Looking back at Hilary Mantel, beloved author of the bestselling Wolf Hall trilogy
Mantel was one of the few writers to win England's Booker Prize twice — first in 2009 for Wolf Hall, and again in 2012 for its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies. Set in 16th century Tudor England, the novels centre on the previously little-known figure Thomas Cromwell, chief deputy to King Henry VIII. Wolf Hall went on to sell more copies than any other Booker winner ever — nearly three and a half million worldwide — and also won the American National Book Critics Circle Award. In 2019, the Guardian named it the best book of the 21st century. Mantel completed the trilogy in 2020 with what would be her final book, The Mirror and the Light.
Before the success of Wolf Hall, Mantel was known for wide-ranging novels that were nuanced and complex, often with a political dimension. From Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, set in Saudi Arabia, to A Change of Climate, which moves between 1950s southern Africa and 1970s England, to Beyond Black, about evil spirits and the occult, she was interested in the nature of good and evil — personal and public.
Mantel was born in Derbyshire, Northern England, in 1952. In 2003, she came out with her unconventional memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, which explored her childhood and convent education, as well as her battle with endometriosis and medical misdiagnoses.
Mantel talked to Eleanor Wachtel many times over the years, including in 2012 about Wolf Hall, and Bringing Up the Bodies. Their other conversations are available below.
Recasting the villain
"I'm always conscious of untold stories.
"I think historical fiction is in many ways a project of recovery, rediscovery and, sometimes, rehabilitation. I felt that Thomas Cromwell's story hadn't been told.
"He was very central to King Henry VIII's reign — he was his chief minister for almost 10 years during the tumultuous decade of the 1530s.
"He's a fascinating man in his own right. We know he had three children, lost his wife and two daughters in one of the epidemics of the late 1520s and never remarried.
"And yet, he's the man who tells Henry VIII who he can go to bed with. What strikes me about him is this wonderful arc of this story — blacksmith's boy to Earl of Essex, how do you do that?
I think historical fiction is in many ways a project of recovery, rediscovery and, sometimes, rehabilitation.
"There were certain assumptions that underlay the history we were taught; we were to regard Henry VIII's break with Rome as a disaster and heresy, to see Thomas Moore as a saint and to see Thomas Cromwell as villain. But there was something about Cromwell that piqued my interest."
Listen | Hilary Mantel in conversation with Eleanor Wachtel about 2003 autobiography Giving Up the Ghost:
"I continued to think about Cromwell. I had made a proposal to my publisher for two novels: a contemporary one and the Thomas Cromwell novel, which was supposed to come second. I thought I would do the modern one first — no research, easy and, to a great extent, based on my own experience. But when I began writing it, the novel scared the life out of me. It was too close to my experience and I began to have nightmares about it.
"I thought one day, 'I'll give myself a day off and see what Thomas Cromwell sounds like.' When I'd written the first two paragraphs, I felt the most enormous joy; that might sound strange given Wolf Hall's violent beginning, but I suddenly knew everything about the book.
But when I began writing it, the novel scared the life out of me. It was too close to my experience and I began to have nightmares about it.
"When I wrote that paragraph where he's lying on the ground and we're looking through Cromwell's eyes up at his father's boot in very close focus — looking at the twine that held the sole to the boot, the knot in the twine and his own blood — I suddenly felt this is the book I was meant to be writing.
"I've never had a writing experience quite like it."
Listen | Hilary Mantel speaks with Eleanor Wachtel about 2020 novel The Mirror and the Light:
Being Thomas Cromwell
"Wolf Hall's Cromwell is not someone who abstracts, he's a man with an earthy body and a big fist that grasps materially what he wants. He's a man who has travelled and knows the sound of many languages, the smell and sight of the sea. He knows the quality of fabric because he's been a wool trader and he's lived in Venice, where luxury fabrics are traded.
"When he sees someone, he immediately prices up the quality and drape of what they're wearing. He's not actually touching it, but he's handling the fabric with his eyes. It seems to me that the book should be like this to let people know how the world presents itself through the senses.
He's a man who has travelled and knows the sound of many languages, the smell and sight of the sea.
"He spent time in Italy and can't quite get over that. The sun-drenched sights of Italy still saturate his senses. Cromwell is amazed to find himself living in cold, grey, rainy England."
The clash of classes
"Cromwell was driven by a larger vision of England's future, not just personal ambition. Yes, he was a ruthless man; he was no more ruthless, however, than most of the great men in the reign. He was a radical thinker working against opposition from all sides.
"Perhaps more interesting are the bits of legislation he didn't pull off, like his poor law of 1534 in which you can see the very faint glimmerings of a welfare state and an early recognition that the state may have to care for the economic casualties of a system.
"It would have meant imposing income tax, and you can imagine how the House of Commons liked that. He didn't give up, but his political path was destined to get harder as Henry VIII's own troubles multiplied. People favoured tradition. So someone like Thomas Cromwell came along and mightily and profoundly upset everyone.
Yes, he was a ruthless man; he was no more ruthless, however, than most of the great men in the reign.
"The common people, instead of applauding the ambition of someone like Cromwell, think that something unnatural had happened. This was the climate of the time — you did what your family had always done, you didn't rise through the layers of society. With the rivalry of courtiers and enmity from below, you could see why at one stage in Bring Up the Bodies he reflects that the king is his only friend.
"That's fine, except what if something happens to Henry VIII? What then? I won't be giving away any secrets if I say I'm more interested in people who have a long way to climb in the world than in people who are born to the purple."
Hilary Mantel's comments have been edited and condensed.