In 2005, Hilary Mantel emailed her editor Nicholas Pearson the first 40 pages of a new book, which would transform not only her career, but our expectations of historical fiction. Here, he recalls how Wolf Hall came to life

This essay is published to coincide with the publication of a new collection of Hilary Mantel’s journalism, A Memoir of My Former Self: A Life in Writing.

Written by Nicholas Pearson

Publication date and time: Published

By the early 2000s, Hilary Mantel was deep into her literary career, many outstanding novels behind her. But while her reputation was considerable, her readership remained frustratingly modest. Her novels shuttled from the historical to the contemporary. They were thematically varied and carried within them parts of her own story: domestic dramas, an interest in revolutionary change, her Irish Catholic heritage, her years in Saudi Arabia, fertility, women’s bodies, ghosts. All these novels were individually intriguing but perhaps it was difficult for readers to understand the bigger picture.

Hilary settled down to write her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost. In dealing with her past, by addressing the facts of her own life head on, perhaps she was closing out a phase of her writing life, readying herself to reengage with fiction with a new energy. Beyond Black, which followed in 2005, her slyly funny novel about Middle England, again failed to tip her into the readership those of us who were passionate about her writing felt she deserved. She said to her agent, ‘What more do I have to do?’

By 2005 I’d been at Fourth Estate, Hilary’s UK publisher, for some years. Christopher Potter – her brilliant and inspirational publisher who had brought her to the list with The Giant, O’Brien – had left and I had taken over as her editor and publisher. I made a contract with Hilary for two unwritten novels: a short, intense murder story set in Botswana, where she had lived for five years in the 70s; and a novel about Henry VIII’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, who had been a source of fascination to her for 30 years.

Hilary embarked on the former but quite quickly put it aside and turned to the latter. And then, out of the blue, her agent Bill Hamilton and I received an email from her with 40 pages attached, its first line showing us Cromwell’s father goading his son whose bloodied face is pressed against the cobbles: ‘So now get up.’

That sentence crackled like gunfire, a taunt that would hang over everything Hilary poured herself into over the next decade, a sentence she would return to hundreds of pages later as she would finally take Cromwell to the scaffold in The Mirror & the Light. It was a switch into a fresh way of treating historical fiction, showing us characters living in the moment, attended to in the present tense, unaware of what the future holds for them. As a reader, one felt embedded somewhere in the back of Cromwell’s skull, alert to the brutal world of Tudor England, events unspooling before him while we looked on. As she says in her short essay ‘Night Visions’, which features in a new collection of her writing, A Memoir of My Former Self, she was dealing ‘in metaphors, symbols and myths. [Fiction] multiplies ambiguity. It’s about the particular, which suggests the general: about inner meaning, seen with the inner eye, always glimpsed, always vanishing, always more or less baffling, and scuffled on the page hesitantly, furtively, transgressively.’

Hilary Mantel winner of the Booker Prize 2009 with her novel Wolf Hall

Although it was her first Booker shortlisting, she was by then a veteran of other shortlists and had experienced years of congratulating others before the slow trudge home. The night of the prize she readied two future versions of herself, win or lose

In truth, Hilary didn’t really need assurance from me and Bill – she instinctively knew this new path was the right path. In my mind, ‘So now get up’ accrued a weight beyond its catalytic service to the story itself. It seemed like a prod from Hilary to her writerly self; a message to her editor and beyond to her readers. Suddenly she was into her stride and so it began. Over the next three years, Hilary would periodically send completed sections as the story accumulated, all the promise of those opening pages blossoming and flowering.

In early 2008, a few days before I was boarding a plane to Australia, Hilary emailed to say she thought she had a novel finished and would I read it. A novel, she said, but not the novel: by now there were many hundreds of pages but Thomas More had only just met his end. Hilary felt that what she now had was a part of the story that was complete in itself, with an architecture all its own. The rest of Cromwell’s story could come in a subsequent book. 

I read the manuscript on that long plane journey, England receding hour by hour over my shoulder but on the page coming sharply into focus. Wolf Hall pulled together many of the preoccupations of Hilary’s earlier novels, but now harnessed expansively in the service of the great founding story of the modern state. There was no historical fiction I knew of remotely like it.

Once back in London, the publishing house swung into action. Hilary had delivered a finished manuscript already honed and polished to a bright shine. Editorially there was little to do: there was a conversation about the word ‘pothole’, but I don’t remember if it was retained or not. The jacket was a source of endless debate, but in the end everyone, most of all Hilary, was happy with a white Tudor rose on a painted wooden background.

Hundreds of bound proofs were made and sent out in a determined effort to make this Hilary’s moment. Early reads reinforced my hope that everything was about to change for her: writers agreed that she had altered the landscape of historical fiction. Diana Athill compared the novel to Middlemarch; others were similarly enthused. The stage was set. Months later, on publication, all that had been planned and hoped for fell into place. The reviews were ecstatic and Wolf Hall instantly became a bestseller. 

When the possibility of Wolf Hall winning the Booker Prize reared itself, Hilary was wise enough to proceed with caution. Although it was her first Booker shortlisting, she was by then a veteran of other shortlists and had experienced years of congratulating others before the slow trudge home. The night of the prize she readied two future versions of herself, win or lose. As she has written: ‘The writer inside you feels no sense of entitlement. She judges a work by internal standards that are hard to communicate or define. The “author”, the professional who is in the prose business, has worldly concerns.’ But when her triumphant moment came, she jumped out of her chair ‘as if I had been shot out of a catapult, and what I felt was primitive, savage glee.’

What followed – a second Booker win for Bring Up the Bodies; celebrated stage plays in Stratford, London and New York; celebrated television adaptations; ongoing enormous sales – all snowballed into the publishing journey of a lifetime. No writer deserved it more. Throughout it all I have never felt so professionally proud and happy.

A Memoir of My Former Self: A Life in Writing by Hilary Mantel is out now, and is published in the UK by John Murray

Nicholas Pearson (seated left) awaits the announcement of the Man Booker Prize shortlist