As its enthralled readers know, Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies buzzes with a hectic and febrile sense of urgency. It outpaces even the crackling static of Wolf Hall, her first novel about Thomas Cromwell and the subtle, savage court of Henry VIII in the 1530s.
On a sunny morning in the Leicester Square office of the Man Booker Prize’s PR company, the day after her second victory, she calmly recalls the headlong ride that flung her towards this unprecedented triumph. “I was completely taken by surprise,” she says about the verdict. “I obviously had the wrong idea of how this jury was going to work. I had supposed that if I was in the running when it came to the final choice, it would be human to prefer a new author.”
Wolf Hall had taken the award in 2009 with the author of Beyond Black, The Giant, O’Brien and A Place of Greater Safety high in reputation but still low in formal honours. “There was a continuity in my writing life, and I was so fortunate to be in the middle of a project, never having to say to myself, ‘how do I top that?'” Then 57, and a veteran of those “terrible afternoons” when the phone didn’t ring and critical acclaim for a book failed to result in a Booker shortlisting, the Derbyshire-born novelist and former social worker would not easily be sidetracked. After the first win, and the vast extra sales it brought, “the externals were different, because the book became a phenomenon and I was suddenly being published in 30 countries. It made a huge difference of course financially, because I’d never really earned a living from fiction, and then I could. But you say to yourself, how long is this likely to last?”
Soon, however, illness stopped her in her tracks again. Mantel wrote in the extraordinary memoir Giving up the Ghost (2003) about the medical misadventures – false diagnoses, doctors’ ineptitude, an almost Tudor-level experience of cruelty and contempt -that plagued her through gruelling decades of living with endometriosis. Now she was driven back into the lonely land of the sick. “Even at the time of the Booker, I was struggling, and I knew that things would have to change.”
She had to write off most of 2010, although a first chapter of Bring Up the Bodies was ready by Christmas. Then in early 2011, in the new home on the Devon coast where she had moved (from Surrey) with her husband Gerald McEwen, Cromwell, Henry, Anne and the conspiratorial courtiers roared back into life. “Towards the end of April, I picked up the files and got going, and then it scooted along at a tremendous pace. The story just picked me up and pulled me with it.” Writing she book so fast “was like a series of emergencies, with each scene leaving me feeling completely drained.” Does this creative frenzy add to the sheer intensity of the mood, as through 1535 and 1536 Cromwell seizes on the king’s infatuation with Jane Seymour as a vehicle for the downfall of Henry’s second queen, Anne Boleyn, and her pushy clan? “I think it does. I was in a panic, almost. That infuses the narrative.”
Rather than the unfolding Bildungsroman of Wolf Hall, with Cromwell’s relentless – and resented – rise to power from the Putney blacksmith’s shop, we have a full-blown, close-focus top-level state crisis. The minister sparks a palace revolution, and then struggles to harness it. “The whole thing is an exhibition of brinksmanship,” Mantel says. “He knows what he’s aiming at – the fall of the Boleyns – but he doesn’t know how he’s going to get there.”
Does she, as the naive but inevitable question goes, like the arch-fixer more or less as time goes by? “In a way, it doesn’t seem to matter, because I’m behind his eyes. So my job’s to be him, rather than to take up an attitude to him. I struggle to preach or moralise to him… That doesn’t mean I can’t keep a distance between us.” The consummate statesman, Henry’s wily factotum has some very modern worries. It’s the economy, stupid. “His first task is to keep England fed. We’ve got a run of bad harvests, grain shortages. The Emperor [Charles V] holds the key here: the Emperor can… blockade England.” So Charles – the nephew of Catherine of Aragon – must be conciliated and the Reformation-minded Anne “is a stench in the nose of piety” for him. “There are all sorts of reasons she has to go which are nothing to do with whether Henry’s fallen out of love with her or not. It’s realpolitik at its most brutal.”
The book shows us Cromwell as he tries – and fails – to introduce an income tax. Outraged, the grasping landowners of the Commons reject this ungodly exaction: “I’d love to know what rate… he was planning to levy. It’s a blank in the record.” As in Wolf Hall, Cromwell appears as a modern administrator far ahead of his time. “He was a revolutionary without any revolutionary tradition. If he had carried through some of his more radical measures, we would be feeling the difference to this day, particularly in respect of the legal system.” Also, she detects “the glimmerings of the welfare state are back there in his radical poor law”.
However, Mantel cautions against treating these novels as some dark mirror or allegory for our own times. “The parallels are not easy to draw,” she says. “They were so different in the basics of their thinking… sometime complete strangers to us, sometimes surprisingly familiar. But you have to live with both the likenesses and the unlikenesses.” Such as, above all, the belief in a divine judgment that awaits at the close of every human story: “the idea that you have to answer before God for what you did in this world.”
“In some respects,” she reflects, “they were more tender with each other than we would be, and in other respects – ferocious. Life was short, and almost everybody in the course of nature suffered great pain at some time.” Moreover, Cromwell’s spectacular ascent drew hatred and suspicion, not praise for a clever striver. “Today, his ambition would be seen as laudable. He would be slated for this ruthlessness but no one would fault him for trying to rise through the social layers. The Tudor world did fault him.” These days, “if someone gets on in life we don’t suspect them of a pact with the devil.”
As for the queens (Catherine of Aragon, Anne, Jane) on whose reproductive potential the entire epic turns, they both shake thrones – and cower beneath them. To an extent, Anne – who goes to the block at the Tower after unfounded accusations of adultery – is “condemned by a misogynistic world-view. But if you think of it another way, at Henry’s court, it’s the women who have the power. Only a woman can give the king a son… The whole thing depends on the freakish operation of a woman’s body. But the sad thing is that the women have no power there either.” At least, “the wonderful thing about writing about Henry’s reign, for a woman writer, is that you don’t have to force the women into a prominence they don’t have. They’re big players. They really have power and influence, and they are well documented as Tudor women go.”
For all her deep immersion in this written record, both novels depend on Mantel’s uncanny and mesmeric command of a Tudor language that sidesteps both pastiche and anachronism. This idiom came swiftly, and has stayed. “Rightly or wrongly, I haven’t perceived it as a problem since I first began to hear it.” A key source – almost the DNA of her Tudor style – was the courtier George Cavendish’s life of Cardinal Wolsey, written in the 1550s: “I picked up something of the rhythm and the locutions, and I grew everything from there.” Bewitched by this voice, Cromwell’s now-global army of followers will be keen to know how long they have to wait for the promised third volume of his trilogy, which has a title: The Mirror and the Light. “I’ve got lots of material but it’s unsorted, in pieces,” Mantel reports. “Next year is my big year for working on it… I’m so excited about it really. I’m more enthralled than I was even at the beginning.” But does she fear the inevitable end of the all-consuming Cromwell years? Yes, but: “It sort of won’t be finished, because I’ll be talking about it for ever.”