Doubting Thomas

by Jane Westaway / 27 June, 2009
Never one to replay an old tune, novelist Hilary Mantel went in search of the real Thomas Cromwell behind the 'Tudor pantomime' villain she was taught about at school.

Five hundred years ago in Westminster Abbey, a 17-year-old prince married his brother's widow. A fortnight later, the couple were crowned king and queen. Henry VIII would rule for 38 years; the reign of his wife, Catherine of Aragon, would be shorter and more precarious. Catherine gave birth to their only child to survive, Mary, in 1516. But, impatient for a son, Henry pursued Ann Boleyn. Her sister, Mary, had been his teenage mistress, but Ann was determined not to yield until she was queen.

Henry had needed the Pope's permission to marry Catherine and now that he wished to be rid of her, he tried the same route. But Cardinal Wolsey could not secure a papal annulment, a failure that ended his powerful career. Thomas More then became England's top prelate, and Wolsey's fixer, Thomas Cromwell, went to work for the king.

This - give or take a few names and dates, some banishments and beheadings, and a dim notion that Henry's carnal desires bequeathed us the Church of England - is pretty much all most of us know of this tumultuous period of English history. Reading Hilary Mantel's new novel, Wolf Hall, will change all that.

The novel's protagonist is the redoubtable Cromwell. This political wheeler-dealer has traditionally come in for a universal drubbing - from history teachers through to novelists, playwrights and movie directors. He disports himself in full wicked regalia in Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons, and his many walk-on parts include moments in Philippa Gregory's novels and the 1971 film Carry on Henry.

It will surprise no one familiar with Mantel's uncategorisable fiction that she isn't interested in replaying that old tune. "I went to a convent school with a good history teacher. We were taught: Thomas More - saint and hero; Thomas Cromwell - double-dyed villain, pantomime figure wearing black and hissing in the wings." It was a red rag to a bull: "I wanted to find out who Cromwell really was."

Mantel says Henry VIII is a national soap opera. And the story of his right-hand man was one she had wanted to tackle for years and years. "I believe profoundly that there's a right time to write books. That's why it's taken a long, long time to write this one."

Mantel is speaking from her apartment in a converted lunatic asylum in Surrey, England. Her non-Home Counties accent is as comforting as a cup of tea, her kind manner giving no hint of the personal disturbances documented in her 2003 memoir, Giving Up the Ghost.

"I became an 18th-century specialist with A Place of Greater Safety [her first novel, the fifth to be published] and The Giant O'Brien. I badly wanted to tell the [Wolf Hall] story but did I have the energy and nerves to tackle a new period?"

An imposing and enthusiastically received 650 pages say she did. She immersed herself in Cromwell's life and times, reading standard texts to get her bearings, along with armfuls of bio­graphies and cultural histories on topics such as gardening and cooking. "I needed to be able to walk into a Tudor room and be comfortable in it."

Bur she doesn't like the "historical fiction tag". "Wolf Hall is a contemporary novel informed by events in the past." And it's true the book, though firmly set in its time and place, has the ­captivating, contemporary feel of a TV series like House of Cards, even, from time to time, Yes Minister.

The novel's sex and violence, plotting and power struggles are conveyed cinematically in crisp dialogue and sparing description. Centre-stage is an essentially ageless humanity, and there's a refreshing absence of forsooths and egad sirs. Mantel's historic figures are real people, albeit not ones you'd necessarily want to invite home for dinner.

Wolf Hall's opening pages depict an adolescent Thomas writhing on the ground as he's beaten by his pig of a father, Walter. It's a dismally timeless scene. We know quite a lot about Walter, says Mantel, because he was always in court for drunkenness and cheating people, and selling sub-standard ale. "He was a chancer. He had a finger in every pie." So Thomas is in one sense an apple that doesn't fall far from the tree.

He flees the paternal fist and, like the real Cromwell, disappears into Europe for more than two decades. "A familiar story," says Mantel. "The boy who leaves home and can't go back."

A much older Thomas re-emerges in London at Wolsey's right hand - "He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury." He speaks several languages, is smart, thoughtful and physically intimidating. He has made a loving marriage and is a kind father. He is also, Mantel points out, that remarkably modern creature: a man who crosses class boundaries. Having grown up on the street, he now moves among the rich and powerful.

Mantel's novels - this is her 10th - often provide glimpses of menacing other-worldliness, nasty manifestations of wickedness and evil. Giving Up the Ghost records how, at the age of seven, she had a horrifying backyard encounter with "some formless, borderless evil" that took up residence inside her. Given this vulnerability to unpleasant visitations, I ask not "How did you get this massive work written?" but "How did you stop?"

It's only too easy to picture its author adrift in the world she has re-imagined for Wolf Hall, quite unable to return to 21st-century life. In fact, one of her regular Guardian columns catalogues "the post-book mope".

"It can be hard to shake off," she says. "You've let the genie out of the bottle. You belong to a long narrative. It's the book that comes first, always. But I've been a professional writer since the 80s, so I'm aware of the compromises needed. You have to find space and quiet inside you, a meditative state, then three hours later snap out of it. The proper writer stays at home and doesn't know what day it is. But then there's the author - as in 'meet the author'."

Mantel has already launched herself into a sequel to Wolf Hall. But she punctuates these long hauls with smaller projects, writing, for instance, on hair and perfume, along with reviews and critical essays. "Everyone assumes novelists are dreamy and artistic, but I'm preoccupied with politics and how we live."

Her advice to herself in the opening pages of Giving Up the Ghost is anything but dreamy and artistic: "stop being so bloody beguiling", "turn off that charm!", "stop constructing those piffling little similes ... Work out what you want to say. Then say it in the most direct and vigorous way you can." For more than 20 years now, Mantel has been brilliantly applying that advice. With Wolf Hall, delivered in time for the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII's coronation and being claimed as The Great British Novel, many hope it will finally snare one of the major glittering prizes that have so far eluded her.

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