"The King had left Whitehall the week of Thomas More's death, a miserable, dripping week in July, the hoof prints of the royal entourage sinking deep into the mud as they tacked their way across Windsor.'
And on a remarkably similar and potentially miserable dripping day in July, we topped High Dartmoor on a right royal progress of our own, to hear Hilary Mantel talking about Bring Up the Bodies at Dartington. In the wake of a night that had apparently seen double the month's average rainfall you might expect any traverse of the moor to be a bit of a problem, well on foot, or horseback, probably dreadful but the water drains quickly into the fast-flowing rivers making big trouble elsewhere but the roads were fine. Not so fine at Dartington though, where, having checked online, we already knew that the overflow parking was subject to...well... overflow. So having taken the executive decision to park down at the Cider Press, don the walking boots and head up to Dartington Hall from there it seemed churlish not to nip into Cranks Restaurant for a bowl of soup (saints preserve us ... still looking forward to soup in July, this is tragic) before the trek.
But how apt that we were going to see Hilary Mantel at Dartington Hall given that it had briefly been in the possession of two of Henry's wives, Catherine Parr and Catherine Howard, and now we would be hearing about the eventual natural death of one, Katherine of Aragon, the demise of another, Anne Boleyn and the emergence of yet another Jane Seymour... that's 62.5% wife coverage in one day, not bad. Sadly Dartington not feeling its usual glorious and inviting festival self without the sunshine, and the gardens all a bit rain-sodden and bedraggled, so let's hope the weather picks up for the rest of the week.
But for now we must imagine the summer of 1535, it is July, it is wet (this bit of imagining is very easy) and Henry and his entourage set off on their Royal progress through the West Country before finally arriving at Wolf Hall in September, and as Hilary Mantel took us along for the ride the audience seated in the Great Hall was spellbound.
There can be no grander setting in which to imagine all this, and how easy that is to do when it is Hilary Mantel who is breathing life and passion into it all.
The King's child-like ability to enjoy himself, easy-going, affable and charming when required, but beneath the surface lies a seething mass of fears, quaking uncertainties, regrets and a surprisingly tender conscience. Henry so readily influenced by the last person he has spoken to can nevertheless hear the future scratching away like a rat, exposing all his insecurities.
But what's worrying him now?
Well there's Anne for a start. Another mass of insecurities, assertive, abrasive and a mistress of the art of alienation and there are rumours of amorous dalliances and plenty of suspects.
Anne as a Queen, unrecognised by every country in Europe, and were France and Spain to unite they could just walk in and take England for their own.
Then there's the tricky issue of the lack of male issue, no heir to the throne...
...and then there's the sentence of excommunication hanging over Henry's head. Hilary Mantel likened this to a fatwa...think of Salman Rushdie, except think national, any one in the country would be within their religious rights to murder the King.
No wonder poor Henry can't sleep, and in the dark and solitary hours of the night can only call for Thomas Cromwell and beg him to sort this for him. Henry needs two things to happen, a rapprochement with the Emperor and a third marriage that would be undisputed, and the inscrutable Cromwell can only have thought..." Cheers mate, thanks a bundle" (my thoughts...Hilary didn't say that). Thomas Cromwell must set to and make alliances with old foes, enemies who hate him with a passion, but who thankfully (for now) hate Anne marginally more. What happened next was a conspiracy, and conspiracies by their very nature are 'off the record' .. bring on the novelist.
Hilary Mantel's talk was interspersed with beautifully delivered readings from Bring Up the Bodies before some time for questions afterwards... the replies here are almost but not quite verbatim.
Haven't you been too nice to Thomas Cromwell...
Let's wipe the slate clean. We have been propagandized, blame the Victorians who started to cast Thomas Cromwell as a villain. Perhaps it was an objection rooted in snobbery and class...Cromwell famously refused to accept an invented pedigree and so many aspects are lost to history... a private life very well-concealed.
Did you purposefully give a voice to Tudor women...
There is very little on the record for Jane Seymour, but the man who marries his mistress creates a vacancy and Jane was shrewd and self-controlled and had occupied a ringside seat, as a Lady-in Waiting for many years. The women who surrounded Anne must have been party to the conspiracy.
Why have you chosen to write in the present tense..
It was implicit from the first line as I imagined hearing the voice from above looking down on the action...it felt close up and filmic, and film is always in the present tense. By the end of that first scene I felt I had finally arrived as a writer, doing what I should be doing. There was a 'rightness' to it. All the important decisions about the book were made there and then. My husband read it and said 'This sounds like life in an East End tower block...' and I thought ' Good.'
Why did you feel it necessary to use 'He Cromwell' so often when Cromwell speaks ...surely the reader would know...
Readers either got it in Wolf Hall or they didn't and for those that didn't I decided to seal off ambiguities. I have gained a new public and a bigger audience and if they were confused I had a responsibilty to address that, but expediency also prevailed because ultimately, as I wrote, the 'He Cromwell' seemed to denote his gradual increase in power and greatness and importance.
Why was Thomas More portrayed so negatively..
Because he was seen from Thomas Cromwell's point of view.
Are you inspired by portraits and places..
Absolutely yes but there are problems. Hans Holbein accompanied the Royal party on their progress and painted many of them but it is an equivocal source, often the names were incorrect....though finally one portrait has recently been almost confirmed as Rafe Sadler. But it all helps and it is vitally important for me to build up a cultural hinterland...to see what they saw.
Do you ever weary of the research...
It is like walking down a path and being drawn on by what may be around the next curve. I know what I know when I need to know it and of course it doesn't all go on the page, but I read and read until I hear the characters start to speak.
Might you carry on and write about Elizabeth I...
Never say never, but most of the time I want to give her a good slap. a writer must have a subject thay can work with.
Cue prolonged and heartfelt applause before we nipped down off our window-seat perch and headed for the signing queue. You can probably spot me here from the skinny jeans, the Scarpa boots and the little dovegrey rucksack...
and does any writer sign a book with more of a flourish than this...
The advantage of leaving the car parked down at Cranks Restaurant was that by the time we returned it was now tea time, and we were gasping. We really shouldn't have, but we did... that Banoffee Pie too good to miss.
and before you ask, that picture on the front of my notebook ...well if only I had thought to double check before I stuck it on there, but it was from the Penlee House Gallery...and perhaps it is by Dod Procter, but I can't be sure.
On the way home, across a misty mizzly Dartmoor, Bookhound and I chatted endlessly about what a great event this had been, and what an inspiration Hilary Mantel is, both as a writer and a speaker, but given her health issues what an inspiration on so many other levels too....all sufficient to make her a National Treasure in my eyes, I will brook no criticism of her, Booker Prize number two should be on the cards, and let's just hurry up with the Dame thing.