Hilary Mantel’s truly great novel peels back history to explore the rich intersection of individual psychology and wider politics in Tudor England.
England in the 1520s is a heartbeat from disaster. If the king dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of twenty years, and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope and most of Europe oppose him. Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell. Son of a brutal blacksmith, Cromwell is a political genius, a briber, a bully and a charmer. He has broken all the rules of a rigid society in his rise to power, and is prepared to break some more.
I don’t think you can write any intelligent historical fiction these days without it also being historiographical fiction
The pair talked about Mantel’s depictions of women including Anne Boleyn, creating a 16th century world from a 21st century perspective, and how Mantel got inside the head of Thomas Cromwell.
‘I have to do a slightly different job from a historian, because once the record stops, that’s where I begin,” said Mantel about whether her work was like that of a historian. ‘That’s where my real work begins. Once you’ve identified the gaps, then you work out ‘could they ever be filled?’ and sometimes you think, ok, well it would take a discovery of another document that bridges this gap. But sometimes you’re in the realms of private life and private thought, and you know the material by the nature of this historical record will never come to light. We never really know what people thought, only what they said, what they did.’
The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, reviewing Wolf Hall, said ‘the show’s deliberately paced six hours turn out to be riveting, precisely because they are committed, without apology or, often, much explanation, to the esotericism of their subject matter’, while the Guardian’s Sam Wollaston called it ‘event television, sumptuous, intelligent and serious, meticulous in the detail, but not humourless or po-faced’.
Among the awards the show won was Best Drama Series and Best Actor for Rylance at the 2016 BAFTA TV Awards and the 2016 Golden Globe for Best Miniseries or Television Film.
In her 2009 acceptance speech for her Wolf Hall win, Mantel shared that she had the book in mind for a long time before starting to write it.
‘I hesitated for such a long time before beginning to write this book, actually for about 20 years,’ she said. ‘I couldn’t begin until I felt secure enough to say to my publisher just what a publisher always wants to hear “this will take me several years, you know”. But they took it on the chin.
‘When I began the book I knew I had to do something very difficult: I had to interest the historians, I had to amuse the jaded palette of the critical establishment and most of all I had to capture the imagination of the general reader.’