“Cromwell is a man who has erased his traces,” said Hilary Mantel, Man Booker-winner for Wolf Hall, her monumental reimagining of the life and career of Henry VIII’s advisor, Thomas Cromwell. “The man has gone missing.”
Yet Cromwell, or at least Mantel’s imagining of him, seemed very present in the packed Barclays Pavilion at Hay Festival, where the crowd seemed as won over by the pugnacious, wily London hoodlum-turned-minister as Mantel herself. Her readings from the second novel in the trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies, were a reminder of just why her novels have been such a hit and made her the most important novelist in the UK - Mantel, who speaks articulately and with passion, loves and knows her subject.
The devil (or indeed the “pantomime villain” as he has been portrayed) is in the detail, and she revealed a tenacious attitude to research, of “plunging” into first-hand sources and centuries of reappraisals – she recalled finding official documents, amended after the fact, when Henry’s much-expected prince was born instead a princess and had to have the extra “ss”s hastily inked in place. The research proved unexpectedly fruitful: “I didn’t know [when I was writing Wolf Hall] that it was going to be a trilogy,” she admitted ruefully. “Like Henry VIII, or me for that matter, [the project] was always expanding.”
The third installment of the series is to be called The Mirror and the Light, and like the opening of Wolf Hall, will end with Cromwell once more "on the scaffold" and lying in his own blood.
When asked whether, as a novelist, she was tempted to “bend” the history to fit the novel, she laughed that that “leads to all sorts of trouble”, citing the romptastic and not-wholly-accurate Tudors TV series. “Once you say to yourself ‘I’ll just tidy this up’ then that’s where the rot sets in.”
Mantel’s vivid depiction of centuries-old events hangs on her use of language – not only do we look out through Cromwell’s eyes in the third-person narrative “unrolling like cinema film second by second” - but her convincing use of speech that feels both “present and historical”, as host Peter Florence put it. “You have to privilege clarity of communication” she declared. “I couldn’t be authentic because no one would know what I was talking about. And I hate pastiche.”
“[I wanted to get] the scent and flavour of Tudor England." Judging by the rapt attention of the audience, she has succeeded.
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel is published by Fourth Estate.