I am cheating a little, but have been down in the dovegreyreader scribbles basement searching out some more Wolf Hall posts, and have dragged this one back into the daylight, an account of Hilary Mantel talking about Wolf Hall and Thomas Cromwell at a literary festival a few years ago....and here signing my copy of Bring Up the Bodies a few years later.
We sardined in, waited expectantly and were laughing instantly as Hilary Mantel quoted David Starkey who has described Thomas Cromwell as the Blair government's spin doctor Alistair Campbell with an axe.
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 behindWolf Hall
Thomas Cromwell, neath 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 Safetyas 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.
'How do you approach dialogue in a book like Wolf Hall?'
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.
So there you have it, a brilliantly generous and enlightening event and one that I now see neatly informs a little more about the TV series. I am of course a nervous wreck that we might succumb to one of our random rural power outages, when there seems to be no electricity left to reach this end of the country, so fingers crossed and see you here tomorrow to chew it all over.
I'm really sorry, expect no sense whatsoever from me this week, I am far too excited about Wolf Hall at 9pm on Wednesday evening (BBC 2) and can't see any reason to talk about anything other than that, and with apologies to the refusniks out there who hated it, and maybe even worse, those of you who won't be seeing it yet.
The press have been wall-to-wall Hilary Mantel for the last few weeks and I am still basking in the glory of the moment when Henry VIII Damian Lewis walked past the dovegreyreader tent at Port Eliot. Yes really...walked past...didn't come in and say 'Hi' or anything, just walked past, but what more did we need.
I wanted to put the spotlight on him; more than that, I wanted to get behind his eyes, the eyes of a man obscurely born, and watch as his country shapes itself about him, a dazzle of possibility.
To do that, I had to accustom my inner eye to bare underfurnished rooms, where possessions are kept in chests, and floors are strewn with rushes, and turkey carpets glow on tabletops in the houses of the wealthy. I needed to wear, in my imagination, fresh linen, heavy draping wool, damask and diamonds. My palate had to grow used to the sweet, spicy, scented tastes of Tudor cooking, to winter stockfish and summer fruit tarts. I had to live in a gated city, with green open spaces surrounding monasteries, with the long gardens of noble houses running down to the Thames: a London where the river was the main highway and there was only one bridge, sometimes decorated with severed heads. One mistake and you were finished, if you worked for Henry VIII – or if you married him.
A word of warning though... don't let your eyes stray down to the comments following that Guardian piece where the very first one is from someone who has been to an advanced screening, and from my very quick skim seems set to spill the Tudor beans, though to be fair we might not be able to keep quiet about it here on Thursday either.
Moving swiftly on to location. On that anniversary day when Bookhound and I pitched up to Lytes Cary Manor only to find it closed, the day was rescued from the jaws of disappointment when we discovered that nearby Montacute House was well and truly open, and even better, scenes from Wolf Hall had only recently been filmed there, so keep your eyes peeled for some of these shots... Built in the last years of the sixteenth century by lawyer Sir Edward Phelips, Montacute House is dripping in Wolf Hall atmosphere even though it wasn't built until some fifty years after the death of Henry VIII. Sir Edward became Master of the Rolls and Chancellor to the household of Henry, Prince of Wales, heir to the throne (who was to die young in 1612) but his ancestors were never far from Royal connections.
Perhaps Henry and his entourage will be allowed to make a grand entrance along here... or here... Maybe Anne Boleyn will steal a glance through here... We know for sure that you will see this room because it had just been cleared of props and decor and left empty in readiness for some refurbishment of the panelling... Damian Lewis probably stood here too... and here...
The Long Gallery, is exactly that, 172 feet of it and the place for some Elizabethan promenading. Fifteen circuits and you've nigh on notched up a mile (correct my maths someone...it's bound to be wrong) but unknown to us Montacute House is also an outpost of the National Portrait Gallery, thus housing a large collection of paintings of relevance to the history of the times
I almost forgot Henry VIII's bath... No, I jest, but if a bath could be any more interesting than Henry's then this is the one.
The house was let in 1915, for the princely sum of £550 a year, to Lord Curzon, formerly Viceroy of India, who installed his mistress here, the novelist Elinor Glyn. Sadly Elinor was under the impression that she was slightly more than a mistress, maybe even a fiancee, and set to refurbishing the house, enduring, according to the guide book, almost arctic conditions in the name of love, whilst spending much of her time up step-ladders in huge unheated rooms. So when Elinor opened The Times on 11th December 1916, to read of Lord Curzon's engagement to Mrs Alfred Duggan, perhaps she can be forgiven for marching out and putting five hundred of the cad's letters on a bonfire. Elinor received no explanation and she never saw or wrote to him again.
I might have done a little more than throw his letters on the bonfire, so I think we must be thankful that Elinor didn't torch the entire house.
An ambitious man, I have to confess to some glee on reading of Lord Curzon's subsequent complete humiliation when, as the favourite to be selected as Prime Minister in 1923, he travelled expectantly up to London from Montacute to receive his appointment, only to be passed over in favour of Stanley Baldwin.
Am I the only one who would have paid good money to have been a fly on Elinor Glyn's wall that day..
Suffice to say we had a wonderful wander around Montacute House whilst imagining Wolf Hall, though the TV series seemed light years away back in September, but now here it is, upon us.
Is it just me who is a bit over-excited and will probably be sick...
More thanks are due to the Happy Campers for their splendid tour reports, which couldn't have come at a better time last week, and herewith the final one which had me transfixed much as if I was there.
I do it a great deal in order to write up events for here, so I know that taking notes at a talk is done with an element of personal sacrifice. It involves some very active listening and concentration rather than just indulging in the moment, so I am very grateful to Linda for her reports last week, and Angela who must have been scribbling nineteen to the dozen to give us this much coherent and fascinating detail about our 'ilary's talk ... please do enjoy.
‘Do you think she will have her own light show?’ whispered
Linda as we entered the largest and most stylish venue of the weekend. The
Forum is a restored Art Deco cinema, with beautiful painted decoration and
period fittings. We had been rather
surprised by the appearance of bouncers on the door, although they were rather
small and apologetic looking. We concluded that this was because large numbers
of people were expected, and we weren’t wrong! The auditorium was almost full,
and it seats 1500. It may have been that the security guards were there to
eject any members of the Mad Royalists Society who had come along to heckle,
but the evening progressed without one person mentioning the recent press
feeding frenzy. This audience was here
with only one intention, to hear one of our most respected contemporary
novelists speak about her craft.
In the minutes before the start, we were asked to remain in
our seats at the end if we wanted to stay for the book signing, (supposedly to
prevent fans being crushed to death) and informed that any form of photography
and recording was not allowed. I looked down dubiously at my low tech notebook.
Surely it would be ok to scribble a few things down? I don’t think that was the
sort of recording they had in mind. Hilary Mantel must be big now if she is a
victim of pirate downloads on You Tube , I thought.
The interview was being conducted by James Runcie, the
festival artistic director, a successful author in his own right. The two
figures on the stage seemed small and a bit far away, but as the conversation
progressed it seemed like we were being spoken to on a very personal
level. Partly this was due to James
Runcie’s skilful questioning- which provided the framework for weaving around
Hilary’s thoughts on her 16th century world and how her long and
varied career as a writer has been instrumental in bringing her to this point.
She was amused at how some have described hers as an overnight success, and
that she has been rewarded with too many accolades all at once. It has been a
long apprenticeship, she reminded us, and she has been her own critic and judge
before any literary awards were bestowed.
She allowed us a glimpse of the child Hilary, imaginative, a
lover of told stories before she could read.
An influential book was one about King Arthur - she had early ambitions
to be a Knight of the Round Table, a railway guard and a priest! That’s why the
jousting scenes in Bring Up The Bodies ring so true. They are a metaphor for
Cromwell’s political career. Jousting is also a metaphor for writing. Self
preservation urges you to swerve away, but you need to run full tilt, with your
eyes open, fixed on the prize.
She has a strong sense of an ‘otherworld’, which might be
termed an afterlife, which is not always benign. Reality to her is ‘eggshell thin’, she feels
that the world is not a particularly solid place, and that there are portals
into the past. Past and present lie alongside each other and they cannot be
accessed systematically. Like one of her
heroines, Alice, in Beyond Black, she
talks to the dead for a living. Being a writer is like being a professional
psychic, she believes, and research and facts, although necessary, need to be
put in their place. You can’t be pushed around by the facts. Later she goes on
to say that she likes the way she can contrast her own invention with what is
inside the actual historical records. Reading these helps you identify the
authentic Tudor voice, and find the idiom, smoothing your dialogue with theirs.
Some may think writing historical fiction is easier because
you have a factual framework, a ready made story . But there are so many gaps,
and you have to know, as a writer how to fill these. To get inside the bodies of your characters, you must re arrange your own senses. For example, the clothes the characters wear
have to be real, not costumes. The writer has to learn to feel the clothes as
everyday garments, so the reader can feel this too. Dialogue and language have
to be carefully constructed, the characters cannot be given thoughts they
couldn’t have had at the time, and to know what would have been said and
thought at the time you have to immerse yourself in that world. The power of
this way of writing allows the reader to be ‘behind the screen’ a watcher who
is fully complicit in everything that happens.
Now I was leaning
forward slightly in my seat, open mouthed at all these gems coming so
generously from Hilary Mantel. For anyone even remotely interested in writing
and story and her books, this was compelling. Then Linda and I had to giggle –
I nudged her as the old boy next to me was fast asleep, obviously dragged along
by his female companion sitting alongside and finding it all a bit tiring!
James Runcie then did something interesting, he read out a
passage from Shakespeare and followed it with an extract from one of Hilary’s
books. He pointed out that there was a similarity in the rhythm of both texts,
but although I agreed with the comparison he was making, to my shame I can’t
remember where either bit was from…. Then Hilary herself prepared herself to
read a passage out to the audience which described a scene where Henry and Jane
Seymour meet, and said how it showed ‘the incalculable consequences of that
little moment.’ Would Hilary be able to read her own work as well as Ned
Boulting?! We needn’t have worried and
settled dreamily into the world of Tudor courtship. Partway through Linda
muttered ‘I want to kill the coughers’ with thinly disguised irritation. I
glanced to my right. Mr and Mrs were both snoring well by now.
Questions from the audience followed. People wanted to know
which Anne Boleyn she thought was the genuine one, saint or sinner, I presumed,
and Hilary Mantel’ s answer was this- her Anne Boleyn is Thomas Cromwell’s Anne
Boleyn. Some questioners wanted to persist in finding modern day parallels and
references, and wanted to know if the Tudor politicians were based on any
current Westminster personalities…. A
gentle but firm rebuff. Cromwell
and his contemporaries have sprung fully
formed from her imagination, from the parallel world, not from this one. ‘Take
a tiny sideways shuffle and you have to listen really hard- open your mind, and
make yourself almost a passive object, yet intensely aware. It comes from your
gut and your heart’.
The talk ended with a tantalising glimpse into the final
book of the trilogy. Holbein of course can show us the outside appearance of
some of the characters, but he cannot show the human soul. Hilary has recently
had her own portrait painted and apparently the process startles you with its
intimacy. She will draw on this
experience in the next book.
All too soon it was over. Those who didn’t want to wait half
an hour in the signing queue filed slowly out. Linda and I chatted to fellow
festival goers as we took our place in the long line snaking round the
auditorium. ‘Better than JK Rowling’,
someone said. ‘Wasn’t it brilliant?’ was the general opinion. Eventually we
approached the small table on the stage. With so many waiting we couldn’t have
a long chat but we were delighted by the beautiful fountain pen which was
produced to sign our books in a flowing, stylish hand. Bravo!
Just before my fourth birthday my family (my mum, the Tinker, my brother and me) moved from Exeter, city of my birth, to Mitcham in Surrey. It would have been 1957, post war employment was scarce down in the West Country, and the Tinker, now out of the Royal Marines, went to work as a chemical engineer for a company that would eventually become a part of British Petroleum, and for which he worked until his retirement.
I suppose it is safe to say we were one of those post-war working class families who were going to seize any opportunities that came our way, perhaps take a few risks, and so instead of opting for a council house, my mum and the Tinker took out a mortgage and bought a house.
A huge undertaking in the 1950s and isn't Google Street Maps amazing. I typed in the address and there it was, the house in the middle with the gable roof, and there's my little bedroom window next to it, and that room with my highly covetable ice skater wallpaper, and there is the very door step whereupon I stood while Brown Owl took that picture of me in my Brownie uniform.
But what is even more amazing is the house next door, the one to the right as you are looking at it, because apart from new windows it still has the very same front door I remember, and even the same name hanging up outside. It was always a joke that we lived between Nuns and Vicars, because the Vickers family lived on the far side, but of much more interest to us as children was the elderly and seemingly very eccentric Mrs Nunn and her grown-up and equally unusual daughter Rene (pronounced Reeny by us anyway) living on this side.
We would speculate endlessly about what went on in the house next door, or what may have happened to Mr Nunn, and the Tinker had all sorts of theories none of which I could possibly repeat here, but sadly I have to confess I also spent a great deal of time watching Mrs Nunn from behind the net curtains of my bedroom window. She had an inordinate fear of burglars (based on who knows what experiences) coupled with what we would now recognise as a very serious case of obsessive compulsive disorder, which made leaving the house to go shopping a lengthy and tortuous ordeal. Poor Mrs Nunn would pace to the gate and back and then count the plants along the pathway, pace back a few steps towards the door, back to the gate, count again, pace a bit nearer the door, count again, back to the gate, back to the door, unlock the door, lock the door again, and so it would go on...and on... and on, by which time the shops were probably closed, and there would be my brother and I shamelessly watching all this from behind the net curtains of that little window.
I feel a bit bad about that now, and a bit sad for Mrs Nunn and Rene. I mean Mr Nunn was probably killed on active service in the war wasn't he... not buried under the vegetable patch, or embalmed in the air raid shelter that still stood in the garden.
Oh sorry, forget I said that, blame the Tinker coupled with the vivid imagination of an eight-year old me.
As usual you might be wondering where this convuluted path is leading, and what all this has to do with my chronological read of the writing of Hilary Mantel, or a post about her first novel Every Day is Mother's Day.
Well when I started to read about Eveyn Axon and her daughter Muriel, I was soon thinking of Mrs Nunn and Rene.
'Miss Axon was visited at home by this department on 3.3.73...Client lives with her widowed mother... her father died in 1946...Mrs Axon states that client is not able to go out alone because of various incidents that have occurred in the past...Mrs Axon is extremely uncommunicative in herself and this is seen as a problem in assessement...'
Using skills gained through her work as a social work assistant in a geriatric hospital (as they were then called) and much time spent reading fascinating casenotes,(surely a novelist's gift) it is via a social services assessment report that Hilary Mantel imparts much of the information about Muriel and her mother. Muriel, neath the suffocating wings of her mother's bullying protection has lost interest in life...
'Muriel was enjoying one of her strange holidays from the world. There was nothing she could do until the girl repacked the tattered baggage of her personality and came home.'
This is the era when
'..social workers had become 'generic.' It was a new dispensation, for everybody to know everything about everything: and how to heal it,'
Oh yes, I was there, cradle to grave and everything in between. I'll bet some of you remember it too, and I well remember thinking this, because there is reality in this novel too..
'That's the trouble with social work, no on has fixed on what to expect of it. You can't be with people twenty-four hours a day. If they're really going to beat their children to death, they'll find time to do it...and you can't improve people's thoughts. You can't stop them creating private hells for themselves, if that's what they want to do.'
Oh Hilary, of what fundamental truths you speak.
A luxuriously tangled web is then spun between Isabel, the Axon's social worker, nursing her own 'corroded spirit' as she cares for her ailing and ageing but rather lecherous father, the school teacher Colin, with whom Isabel is having an affair, Colin's wife Sylvia and their children living in a house they 'keep as warm as they can afford', and Colin's sister Florence who happens to live next door to Evelyn and Muriel Axon.
Colin and Isabel meet at a creative writing class where Colin would like to do the sort of writing that will force him to become a tax-exile, and what flows effortlessly from Hilary Mantel's pen is the sort of writing that you can see will eventually earn her enough to become one should she choose. Colin is not hopeful for himself..
'I will never be a writer he thought, I will never learn it, just as last year I did not learn Russian, I will never do it, my mind runs to cliches like abandoned plots to seed.'
Everything is there, in place, much as I hoped it would be. The descriptions that cleverly furnish a scene whilst leaving some work for the reader's imagination to do. The attention to those details about clothes that were such a rich ingredient in the Wolf Hall mix, and the humour, oh yes it's deliciously wicked and clever, and our 'ilary was flexing her descriptive muscles in that direction from the off.
It is Christmas and Sylvia has been shopping for gifts for Colin's sister. Poor, put-upon Florence the jilted forty-year old, the victim of an unrequited and rather embarrassing fling (as in Florence flinging herself ) who works in the benefits office, begrudging every penny she is forced to hand out and now living alone since the removal of their mother to a nursing home..
'Sylvia had been extravagent. She has bought Florence a cookery book, lavishly illustrated called Entertaining for Two : Menus for Candlelit Evenings. Her second present showed how long she thought these evenings were likely to last, for it was a candlewick dressing-gown, of a spinach shade and a formidable stiffness.'
...a spinach-green candlewick dressing gown. I had quite forgotten that candlewick even existed but instantly saw the said garment before my eyes and with it all the unmentioned baggage and implications that are inferred.
When it becomes clear that Muriel Axon's increasing girth may mean that her trips to the Day Centre have involved what one of the receptionists at a surgery I once worked in would call some 'extra-friendly', it's hard to know just where Hilary Mantel will take this...I won't say more but I wasn't disappointed. It's sad, clever and funny by turns, paving the way for the sequel Vacant Possession that apparently even Hilary Mantel didn't know she would want to write next.
My return to the writing of Hilary Mantel couldn't be more timely given that she is in the news almost as much as ...well.. you-know-who, and more congratulations are due. Our 'ilary has been announced as the winner of the £40,000 David Cohen Award and my thrillingness at this success continues unabated. I am full of admiration too for Chair of Judges Mark Lawson's announcement speech...
"It seems paradoxical that giving a major literary prize – the British Nobel prize, as I think of it – to one of the most generally-admired and well-liked people in the literary world will be, for some, controversial," he said. "This is because of a feeling – voiced by some pundits and perhaps secretly thought by authors who feel unrewarded – that Hilary Mantel has recently been given too much too quickly. That issue, however, was rapidly dismissed by the judges. It would be ludicrous if a history of high achievement somehow disbarred a writer from the David Cohen prize's list of the highest literary achievers."
a salvo to the naysayers, and I am bursting with pride at Hilary Mantel's acceptance..
"There are some readers who think that I was born on the day Wolf Hall was published," said Mantel. "This prize acknowledges that there are no overnight sensations in the creative arts. That's not the way it works. The ground has to be prepared and I feel that this is recognition of the fact that for many many years I've been trying to perfect my craft."
Mark Lawson again...
"While the judges were as impressed as most readers by Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, it is our particular hope that this prize for three decades of dedication to the possibilities of narrative imagination and English prose will direct attention to such earlier works as the novels Fludd, A Change of Climate and Beyond Black and the autobiography Giving Up The Ghost. Consideration of this remarkable career soon led us to feel that we had had enough of anyone who will moan that Hilary Mantel has already had enough prizes."
I will be reading them all, some for the first, second, third or even fourth time (Fludd) and this has been a wonderful start. There are some laugh aloud moments in Every Day is Mother's Day, none more so than the very pretentious party that Colin and his wife Sylvia have to attend, the atmosphere described thus..
'Intellectually speaking it's a case of fur coat and no knickers.'
Let's just say this novel is fur coat through and through, and hold onto those knickers because Vacant Possession is even better.
I had written this post before last week's Hilary Mantel kerfuffle, which if you were on Mars and missed you can catch up with the definitive version here, and thence everywhere else you can possibly think of.
It has been fascinating to watch the debate rage, see opinions divided, judgements passed and generally much foaming at the mouth. Those in support post links to favourable commentary, whilst those agin fire of a salvo of links to all the agin pieces, and it's been a bit like watching a long rally from the baseline at Wimbers, or perhaps Royal Tennis would be more apt. Anyway, our 'ilary served the ball and went home and we have had all that slugging of shots back and forth with the occasional person (the Prime Minister... I ask you) running to the net for a poorly-timed volley.
Just for the record and if, just supposing, I was Kate Middleton, I'd get HM onto my team instantly for more wise counsel and sage non-sycophantic, honest base-line-serving opinion and guidance. More likely, judging by the reaction, I suspect our 'ilary has said farewell to her Dame-hood and will be cast into the metaphorical dungeons of the Tower. But there are silver linings, can you think of more authentic mental territory from which to write the final book for which we are all agog.
In the end my own opinion matters not a jot, I'm just a little ball-girl of no consequence in the match because, as you will see, my bias in favour of Hilary Mantel is entrenched, immoveable and utterly pig-headedly stuck on the Adulation/Can Do No Wrong setting.
So here's what I wrote and I promise you I haven't changed a word...
It is no secret that when it comes to Hilary Mantel, that any objective critical faculties in my possession swiftly depart these shores, in fact I think I might be enjoying the rising tide of our 'ilary's success as much as I hope she is. A word-grafter and a word-crafter at the top of her game, this is absolutely her moment and I for one am revelling in each success.
I have had to check back in my hand-written reading journal to see when I first encountered the name and the writing. It wasn't until 1996 and Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, read inbetween Moo by Jane Smiley and Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson I discover. These were the days of a rather erudite monthly book group that I had been invited to, I hardly knew anyone there and Hilary Mantel had been suggested by one very well-read member when none of the rest of us had even heard of her....so I didn't feel quite so daft. I knew instantly that I was reading something very different, something very new to me and that I couldn't quite grasp in the way that I usually understood a book. I knew I wanted to read much more like this for the challenges it offered. That difference perhaps confirmed by Hilary Mantel's response to the question 'What, or who, made you a writer?'
'Circumstance and chance; poor health, unfitting me for more active trades; the desire to read books that didn't seem to exist, unless I wrote them.'
I see that later that same year I read A Change of Climate and Fludd but for some reason I didn't go back to the beginning and seek out any of the earlier novels, though I have bought every one subsequently and you don't need to ask...of course our 'ilary has her own shelf. Seventeen years on and I decided it was about time I did go back to the beginning. I am sated with current contemporary fiction with the Fiction Uncovered judging at the moment, and whilst I am enjoying the process enormously I am currently having to seek fiction reading for pleasure that diverts from the very immediate present. Zola is filling one slot very nicely, but I have space for something more recent, I needed another.
So wouldn't it be interesting, I decided, to do what I had done some years ago with Margaret Atwood and go right back to the beginning and read Hilary Mantel's books through in chronological order.
Every Day is Mother's Day (1985) Vacant Possession (1986) Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (1988) Fludd (1989) A Place of Greater Safety (1992) A Change of Climate (1994) An Experiment in Love (1995) The Giant, O'Brien (1998) Learning to Talk (2003) Giving Up the Ghost - a memoir (2003) Beyond Black (2005) Wolf Hall (2009) Ink in the Blood - A Hospital Diary (2010 - digital only) Bring Up the Bodies (2012)
Those highlighted in red I have read, most recently Every Day is Mother's Day, and I clearly remember giving up on Beyond Black, so that will be an interesting revisit given my current state of unbridled adulation.
I have been trying to decide why I enjoy Hilary Mantel and her writing so much, and not just her fiction but also her pieces for the London Review of Books and the newspapers, as well as essays I catch hither and yon and on that subject might it be too much to ask for a book of Collected Writings??
I am far too devoted to be critical and that was all defined and affirmed a little by the fiesty speech our 'ilary gave after winning the Costa Prize recently... and the way she came out and faced up to those who said it wasn't fair, she was winning too much (can you believe it) and that she would not say 'sorry' she would say 'thank you.'
But also in that interview some wonderful insights into how she not only writes history, but I think I am seeing now, having made a start on the early novels, how Hilary Mantel approaches any writing. To see what they saw, wear what they wore...not costumes, these were their everyday clothes, eat what they ate....just to 'be' there where they are.
The key to reading success likewise perhaps to be found in that total immersion rather than detachment. I know I felt part of the furniture as I read bothWolf Halland Bring Up the Bodies, whilst Every Day is Mother's Day has been a real revelation. I had no idea that Hilary Mantel had been a social work assistant in a previous life, bringing that experience to bear most fruitfully in her first two novels and I will write more about them soon.
'When I was thin I had no notion of what being fat is like. When I worked in a department store, I had sold clothes to women of most sizes, so I should have known; but perhaps you have to experience the state from the inside, to understand what fat is like. When you sell clothes, you get very good at sizing people, but I had sized my customers as if they were fridge-freezers, or some other unnegotiable object, solid and with a height, width and depth. Fat is not like this. It is insidious and creepy.'
and for this...
'I am a shabby old building in an area of heavy shelling which the inhabitants have vacated years ago...spriit needs a house and lodges where it can, you don't kill yourself just because you need loose covers rather than frocks.'
What is not to love about someone who has the courage to think and then to say that about themselves, and though it may be simplistic thinking, but what depth of understanding and compassion are they perhaps subsequently more likely to bring to their characters, even their least likeable ones, and as a result write brilliant and insightful books??
So things are starting to add up for me now. Every Day is Mother's Day has I think proved me right in my own mind on all fronts so far, more about it soon, and had I nursed any doubts then Vacant Possession would have dispelled them in an instant.
I have been saving this post for what I knew would be Hilary Mantel week so yer 'tis.
Cadhay Manor mentioned in the acknowledgements in Bring Up the Bodies and if ever a house can be considered a palimpsest, Cadhay Manor is it, each aspect could have been built in an entirely different era
Cadhay Manor, Devon
...and as Karen, our guide, talked us through the history of the house on that visit back in May, and the changes that successive owners had made on it, a picture emerged of the house as a sort of living breathing entity. It all felt like history up close and personal, perhaps because the current owners seem to love it as much as the Haydon family must have done back in about 1550 when they decided to build a house in this idyllic location...
The Stewpond, Cadhay Manor, Devon
... using a wealth of local materials including Salcombe sandstone, the same as used for nearby Exeter Cathedral.
Pointing out hints of Montacute House, (up the road at Yeovil) our guide made it clear that this was about showing off your wealth and imitating the best as well as incorporating the latest 'must have'. This turned out to be a Long Gallery and when the house passed into the hands of a nephew of the childless John and Joan Haydon, Milady Haydon, also Joan, just had to have one.
It's a bit like us wanting a new kitchen I suppose.
Joan's (the second) father had been the Keeper of Mary Queen of Scots from 1585 to her execution, so the family by now are upwardly mobile and would expect to entertain, therefore wealth and status must be visible and a house with a suitable amount of 'wow' factor slowly emerged. We all agreed that taking this much trouble over your stonework was all about impressing the weekend visitors... Karen our guide talked us through all this in the most wonderful style, and as we stood in the Courtyard of the Sovereigns, with Henry VIII, Edward VII, Mary and Elizabeth looking down on us it wasn't hard to imagine them all having a rip-roaring jolly good Elizabethan time....
The Courtyard of the Sovereigns, Cadhay Manor, Devon
..and then to imagine the house through the Civil War...and on through history.
It was fascinating to hear of the political machinations and shifting allegiances of those connected with the house at the same time as I read Bring Up the Bodies. It seems a bit like a political and religious form of Natural Navigation, licking your finger and holding it up to the wind of change whilst hoping it doesn't veer in the opposite direction before you have made your choice and chosen your route.
Joan's (the Second) father. William Paulet, Great Master of the Household under Henry VIII, seems to have been as wily as the best of them, hopping from the Protestant Lady Jane Grey to the Catholic Queen Mary but quickly swearing fidelity to the cause of Elizabeth when it became apparent that this might be a wise move
Handed down through the family, and frequently sold outside the family when life was tough and debts accrued, the house hit hard times, and when someone finally arrived who could afford to carry out the repairs architectural fashions had moved on apace. By 1730 Tudor hearths really were very last year, and who cares about the original features when you can have panelling and cover the whole lot up, and those mullioned windows...well they'll have to go. Time for some Georgian sash windows, the zenith of good taste, and the picture above shows that thankfully at least some of the mullions remained.
Owners and tenants came and went through the nineteenth century as did the furniture, bits were 'modernised' and doubtless more layers added to the fabric of this stalwart of a home, making it all a bit of a mish-mash, but it was the arrival of someone with money ( Dampier Whetham,) at a time when the Arts and Crafts movement was the 'thing,' that proved to be the structural salvation of Cadhay. Successive owners continued to pour in the money and the love and the alterations, yet beneath it all lies the beating heart of the original Tudor home and it was easy (with Karen's help) to see how, though it can all be overwritten for centuries, that heart can never quite be erased, and it is that heart so much in evidence now that I think made this such a lovely visit. The house exudes a unique 'lived in' warmth where the modern sits comfortably alongside the old, much as it does at Port Eliot where, incidentally, you are quite likely to see a surfboard propped up beneath a painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds.
I expect some of you, like us, may live in a palimpsest of a house, it doesn't need to be stately, but perhaps you too have layers and layers of previous ownership. It is something I had hardly considered before. The way we expect to see and admire stately homes which are preserved in aspic, and how amazing that so many of them are, given the overwhelming need most of us have to move in and start changing everything to suit our own life style, but also how refreshing to see them still being lived in and loved too....and how I love those special little nuggets of information..the floorboards in the Long Gallery purposely cut short by the Elizabethan chippies to flout the laws that stated the wood could be requisitioned for ship building should England find itself at war, the boards hardly long enough to make a rowing boat at Cadhay.
I suspect the current owner of Cadhay, Rupert Thistlethwayte, sees himself as a curator charged with the responsibility of caring for and sustaining this home for his allotted time. There is a happy and comfortable mix of the old alongside the new which always works in my book.
The Long Gallery, Cadhay Manor, Devon
Though damaged by successive alterations the original ceiling of the Long Gallery (before the room was divided into two floors) reminded me of the Great Hall at Dartington, but also of interest the fact the carbon-dating suggests these timbers are at least sixty years older then the building, so recycling alive and well for the Tudors and no doubt, as Karen suggested, plenty of spare building materials around from defunct monasteries....and look, there's the window of the Solar, high up on the end wall.
The roof of John Haydon's "Great Hall", Cadhay Manor, Devon
When asked how he had managed to hang onto his head through such turbulent times, William Paulet, father of Joan (the second) and who died in 1572 was reputed to have said..
"Ortus sum e salice non ex quercum"...
'I am sprung from the willow not the oak', and for all that oak is the mainstay of this house it would seem, it too has adopted the flexibility of the willow in order to survive.
Thank you for a lovely afternoon Cadhay, we'll be back...because those were also the best-looking scones we have seen in ages.
"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.
Tickets had been purchased to hear Hilary Mantel talking about her Wolf Hall sequel Bring Up the Bodies in the Great Hall at Dartington last Saturday, July 7th. I had been online at one second past the hour on box-office opening day to be sure of securing seats, which for once was a very sensible move as apparently they had sold out in the merest flash of an axe blade.
So I absolutely had to finish the book before I went in case there were any spoilers.. just supposing someone asking a question spills the beans (it always happens) lets slip that Anne Boleyn parts company with her head or something.
There were several false starts. Sixty or so pages in (for the second time) I had mistakenly transported Bring Up the Bodies to Orkney and back thinking it would be great holiday reading, except on this occasion I was wrong. Clearly my book brain does what I need it to and switches off dramatically when I am on holiday to allow my looking brain to take over for a while. 150 pages in and perhaps I could have taken the book anywhere and managed, as I had discovered with Wolf Hall (will I never learn).
The reader is the interloper here, the 'foreigner' whose initial presence raises suspicions, conversations might be a little guarded, information cloaked in secrecy, and the reader will need their wits about them if they are to immerse themselves invisibly into the day to day flow of things, which barely seem to have missed a stride to let them in the door. Then the task is to blend in seamlessly as part of Hilary Mantel's Tudor fabrics and furnishings, and with eyes in the back of the head just watch and listen and figure it all out as the conspiracy. the plotting and the intrigue and the fear gathers pace around them.
The secret of success, I have discovered, is to relax into the book, to feel and smell and hear it, something which Hilary Mantel makes incredibly easy as her brush moves effortlessly back and forth from the particular to the general. This world so familiar to its inhabitants must be made likewise for the reader, and once I spotted the little whispers of inclusion that were offered I was in...
...heard the rustle of the satin sleeves,
...noticed the way someone's status, upwardly mobile, is denoted by their clothing as it moves from canvas to worsted to damask,
...tasted the food... the lemon cakes flavoured with lavender, the elderflowers simmered in sugar syrup and poured over halved strawberries...noticed the primrose petal on the cheese cake.
...wandered through the noisy St George's Day celebrations with the cloth and paper dragons swaying through the streets.
...spectated and gasped as the jousting unseats yet another who has failed to break his instinct, because given a chance the that instinct will always be to swerve at the last minute.
...looked on as that minxy Anne Boleyn falls out of favour, ...and meek Jane Seymour waits patiently in the wings. So I have now finished the book after reading the first sixty pages three times, but on the third occasion I had cleared the reading decks properly, only allowing interventions that offered respite, as I made my way back in time and back into the heart and mind of Thomas Cromwell, Crumb to his friends, Cremuel to those for whom English is not their first language, and me stepping nervously towards the end of the book. I could hardly bear to imagine how Hilary Mantel, no slouch when it comes to writing up a bit of eviscerating blood and gore, would deal with all this... i.e. the be-heading bit, to the point where I had to make sure I timed this right. For example I suspected it wouldn't do to read the final fifty pages last thing at night and then expect to sleep any time soon.
I was right.
Of course we all know the outcome in general terms but quite how the story of Henry and Anne happens day to day has to be up for discussion and some surmisation, something which Hilary Mantel elaborates on in an author's note at the end of the book...
'The circumstances surrounding the fall of Anne Boleyn have been controversial for centuries. The evidence is complex and sometimes contradictory; the sources are often dubious, tainted and after-the-fact. There is no official transcript of her trial, and we can reconstruct her last days only in fragments, with the ehlp of contemporaries who may be inaccuarte, biased, forgetful, elsewhere at the time, or hiding under a pseudonym...'
And what of Cromwell himself..
'Where to begin with Cromwell? Some start with his sharp little eyes, some start wih his hat...wherever they begin, the final impact is the same: if he had a grievance against you, you wouldn't like to meet him at the dark of the moon...'
And I am instantly reminded of the man so well established in my mind from Wolf Hall, and now from Bring Up the Bodies, with the most wonderful and evocative opening to a book imaginable, reminding me of those significant life events that may (just may) have made Cromwell into the man he has become. As he watches 'the girls'... the hawks soaring and swooping, birds of prey out on the hunting grounds, on a day...
'so clear you can see into Heaven and spy on what the saints are doing.'
and the birds become a transmigration of the souls of his dead wife and daughters, Cromwells grief is writ large and I imagine it like sign-writing in the sky that is going to hover over everything he thinks and does in the next 400 pages.
This is what I love about writing like this, a catalyst that allows my imagination to soar off on a frolic of its own, and I was gone a while, because though it may have been an invention of my own I then constantly envisaged Cromwell as a hawk too. A man of prey with that hawk's-eye view overseeing everything, missing nothing, pouncing and swooping on his own victims when they came within his reach and his need.... and I quickly diverted to Ted Hughes's poem from The Hawk in the Rain... Hawk Roosting..
I sit in the top of the wood, my eyes closed. Inaction, no falsifying dream Between my hooked head and hooked feet: Or in sleep rehearse perfect kills and eat.
The convenience of the high trees! The air's buoyancy and the sun's ray Are of advantage to me; And the earth's face upward for my inspection....
Much later in the book Hilary Mantel confirms what I think I already know...
'He once thought it himself, that he might die of grief: for his wife, his daughters, his sisters, his father and master the cardinal. But the pulse, obdurate, keeps its rhythm. You think you cannot keep breathing, but your ribcage has other ideas, rising and falling, emitting sighs. You must thrive in spite of yourself; and so that you may do it, God takes out your heart of flesh, and gives you a heart of stone.'
This, like so many points in the book, a moment when I had to close it and think about what I had just read carefully, dwell a while on the implications, though truth be told I was also procrastinating about finally finishing a book that I didn't want to end...perhaps because I knew the axe thing was coming...but also because I almost can't bear the wait for the final book of the trilogy.
The end when it does come is mercifully swift for both Anne and the reader and involves a well-concealed four-foot long sword rather an axe, whilst the plotting and machinations to achieve it all are breathtaking in the extreme. Cromwell, doing Henry's dirty work for him is quietly terrifying and if ever there was a book that ensured you feel the fear of those that come under his gaze... well this is it.
It all sent me back to Ted Hughes and the final stanza of Hawk Roosting...
The sun is behind me. Nothing has changed since I began. My eye has permitted no change. I am going to keep things like this.
And, whilst Cromwell may well yearn for the day (to borrow from Ted Hughes) that his 'eye has permitted no change. I am going to keep things like this' we all know there may be trouble ahead. Cromwell may be the master at keeping one step ahead (sorry) of the game when he sits on top of the world, but has already admitted that his head feels a little wobbly on his neck. Thomas Cromwell of all people knows how precarious and potentially untenable his position may become, so I am impatiently and deliciously intrigued to see how Hilary Mantel will ultimately present his downfall.
As for Hilary Mantel's Dartington event... inspirational, more on that later this week.
Team Tolstoy A year-long shared read of War & Peace through the centenary year of Count Lyev Nikolayevich Tolstoy's death, starting on his birthday, September 9th 2010.
Everyone is welcome to board the troika and read along, meeting here on the 9th of every month to chat in comments about the book.
Team Tolstoy Bookmark Don't know your Bolkonskys from your Rostovs?
An aide memoire that can be niftily printed and laminated into a double-sided bookmark.
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