Hilary Mantel was 12 years old when she decided she no longer believed in God. “It just struck me as a certain absence,” she says. “As though I woke up one morning and none of it made sense. I was brought up Catholic and in my naive and childish way I wanted answers to all the great questions: the problem of pain, and the problem of suffering. And I couldn’t make progress because every time I raised a question it was treated as a wicked one.”
In a roundabout, long-gestating way, this early experience helped shape what will surely become the defining work of Mantel’s career. Wolf Hall and its newly published sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, plunge the reader deep into the notorious Tudor soap opera that preceded the English reformation, when Henry VIII, desperate to free his kingdom – and marital affairs – from Rome’s papal authority, set in motion the process that would eventually lead to the establishment of the Church of England. “I was a real contrarian back then,” says Mantel, now 59. “I remember wanting very much to understand this period from another point of view. In that respect, I’ve been living with people such as Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell imaginatively all my life.”
If you’ve read Wolf Hall – Mantel’s 2009 blockbuster masterpiece, which became the most popular Man Booker Prize winner since records began, at one point outselling Dan Brown on Amazon – you’ll be well acquainted with Mantel’s imaginative recreation of the era that effectively gave birth to modern England. The novel recounts the strenuous efforts of Henry – not yet the corpulent, syphilitic monster of popular myth – to shake off Katherine of Aragon (who failed to deliver him a healthy male heir in 20 years of marriage) and marry instead the quick-witted, black-haired Anne Boleyn. Against a political backdrop even more turbulent than the King’s love life – scheming lords, fanatical Catholics, dissenting bishops, mounting public debt, the enduring problem of France – Mantel recasts the saga from the illuminating perspective of Cromwell, the son of a Putney blacksmith who rose on a tide of luck and cunning to become Henry’s go-to man whenever he wanted to dispatch a Pope or a pesky wife or two.
Now, Bring Up the Bodies – this month’s Listener Book Club choice, in association with Booksellers New Zealand – moves the story forward through the brief triumph and bloody end of Boleyn, executed after a few short years on trumped-up charges of treason. (A third and concluding novel is in the pipeline.) Yet within this star-studded cast, rendered strange and fresh by Mantel’s dazzling, psychologically acute prose, it is Cromwell who remains the most fascinating character – here not just the ruthless moderniser of reputation but a sensitive, brilliant man prone to waves of melancholic fatalism, and grief-stricken over the deaths of his wife, sister, daughters and beloved Cardinal Wolsey (who is stripped of office and later dies in Wolf Hall ). That bleak poetic melancholy comes even more to the fore amid the subtle gothic tones of Bring Up the Bodies. For although Cromwell’s favour with Henry is newly secured, no one knows better than the sly, ever watchful Cromwell that the closer you are to Henry the more perilous your position.
“Just as our relationship to our past changes as we grow older, so Cromwell is changing in all sorts of ways,” says Mantel. “For me, he is a work in progress. I deliberately wanted to leave him open. He is now wearing the mantle of power. And yet every negotiation with Henry is poised on the brink of disaster because Henry is inclined to a whimsical cruelty. And Cromwell at this stage can foresee his own end.”
Wolf Hall was ultimately anchored in the tremendous battle of will and intellect between Cromwell and the Catholic loyalist Lord Chancellor More, and Bring Up the Bodies centres on a terrific psychological stand-off between Boleyn and Cromwell. Amid the cloak and dagger, cut and thrust of Tudor politics, coupled with the dangerous caprice of their master, Henry, both Boleyn and Cromwell intuitively know each is the other’s enemy. “The challenge with Anne is to scrape away the varnish, because people have not been able to resist fictionalising Anne from the moment she was dead,” says Mantel. “She is someone who is new for every age. People bring their own projections to her. It’s often like that for commoners who marry into the mystery of royalty. You saw it happen with Diana, Princess of Wales. And you see it happening with William and Kate, too. You see the one losing herself.”
By contrast, Cromwell has remained one of history’s most inscrutable figures, partly because almost nothing beyond a few bare facts is known about his private life. Trying to unlock his secluded character – and tread the necessary balancing act between historical fact and fictional speculation – has been the essential puzzle for Mantel. All she had to go on was Hans Holbein the Younger’s contemporary stonyfaced portrait (which in Wolf Hall even Cromwell thinks makes him “look like a murderer”) and a couple of contemporary accounts. “Spiritual men such as Thomas More reveal themselves all the time through their writing,” says Mantel. “The secular man revealing himself to the world has been a much more recent development.
Although there is a contemporary account by Cardinal Wolsey’s gentleman usher George Cavendish, who describes one rare day seeing Cromwell privately shedding tears. Cromwell says he is ‘crying for myself, for the loss of my fortune’. And yet I don’t think Cavendish quite perceives the meaning of this. For it is All Soul’s Day. And I think Cromwell was mourning the loss of his family.” Mantel has always had critical admiration for her many novels, but Wolf Hall and now, surely, Bring Up the Bodies have given her a rare popular profile. Yet in some respects she has been writing about similar subjects all her life. Politics, history, Catholicism and the representation of women have been recurrent themes in her work – and in her life: she initially wanted to study politics, and later spent several years in Saudi Arabia (her 1988 novel, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, was inspired by the cultural and gender clashes she witnessed there).
She has also suffered from endometriosis since her twenties, which dramatically changed her physical appearance and left her unable to have children (which she wrote about in her 2003 memoir, Giving Up the Ghost). “If you are going to write about Henry’s reign, you need to have a basic understanding of gynaecology,” she says wryly. “Because for all the negotiations that are taking place on the national stage during this time, they are all in the end reduced to one simple thing: waiting for a woman to conceive a male child. The woman’s body is absolutely central to Henry’s reign. Yet luckily for me, and for modern feminists, I don’t have to struggle with how powerful these women are, because they really are powerful. Both Anne and Katherine were highly cultivated, educated women – they were certainly no victims. Both were women who tried to strike out of their roles and make their own fate. Katherine because she will not step away from being Queen. And Anne because she thinks she is meant to rise from being a gentleman’s daughter to becoming Queen.”
Mantel, too, has resisted becoming what she thought society would decree. “I never thought as a child I would become a novelist,” she says. “Actually, at 15, I thought I would be a historian. But I gradually realised that girls who studied arts subjects invariably got recycled into being teachers. And I didn’t think I had the confidence to break out of that. That was why I read law at university, hoping to get away from this. But by the time I was in my early twenties, my health had fallen apart and it was then that I began to think seriously about writing.” Her interest in politics continued.
“The path of any novelist is torturous, but particularly so for women. It has been difficult for people to see that when you write about the domestic you are also writing about the political,” she says. “I have not signalled wildly that I am writing state-of-the-nation novels. I’ve hidden my hand in a sense. But now I’ve moved onto a ground everyone recognises. “And I’ve also done something I thought I never would do: write about England. Perhaps I was not before entirely fixed in my identity, but I always found myself an observer of the centre from the margins. But I finally decided to walk onto that territory and plant a flag and write about the creation of Englishness. It feels a bit like coming home.”
There is perhaps no more instrumental figure than the progressive, social reformer Cromwell in the development of England from a feudal medieval kingdom to a parliamentary democracy. If she could, would she invite Cromwell over for dinner? “Oh no,” she says. “I’d invite Cardinal Wolsey. And I would say, ‘Tell me all about Thomas Cromwell …’”
BRING UP THE BODIES, by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate, $37.99).