As Hilary Mantel turns 70, historians and fellow Booker Prize winners explain how her Wolf Hall trilogy brought a fresh perspective to one of England’s best-known periods
Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived. Those six words, resonant with almost anyone who went to school in Britain, have become shorthand for the extraordinary story of Henry VIII and his six wives.
The Tudor period is extensively covered in the education system, with many children first encountering it in primary school. It’s also a popular setting for screen drama, from TV shows such as The Tudors and The Virgin Queen, to films such as The Other Boleyn Girl (adapted from Philippa Gregory’s novel). And what unites nearly all depictions of the time, especially those on screen, is that they are preoccupied with sex and scandal.
‘The story of Henry VIII and his six wives is one of the most potent historical brands in our collective consciousness, but its combination of outrageous drama with intense familiarity means it can morph all too easily into soap opera,’ says Dr Helen Castor, a historian of medieval England and a Fellow of Sidney Sussex College at the University of Cambridge, as well as a Booker Prize 2022 judge.
It almost felt there was nothing new to say about the period. And, for a long time, there wasn’t. Then, in 2009, Hilary Mantel published Wolf Hall, the first volume of a trilogy set in the 1500s. But instead of treading well-worn ground – Henry VIII’s shenanigans and the sad yet ultimately one-dimensional stories of his six spouses – Mantel offered something new: an intricate look at the extraordinary rise of Thomas Cromwell, from boy soldier to one of Henry’s most trusted advisors.
Readers and critics alike found Mantel’s approach an original and welcome addition to Tudor fiction, as it offered something genuinely different and unfamiliar. Historian Thomas Penn, author of Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England, says that while ‘the Tudors have always been box-office… Hilary Mantel’s novels have allowed people to imagine them in a new light’.
Before Wolf Hall, Thomas Cromwell was a name many people had heard only in passing. The details of his life were largely only known by scholars of the period, and were likely only of interest to them. That was all set to change.
‘It’s worth recalling that, before Mantel, Thomas Cromwell barely inhabited the public imagination: if recognised at all, he was often conflated with his distant descendant Oliver,’ says Penn. ‘Today, he has supplanted in our imagination that “man for all seasons” Thomas More, in whose conviction and execution for treason Cromwell himself played a key role.’
Castor agrees: ‘Hilary Mantel has said that, before she wrote Wolf Hall, Thomas Cromwell was “under-imagined”. She’s entirely right but, strangely, I think the same has also been true of the period’s marquee names. Because we know in advance exactly how the plot will unfold, we tend to overlook its strangeness, its horror, its unpredictability, its astonishing complexity.
‘Hilary Mantel changed all that.’
Because we know in advance exactly how the plot will unfold, we tend to overlook its strangeness, its horror, its unpredictability, its astonishing complexity
While Wolf Hall was the book that brought Mantel huge international acclaim, and the 2009 Booker Prize, she had already been writing for many years with a number of accolades to her name.
It took a while to hit her stride. She was drawn to historical fiction from the start, but, as she said in her 2017 Reith Lectures, ‘I was subject to a cultural cringe. I felt I was morally inferior to historians and artistically inferior to real novelists, who could do plots.’ In the mid-Seventies she wrote a novel about the French Revolution, but was unable to find publisher to take it on. At the time, historical fiction, she said later, ‘wasn’t respected or respectable’. One agent turned it down, she said, because they expected that it was ‘bound to be about ladies with high hair’. (The book, A Place of Greater Safety, was eventually published in 1992.)
Her first published novel was 1985’s Every Day Is Mother’s Day, and she published another 11 before Wolf Hall, winning several literary awards in the process. She was also shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction (now the Women’s Prize) and the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Beyond Black, which novelist Pat Barker describes to me as ‘the book that should actually have won the Booker’.
Mantel didn’t get to the Tudors until decades after the thought of writing about Cromwell had first crossed her mind. As she explained in her Reith Lectures, ‘For most of my career I wrote about odd and marginal people. They were psychic. Or religious. Or institutionalised. Or social workers. Or French. My readers were a small and select band, until I decided to march on to the middle ground of English history and plant a flag.’
So what was it about Wolf Hall that captured everyone’s attention? One factor, according to Barker, who won the Booker in 1995 for The Ghost Road, is that the book is ‘about a matter of England, or one of the matters of England: you know, it’s Arthur, it’s the First World War and it’s the Tudor period. Those are part of the national life that countless people keep going back to and finding meaning in.’
Marlon James, who won the Booker Prize in 2015 with A Brief History of Seven Killings, tells me that he only had two books on his desk the entire time he was writing his most recent fantasy novel, Moon Witch, Spider King: Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Mantel’s Wolf Hall.
Having read extensively around the Tudor period, James says when he came across Wolf Hall his first thought was: ‘What new thing could possibly be said about this?’
‘One of the things that remains consistent in almost all the tales of Henry VIII is Cromwell as its shadow villain,’ James says. ‘So the idea of picking the historical villain to be the protagonist itself was interesting and daring.’
As Mantel herself noted, ‘There were shelves full of novels about Henry VIII and his wives, but a novelist can’t resist an unexplored angle. Change the viewpoint, and the story is new.’
So she approached this iconic period from a new direction. By focusing on Cromwell, Mantel ‘in a sense detoxified the material, because the material is so laden with countless bodice ripping accounts of Henry and his mistresses and his wives’, says Barker. ‘And in choosing to step back from that and to take Cromwell’s religion very seriously as well, I think she gave it a depth and resonance.’
But Mantel wasn’t just telling Cromwell’s life story, she was humanising him, inviting us to see the world through him. (‘In fiction you’re exploring the unconscious of history,’ she said a few years ago.) Crucially, by writing in the present tense, she was presenting him as a man who has no idea what’s coming next, even though the reader knows exactly how events are going to play out. Mantel thus creates suspense in a story that in theory should contain very little.
For James, it was partly this that gave the novel its energy. ‘I think it was a very bold choice to write in the present tense,’ he tells me, ‘because it gave us a sense of history that was actually living, as opposed to history that remains in the past. There is that immediacy of being in the action. It’s something that, funnily enough, I usually find only in African literature.’
By avoiding ‘ye olde’ language and using more contemporary-sounding dialogue, Mantel adds a further layer of vitality. James agrees: ‘It always blows my mind when I hear these over-articulate and over-speaking English people in historical fiction. [In Wolf Hall] there was an almost brutal simplicity, which gave the language a freshness.’
Where the historical record disappears, Mantel comes into her own, feeling for the tears in the historical fabric and slipping imperceptibly through them— Thomas Penn, historian and author of Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England
That combination of taking something that is so firmly in the public consciousness and seeing it as though for the first time, combining it with a deftness in her handling of the source material, ensured that Wolf Hall instantly impressed the critics.
Reviewing the book in the Guardian in 2009, Christopher Tayler said that Mantel’s portrayal of Cromwell ‘depicts this beefy pen-pusher and backstairs manoeuvrer as one of the most appealing – and, in his own way, enlightened – characters of the period.
‘How do you write about Henry VIII without being camp or breathless or making him do something clunkily non-stereotypical?’ continued Tayler. ‘Mantel attacks the problem from several angles, starting by knowing a lot about the period but not drawing attention to how strenuously she’s imagining it.”
Other critics were equally enthusiastic. Colin Burrow in the London Review of Books praised Mantel’s ‘exceptional’ ability to pick out scenes from sources and give them vivid life, while Christopher Benfy in the New York Times described Mantel as filling in the blanks of history ‘plausibly, brilliantly’. Others commented on the fact that it was a very funny book – perhaps funnier than other accounts of the period would have led them to expect.
And then, of course, there was the Booker Prize win, although the judges were split. BBC broadcaster Jim Naughtie, who chaired the 2009 judging panel, said: ‘Our decision was based on the sheer bigness of the book, the boldness of its narrative and scene-setting, the gleam that there is in its detail.’
Mantel’s 2012 win for the second book in the trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies, was more emphatic. The chairman of the 2012 judging panel, Peter Stothard, said Mantel had ‘rewritten the book on writing historical fiction’ and described her as ‘the greatest modern English prose writer working today’.
But the trilogy wasn’t just a critical success (the third book, The Mirror & the Light, was longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize); it was also huge commercial triumph, helped in no small part, of course, by the BBC’s Bafta-winning television adaptation in 2015, with Mark Rylance outstanding in the role of Cromwell.
Wolf Hall is the second biggest-selling Booker Prize winner since Nielson BookScan began tracking book sales, having currently sold 1.09 million copies (Life of Pi by Yann Martel is the top seller, with 1.7 million copies sold).
According to Kiera O’Brien, charts and data editor at publishing trade magazine the Bookseller: ‘I would say Wolf Hall is definitely the dominant book, but its sequels have also sold incredibly, with Bring Up the Bodies on over 500,000 copies sold altogether and The Mirror & the Light’s hardback shifting nearly 190,000, despite being published weeks ahead of the first lockdown.
‘I think it will continue to sell. Wolf Hall itself has risen in sales with each new sequel and its TV adaptation, but even over the last six months both its 2019 edition and 2010 edition have continued to notch up the sales week in week out, as have the sequels and the combined trilogy.’
Given its critical and commercial triumph, it’s easy to forget there was no guarantee that the Wolf Hall trilogy would succeed, considering what a huge undertaking it was to offer a new perspective on such a familiar story.
In her Booker Prize acceptance speech in 2009, Mantel said: ‘I hesitated for such a long time before beginning to write this book, actually for about 20 years. 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.’
Mantel succeeded in her ambitions, says Castor, by putting us ‘inside a story we thought we knew; not just inside the story, but behind the eyes of one of the sixteenth century’s most sophisticated politicians, a blacksmith’s boy who ends up at the king’s right hand.
‘In theory, the rules of the game he’s playing should have meant that Cromwell couldn’t reach those heights – just as, a generation earlier, the Tudors should never have won the crown - but, moment by moment, Mantel shows us what it’s like to stake everything on shaping a future that no one, not even the most brilliant mind in the room, can see,’ she continues. ‘Writing history always requires imagination: working out what sources don’t say, as well as what they do (or might, or could) – filling in gaps where pieces of the puzzle are missing.
‘Writing historical fiction at the highest level requires all that and more: the making of a world in prose. I feel very lucky to be reading while Hilary Mantel is writing.’
Mantel, too, sees parallels between historians and novels. Both, she said in 2017, ‘are engaged in a common struggle with evidence – its subjective, partial, patchy, frequently encoded nature. Historians are trained in how to handle evidence and novelists have to learn it. Engagement with the evidence is what raises your game.’
She added: ‘When we offer historical fiction to the public, we do have responsibilities – to our readers and to our subjects. We shouldn’t condescend to the people of the past, nor distort them into versions of ourselves. We should be wary about the received version. We should not pass on error. We should seek out inconsistencies and gaps and see if we can make creative use of them.’
According to Penn, Mantel’s genius is that she knows instinctively where a historian cannot go, and consequently where she, as a novelist, can.
‘Where the historical record disappears, or in the paranoid world of the Tudor court – a world of twisted words, rumours of hearsay, half-truths, alternative facts – Mantel comes into her own, feeling for the tears in the historical fabric and slipping imperceptibly through them,’ Penn continues.
‘This is just one of the reasons why she is able to summon up a fully realised world, and why the Wolf Hall trilogy is one of the great fictional achievements of our age.’