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Smitten with the 16th century

Hilary Mantel talks about her struggle, love for history, and the pressure she now feels as the only woman to win the Man Booker prize twice

Gulf News

When Hilary Mantel won the Man Booker prize for fiction at London’s Guildhall last month, she wrote a new chapter in British literary history. Her novel “Bring Up the Bodies” is the second part of a projected trilogy fictionalising the life of Thomas Cromwell and the court of Henry VIII.

Although she is the third double winner of the prize — alongside Peter Carey and J.M. Coetzee — Mantel is the first Briton and the first woman to recapture the £50,000 (Dh293,954) award.

The next day, Mantel is suffering the effects of just two hours’ sleep and her achievement has yet to sink in. “I’ve no idea what it will mean,” she says. “I think, with what I must now call ‘my first Booker’ [for ‘Wolf Hall’ in 2009], I did have some idea of what was coming. I knew sales would jump, I knew there would be more interest from abroad. This time it’s harder to call.”

But she points to the stage and TV adaptations now in preparation. Mantel recently attended the first read-through of “Wolf Hall” the play (by Mike Poulton, who adapted “The Canterbury Tales” for the RSC). Next year BBC2 is to make a six-part series, and an audience in the millions awaits: “And of course the question now becomes: ‘Who will play Thomas Cromwell?’ It’s like the search for Scarlett O’Hara ...”

There can be few more compelling roles than Mantel’s Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith who rises to become Henry VIII’s right-hand man, negotiates the intrigue of court during the break with Rome and, by the end of “Bring Up the Bodies”, has seen Anne Boleyn executed, leaving his master free to marry Jane Seymour. We know, as Cromwell does not, that his own end is coming soon.

What was it about this man that so fascinated Mantel? “Well, I can be frank and say I’ve always been very ambitious — and, like Cromwell, I came from a low place,” she says.

Born in 1952 in Derbyshire, Mantel had an unconventional childhood, living for a time in a household that included both her father and her mother’s lover; after the family moved away to make a new start in Cheshire, she never saw her father again. She read law at the London School of Economics and then Sheffield University, but gave up on her hopes of becoming a barrister for lack of funds, working for a time as a social worker before moving in the late 1970s to Botswana with her husband Gerald McEwan, then a geologist.

In Africa, Mantel devoted herself to “A Place of Greater Safety”, a historical novel of the French revolution, which was rejected by publishers (but eventually released in 1992). It was during this period that long-running health problems were finally diagnosed as endometriosis, a gynaecological condition whose debilitating effects she would document in her 2003 memoir “Giving Up the Ghost”.

Mantel was already thinking about Cromwell in the 1970s but it was not for another three decades, with Henry VIII’s quincentenary in 2009 looming, that she sensed her moment. “When I began to take the whole thing seriously and read into it, I found a man very different from what I imagined,” she says. “You get this impression of Cromwell as very dour, forbidding ... he wasn’t like that.”

One of the curious things about “Bring Up the Bodies” and its predecessor is that for all the meticulous research and period detail, they can at times feel like studies in modernity. Her Cromwell — persuasive, calculating and, above all, businesslike — is comprehensible to us in a way that his master can never be; as a rational agent marooned in an era of sensual princes and murderous priests.

“He was astonishingly radical in this thinking,” Mantel says. “When the House of Commons threw out his poor law, they threw out the idea that the state might have a responsibility to the casualties of an economic system. They said no to the idea of the state creating work, because it would have meant income tax, and they are turning their backs on what we know is the future.”

Mantel is acutely aware of the tension between accuracy and imagination. “It’s a very delicate balancing act,” she says. “I try to make sure that everything I make up could plausibly have happened — I’m not claiming that it even might have — but I don’t introduce impossibilities.”

She sees dangers in fidelity too: “I hate pastiche, and I had to negotiate some things ... I’m more interested in what they meant and what they were saying than exactly the way they said it.”

Mantel is in no doubt that the historical novel has come a long way since the 1970s. “When I started there were these pinpoints of light in the gloom” — she mentions Robert Graves, Gore Vidal, Thomas Keneally — “but on the whole, historical fiction meant genre fiction, and it meant historical romance. It was a debased and unrespectable trade. And then it began to change, and there were wonderful people such as Barry Unsworth coming along, changing our idea of what it could be. And I certainly benefited from that.”

She also points to a wider renaissance, in television as well as in print — “an explosion of interest in history as it was taken away from the classroom and the tables of kings and queens, which was very much what it was when I was young”. This is politicised terrain, as efforts to reform the teaching of history in British schools have demonstrated. “I’m not a fan of ‘Our Island Story,’” she says. “I don’t like the idea that we’re going to go back to spoon-feeding children with a cut-and-dried and patriotic version.”

I check that she is referring to education secretary Michael Gove’s vision for a more traditional curriculum. “Yes — pernicious. I do agree about the powers of narrative ... but people learning history must also be shown, I think, that every time someone gives you a fact” — she rolls the word sceptically — “you say, ‘Well, why do you want me to believe that?’”

Mantel is in dialogue with her readers, taking her cues from them: she modified the unidentified “he” used for Cromwell in “Wolf Hall”, which some found confusing, often replacing it with “he, Cromwell” in the sequel. This is a decision she is not altogether comfortable with and may reverse in the “The Mirror and the Light”, the third and concluding volume that she is planning to work on all next year.

And after Cromwell? “I’m like someone standing on top of a hill listening hard at the moment,” she says. “I’m waiting — and I haven’t heard anything yet.”

Whatever comes next, it is not going to be Elizabeth I. “I can’t be doing with the woman!” she laughs. “In some ways I think she embodied the worst of both her parents, the capriciousness and the hysterical tendency to blame other people for your decisions. Or maybe it’s just that I can’t write about a princess, someone born into privilege.”

It will be hard for Mantel to leave the 16th century. “It really is primitive stuff, men and women and fights to the death, love and violence, all the big mythical themes,” she says. “I never thought I would move on to this ground ... And yet, like everyone else, I’m just swept up in the power of the story. As the cliché goes, it’s stranger than fiction: you would not dare make this stuff up.”

–Financial Times