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.