Gig Review: An Audience with Hilary Mantel

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Yesterday evening I joined around one hundred other people to listen to Hilary Mantel talk about the phenomenon that her Thomas Cromwell trilogy has blossomed into. As she said, Wolf Hall is now more than just a book, and its popularity is down to more than her writing. Whilst I admire her modesty, it was fascinating to listen to how her forty years in the making idea developed, and how it so unexpectedly acquired a life of its own.

The talk was held in the quiet archive room at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre and was a fund raiser for the archives. Hilary had spent the day browsing documents which the centre holds relating to the Seymour family, whose seat was at nearby Burbage. A manor house named Wolf Hall still exists on the site although it is not the original in which Jane Seymour lived.

Hilary told us how she wrote to the current owners of Wolf Hall when her book was due to be published, as a courtesy to let them know that she was using the name, assuring them that her books rarely sold more than a few thousand copies so they were unlikely to hear of it.

When Hilary mentioned to a writer friend that she was working on a book about Thomas Cromwell he retorted, ‘He was a bad man’. This is how history has presented him, the Machiavelli to More’s saintly persona. A closer look suggests that neither portrayal is accurate. History is a moving feast, rewritten and reinterpreted for each present day. Hilary wished to create a character that was, like any living person, chameleon like and difficult to fully know, but one with whom the reader could empathise.

She talked of her involvement in the BBC TV series, and also in the adaptations for the West End and Broadway stage. Although she worked alongside the writers and producers she allowed that these interpretations were not of her making, much as each reader will take something slightly different from their experience of her books.

The final part of the trilogy (The Mirror and the Light) is still some way off completion and will be shaped to some extent by the derivations to which the first two in the series have been subjected. It will hold up a light to all that has gone before, and challenge the reader to consider the conclusions they have come to about each of the characters. The ending will mirror the beginning, with Cromwell looking at the feet of a man trying to kill him and hearing the voice of his father, “So now get up!”

Hilary spoke with wit and passion. She commented that she would not wish to sit down to dinner with Thomas Cromwell as he would be unlikely to say much of note. She would much prefer to dine with Thomas Wolsey, a lively gossip and raconteur.

When speaking of Cromwell’s demise she pointed out that he, as with Anne Boleyn, was brought down by the clever use of gossip in a time when there was no photographic evidence and little was documented unless it were a legal transaction. Cromwell was accused of trying to supplant the king, something that his family took a further four generations to achieve.

I was glad that I had taken the time to read Hilary’s books before going along to the talk (you may find my reviews here and here). Although I took one along on the off chance that she may sign it, the event was not of that type. It would have felt like asking a personal favour of a host’s dinner guest, met for the first time.

One lucky lady did get to interview Hilary after the talk, enabling me to at least capture an image from an enlightening and entertaining evening.

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Book Review: Bring Up the Bodies

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Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel, is the second book in a proposed trilogy exploring the life of Thomas Cromwell and his relationships with his contemporaries in the court of Henry VIII (the first in this series is Wolf Hall which I review here). In this part of the story the author covers the machinations which led to the trial and beheading of Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, in order to allow the king to marry Jane Seymour.

Although written with the same assurance and impressive attention to detail I nevertheless found this book less compelling than its predecessor. It is hard to be critical of a work of such high, literary quality; I only do so because I compare it to Wolf Hall and find less to commend. The background to the characters and their relationships have already been covered. These few months of history have been dramatised so extensively elsewhere that there is little new to learn.

What the reader does get is further insight into why Cromwell chose to bring down certain courtiers and not others. He was loyal to his friends and ruthless towards his enemies. His prodigious memory ensured that he did not forget any slight towards himself or those who had helped him in his unprecedented rise within a powerful court reserved for the aristocracy. Cromwell earned his place by ensuring that, when the King required an outcome, he would provide. He gained his own personal revenges along the way.

“He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged.”

Cromwell plays a long game, his plans and intrigues reminding me of a game of chess. He can never be sure of his opponents next move but, having studied them carefully over many years, he makes informed guesses and adjusts his strategies accordingly. Much of what he thinks is kept hidden behind his austere facade, calm bearing and growing reputation. He knows that there are many who would wish to bring him down and carefully cultivates those whose loyalty he will one day call upon. Everything is held to account.

This is a deftly written and still fascinating narration from a master story teller. That I did not enjoy reading it quite as much as I did Wolf Hall should not detract from my view that it is an exceptional, historical biography which vividly portrays the politics and passions of the time. Hilary Mantel well deserves the many accolades she has received. I look forward to reading the conclusion to this trilogy when it is published.

 

Book Review: Wolf Hall

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Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, is the first book in a proposed trilogy which explores the life of Thomas Cromwell and his relationships with his contemporaries in the court of Henry VIII. Much has, of course, been written about the Tudors, especially those who came and went during the reign of this much married monarch. The main plot holds few surprises yet the author weaves an engrossing tale around these key events. This is a compelling and fast moving story which takes the reader into the heart of the powerhouses of Britain at that time. It is a reminder that social changes have complex settings.

Thomas Cromwell was noteworthy because he was low born yet rose to become the king’s key advisor in an age when the aristocracy guarded their power with an iron fist. Cromwell’s prodigious memory and attention to detail, alongside his political astuteness, enabled him to ride the changing tides of favour and fortune which brought so many others down. He bought and sold secrets with adroitness, a shadowy figure amongst peacocks. He valued knowledge and looked after his own.

The story is a fascinating biographical fiction but it is the quality of the prose which sets the book apart. Well known names are given life, the period is evoked with precision but also feeling. Cromwell’s inner thoughts offer explanations as to why notable events occurred as they did.

As Cromwell mulls over events, calculating odds on emerging players, he keeps much hidden from the reader, as he does from all those who surround him. In rare moments he will recognise in himself certain of his less admirable characteristics. How often do we all rewrite even our own memories?

Despite being over six hundred pages long the plot moves along apace and the writing flows. Use of language and imagery are exquisite. I am wary of Booker Prize winning novels as I have, in the past, found some to provide turgid reading; to be scholarly more than enjoyable. This is a readers book, an immersive and captivating story presented in an accessible, potent voice.