This picture is a previous one, mostly rain this year, but to find the Great Hall packed at 9.30am is our unspoken and time-honoured tribute and thus it was as we gathered to hear Hilary Mantel talk about Wolf Hall at Dartington last Friday.
Parking is always a stressful activity at this festival, probably not quite as stressful as being disembowelled and burned at the stake but comes in a close second, so I'd already done three circuits by 9am before finding a spot in a distant field.
We sardined in on the balcony, waited expectantly and were laughing instantly as Hilary Mantel quoted David Starkey who has described Thomas Cromwell as Alistair Campbell with an axe.
Perusing the Campbell blog and website who knows.
I guess Thomas Cromwell might also have described himself as Communicator - Writer - Strategist given that format through which to disseminate his ideas.
Imagine the comments when the post went up on the Cromblog .
' Kath's curtains, Annie B. for Queen.'
Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's right-hand man for a decade, a man who dominated politically and the arc of a story which Hilary Mantel found irresistible for the swathe it cut through the hierarchy as the son of a blacksmith rose to the highest echelons in the land. As Henry's secretary Cromwell had a finger in every pie in England.
With no biographies of Cromwell's private life available thus a life lived largely off the record, a novelist can go where a biographer can't, but meticulous research remains imperative and I was fascinated to listen to Hilary Mantel's passionate description of the man she came to know as she described the writing process behind Wolf Hall.
Thomas Cromwell, at the pen of Hilary Mantel becomes a self-effacing memory artist entirely lacking in self-pity, a man with a huge appetite for knowledge and a radical view of what society could be like, funny in a black way, a trickster figure who didn't deny what was said about him, others invested their own fears (I was right). Touched by his loyalty to Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VIII wanted Cromwell on hand to steer him through the divorce and to cut the ties with Rome.
With a preference for writing about real people, it's possible to amass evidence and empathy and examine where the power lies, how it is negotiated and what it does to those who wield it.
Does the individual shape history became a key thought as Hilary Mantel wrote, whilst keeping a firm eye on her characters they have to be moved forward because they don't know the end, for the dead everything is to play for and Hilary was at pains to point out that in any proposed versions of history that she has laid down, any of them could be true, there are no impossibilities.
There followed a fascinating example of this from the book and I'll just interrupt here to say this is what works for me at a literary festival; the briefest of extracts read and then some discussion about the hows and whys of the writing all kept me on the edge of my seat and completely focused throughout this event.
For example, Hilary Mantel had been able to demonstrate from primary historical sources that it was entirely possible that as a child Cromwell could have met a young Thomas More (Cromwell's uncle worked in the kitchens at Lambeth Palace whilst More studied there) As a novelist it was then permissible to engineer a meeting between them and it becomes an encounter that Thomas Cromwell never ceases to think about and one that features magnificently in that final, heart-rending scene in the book.
Well I had missed the depth of that significance and now I'm reveling in an added level of understanding and those motivating literary forces, the 'what lies beneath' .
The questions at the end were wide-ranging and answered carefully and thoughtfully and here's a precis
'What makes you write historical fiction?'
A first love, mention of A Place of Greater Safety as a first novel put on the back burner and actually published as a fifth novel. It needed nerve and energy and five years ago, spotting the 500th anniversary of Henry's succession this year, Hilary decided to write Wolf Hall.
'Do people create history?'
Unanswerable perhaps, constantly thinking as she wrote about Thomas Cromwell...why was it you?
Concentrated on maintaining a state of equipoise, the novelist often more concerned with who is watching this history in the making. The biography by George Cavendish on Cardinal Wolsey became a fantastic resource.
'Is there emotional involvement as you write and does it affect your writing?'
Tries to remain professionally distant but it's very difficult, these people are as real as us they just happen to be dead. Often have to find the unrevealed side of oneself and parade on the page. Couldn't have written about a man in his forties when she was in her twenties, bring own experiences and understanding into the writing. The letters of Thomas Cromwell were edited by somone who loathed him and it shows.
Limited sources from the era available, George Cavendish's book again a goldmine, but this era is pre-Shakespeare, Can't use pastiche or that draws attention ...admire the manner, ignore the matter, so adopted a modern register whilst avoiding giving characters ideas they couldn't have had. Code words and phrases resonate and work for a reader not familiar with the idiom (me)
'Thomas Cromwell the sharp operator?'
An immensely clever man, present him with a question or a problem and he could think of ways around it.
He had a radical cast of mind and was able to think things through from
first principals but could also cast around for expert opinion from his own
Tudor Think Tanks, and wasn't afraid to use them, others filled his
lack for him and he was a talent spotter who made no judgments about a person's previous history.
'Has an expedition to the Tudors revealed any similarities to modern-day politics?'
Wolf Hall is definitely not a coded disquisition of the present day but it still resonates. Does human nature remain the same? Has learnt much that didn't know and didn't expect (me too) about people who live to die and those who live to live. With his eye for the future Thomas Cromwell feels like a contemporary of ours, whilst Thomas More was of the live to die variety.
The next book will unfold ideas about Tudor society and its emphasis on conformity and tradition, we like the new, they liked the old, what had gone before. So the new must be smuggled in as if old, hence much searching back through the statutes and the scriptures to try and find some precedent for Henry's divorce from Katharine of Aragon.
A revolution is taking place, a new society is waiting to be born where no doubt the threat of the axe concentrated the mind wonderfully.
A brilliantly generous and enlightening event and can you believe I'm now so far gone down this Tudor trail I'm even finding Foxe's Martyrs riveting.