world. Notions like transubstantiation are mind-boggling to people who didn't grow up with them. And it helps to know, as well, that Catholic teaching and practice has varied so much with the centuries, though the church tends to conceal that from lay people.

Letter QClawdy: Thomas Cromwell's image is in my head, and somehow he doesn't look like the Holbein portrait. What image was in your head as you wrote the book, what sort of face did you see?

Letter A

HilaryMantel: In a way, I didn't see the Holbein portrait either, though in a sense it must be 'true'. If you remember from Wolf Hall, Chapuys is dubious about it, and it's he who tells us more than anyone about the impression Cromwell made, which was of an active, mobile person; it's when he talks that he comes alive. He's all resistance, in that picture. Just giving nothing. I think that, as KatieScarlett says, he's under tight control. Hard to imagine him laughing, yet we know he did.

Letter QTypicalvirgo: I have just discovered that you grew up in the same village as me. How did you come to be so interested in historical fiction. Hadfield and Glossop are not exactly famed for their Tudor connections.

Letter A

HilaryMantel: No, not much of the Tudor world in Hadfield and Glossop, though the Howard family were big players locally. Incidentally, TC's mother, name unknown, is sometimes said to be a Derbyshire girl, though I've not been able to convince myself of that. (No registration of births, marriages and deaths till 1538, when TC invented it.)

I've always had an intense reverence for the past, though I don't know where I got it. Can you be born with such a thing? I'd always imagined that being northern and of Irish background and a Catholic by upbringing, I was out of the mainstream, with marginal attitudes and interests; but now I've moved on to the central ground of English history and am stamping about on it in my clogs.

Letter QDevora: Have you considered doing Oliver Cromwell next?

Letter A

HilaryMantel:That would be just too confusing for my American readers. It took me a while to introduce them to the notion that there were two Cromwells. (And to be fair, some of my British readers didn't know either.)


Last updated: over 3 years ago