I am indebted to the Happy Campers (remember them from Port Eliot) this week, not only for the short story reading but also for making the effort to take such brilliant notes at Hilary Mantel's second event that was clearly as spell-binding as the one Bookhound and I attended, and for sharing those notes with us. I had asked them to wear their matching Bretons at our recent lunch for a photo shoot, which is a posh way of saying 'Stand over by that tree and smile,' as we tipped out of Cafe Liaison. The stripey sailor shirts were provided free and the flowers appliqued on at a Seasalt workshop at this year's Port Eliot festival, and the perfect attire for a day at the seaside.
Angela : While queuing good humouredly for this headline event (good humouredly because it was beautiful sunny weather and we were at the front), we witnessed something I have not seen before at a literary festival, the buying and selling of tickets outside the venue, with only half an hour to go! There was a buzz in the air which promised much – the opportunity to hear the latest from Hilary Mantel about the last book of the Wolf Hall ‘trilogy’, ‘The Mirror and the Light’, or as some have wryly suggested, Cromwell III.
Hilary Mantel is currently experiencing something of an ‘Annus Mirabilis’. She was introduced by Carol Ackroyd with what was called a brief news update: telling of the 8 Emmy nominations for the TV series Wolf Hall; her re working of the stage plays which played in New York; the nomination for her short story ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’ for a BBC award; the increased footfall at what are now called the ‘Wolf Hall Properties’ in the National Trust’s care. Some people have even tried to seek out the ‘real’ Wolf Hall, a modest manor house which no longer exists; there is now a farm on the site. All this, Hilary said, was proof that she has started something which has now a life of its own, it has become more than one individual’s creation.
While acknowledging that something has shifted in her world, which she no longer has total control over, it is clear that Hilary Mantel is more than happy (but perhaps not ‘the most happi’!) with how things are going. Her involvement in the adaptation of the stage plays has been most fruitful, as the process of change by the writer, the actors and director has made the plays ‘fluid’, and given her ideas to use in the next book. Those fleshed out ideas then fed back into the plays, causing the actors to play scenes differently because of the new knowledge they had about a character in the draft of the book. Hilary gave an example of this. We know from ‘Wolf Hall’ that Cromwell met Thomas More when they were young at Lambeth, but in the new book Cromwell’s memory re runs an incident from those years with a different emphasis . This time, More comes across as a victim of an early Cromwell protection racket, rather than as an aloof, patrician scholar out of the younger boy’s league. This mirroring of texts does not mean there is contradiction, just another way of looking at the story; the perspective has been changed.
When Hilary said she was going to read again from The Mirror and the Light, there was a sigh of delighted anticipation. I felt thrilled that this was to be shared, and not just shared, but the words spoken by the author herself. The passage she chose describes Cromwell interrupted at his desk in the city at Austin Friars. There is a commotion below, and we witness the arrival of an exotic creature, from foreign parts. We are entranced by the power of the scene; the amazement and the fear of those who have seen nothing of its like before, the slightly world weary but pragmatic reaction of Cromwell, who has to look after the beast now he has got it. We feel his pity for the caged animal, and smile at the way Cromwell manages simultaneously to ensure the leopard is cared for and promote Dick, a very junior member of his household, to the new position of ‘leopard keeper’, which boosts the boy’s status. The reading grips me; it is a tour de force.
The leopard was real. It appeared, explained Hilary, as an ‘item’ in the account and record books of Cromwell’s household. Her best efforts to find out where it came from failed. Was it a bribe? A gift? Who knows, but in the white spaces between the lines, says Hilary, is where the novelist goes to work. ‘You have to appreciate the silences of history and their depth before you can attempt to fill them.’ Interestingly, she is not yet sure where exactly this scene will be used.
A question from a member of the audience opened up the world of the author’s research. It was fascinating to learn of the mini economies of Thomas Cromwell’s household – there was a budget, not surprisingly, for every task. Every piece of information that entered the premises was filed, and the facts that these kind of documents yield up are usually lying about for anyone to access, Mantel says. Often letters are a rich mine of source material, but can be an accident of preservation.
Another question concerned the difference between short story writing and the novelist’s craft. The short story, according to Hilary Mantel, does not mean a short process. Some gestate for years, awaiting a conclusion. There are often endless goes at getting it right. She said she finds it difficult; in her own admission she is built for the marathon and not for the sprint!
The hour flew by. How lucky we are that one of the great authors of our time lives near enough for us to drive for an hour to hear her. We felt immensely privileged.
Linda : We were disappointed to discover that there was to be no book signing but maybe not surprised. Hilary Mantel gives her all as President of the Budleigh Festival and it had been a very busy few days, so it was back to Posh Nosh to drown our sorrows, when who should walk in but Hilary herself. Fortified by a cream tea, I took my courage in both hands and approached her. She couldn't have been nicer, and was more than happy to sign a couple of books, one for me and one for Dovegreyreader.
All in all, a lovely day out, finished off by a great sunset as we headed westward and home.