Booker at Birkbeck 2014: Hilary Mantel

This post was contributed by Birkbeck alumnus Dr Ben Winyard.

Hilary-and-RussellOn 15 December, in a lively and wide-ranging conversation, Birkbeck’s Professor of Creative Writing Russell Celyn Jones and novelist Hilary Mantel discussed her Booker Prize winning novel, Bring up the Bodies (2012). This is the second book in an unfinished trilogy about Henry VIII’s shadowy chief minister Thomas Cromwell, who clambered from obscure origins to become one of the most powerful men in Tudor England, before his swift, unexpected and spectacular downfall and execution.

Wolf Hall (2009), the first book and also the recipient of the Booker Prize, memorably opens with the young Cromwell reeling from an assault by his brutal father. From this startling opening onwards, the world of the Tudors is mediated through Cromwell’s consciousness. Mantel discussed how the novels gestated for about thirty years, but it was during a visit to Putney, Cromwell’s place of birth, that she accessed his voice and interiority and composed the novel’s opening line, spat at Cromwell by his belligerent father – ‘“So now get up.”’ Mantel also delighted the audience by tantalisingly revealing that the keenly awaited third and final novel, The Mirror and the Light, will close with Cromwell similarly felled, awaiting the executioner’s axe. The extinguishing of Cromwell’s consciousness will categorically terminate the reader’s access to Mantel’s fictionalised Tudor world.

Wolf Hall covers Cromwell’s pupillage and rise under Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, his orchestration of Henry’s divorce of Catherine of Aragon and subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn in 1533. Bring up the Bodies opens with Cromwell ascendant and charts the collapse of Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, her usurpation by Jane Seymour, and Cromwell’s coolly legalistic and ultimately brutal machinations to oust Boleyn at the king’s behest, which culminated in her beheading in 1536. Mantel discussed how Boleyn and Cromwell warily recognise their similarly precarious positions as social climbers in a world delineated by inherited wealth and power, although Boleyn is hungry for status while Cromwell focuses on the acquisition of power. Ironically for the queen, her ascent to the throne reduces her to ‘just a womb’, as Mantel put it, and her failure to provide a male heir and bolster a union considered illegitimate by many of the European powers makes her ‘a political liability’. Ultimately, Boleyn and Cromwell’s entwined rise to prominence unravels to be replaced by a fierce, and bloody, enmity.

Mantel was unwilling to concede to the commonplace that the historical novel, long a critically disdained genre, reflects the present more than the past. Historical fiction is not, she energetically expounded, a trivial, escapist mode. Although accepting that ‘every novel is written out of the sensibility of its time’, she also keenly emphasised her efforts to enter and engage with the consciousness of people who lived 500 years ago. Mantel sees the Tudors as inhabiting a peculiar, mythic landscape, in which short lifespans and a lack of documentary evidence meant that a sense of history was limited and personal identity a mystery. She cited legal cases of marriages under strain when consanguinity was discovered, particularly between cousins who married in ignorance of their shared kinship. Indeed, it was Cromwell who, in 1538, instigated the keeping of parish registers. The author was also impatient with comparisons between Henry VIII’s rule and that of tyrannical or totalitarian regimes in our own times. Although the novels cover contemporary themes of surveillance, information gathering, torture, religious extremism and political ‘spin’, Henry VIII, Mantel insisted, lacked the bureaucratic governing structures necessary for absolute rule and such comparisons are ahistorical and ‘lazy’. She also stressed that these historical figures were ‘whole and entire’ and not ‘pallid rehearsals’ of our modern selves; for Mantel, history is not simply a Whiggish teleology from backwardness, ignorance and incompleteness to progress, knowledge and civilised wholeness.

AudienceThe audience, which included students on Birkbeck’s successful Creative Writing programmes, enjoyed Mantel’s frankness about her working process, which involves the creation of ‘scenes’ built on meticulous research and a less mechanical process whereby the voice, consciousness and worldview of a character is accessed, putting Mantel ‘right there in the scene’. Mantel was particularly enthusiastic about the experience of seeing Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies adapted for the stage by the RSC, observing that the actors strenuously avoid ‘the heavy hand of determinism’ and play each scene as if in the present moment. This, she argued, further encourages her to be there in the scene with her characters when writing. With twenty one actors taking on many of the 159 characters in the novels, Mantel humorously observed, ‘It’s wonderful what you can do with beards.’

James Wood, writing in the New Yorker in 2012, praised Mantel for knowing that ‘what gives fiction its vitality is not the accurate detail but the animate one.’ Mantel’s extraordinary talent for historical ventriloquism also creates suspense and the thrilling sense that history is still unfolding, making historical ‘fragile again, with everything at suspenseful risk’, in Wood’s words. Mantel described herself as ‘a good spiritual ventriloquist’, easily accessing the conflicting religious worldviews and passions that rent Tudor Britain, despite having lost her Catholic faith around the age of twelve. Although keen to refute any element of the ‘mystical’ in her efforts to access and channel past voices, it is perhaps fitting that an author who has written so engagingly on spiritualism in Beyond Black (2005) should present her writing practices as employing her body, memory, consciousness and life experiences to access something beyond perception. A novel, Mantel stressed, must cohere on a deep level, below consciousness – writing is not simply a mechanised process. When asked where she can be found in the novels, Mantel replied ‘Living lives vicariously’, exploring the paths she wasn’t able or willing to take in life. Mantel relishes that writing is not gendered and enables the author to become another, particularly as the gender ambiguity of her name encouraged a childhood ambition to pursue a ‘masculine’ career as a knight of the round table or as a railway guard.

In a 2012 interview in the New Statesman, Mantel described her writing as more sinewy, tough and uncompromising than her everyday self. However, citing the recent controversy surrounding her short story, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher (2014), Jones observed that, like Cromwell, Mantel is good with her fists when she needs to be – ‘you fight back’. Mantel expressed exasperation at the ‘trivial’ and ‘bullying’ nature of contemporary public debate, but she was obviously thrilled by the frothing, manufactured outrage of Tory grandees and some corners of the tabloid press, chuckling at demands for a criminal investigation into her fictional account of a fictional assassination. Like last year’s Man Booker speaker, Alan Hollinghurst, Mantel also seems keen to use fiction to explore and interrogate the cultural, political and socio-economic legacies of the Thatcherite 80s.

This was the fourth Man Booker event at Birkbeck – previous speakers include Sarah Waters, Kazuo Ishiguro and Alan Hollinghurst – and follows Mantel’s Orwell lecture at Birkbeck in 2009. Both the Booker Prize Foundation and Birkbeck share a commitment to bringing the highest intellectual and cultural achievements to the widest possible audience and this enlivening exchange further cemented this successful and rewarding partnership.

A podcast of the event will be available shortly.

. Reply . Category: Arts . Tags: , , , ,

Visit to Eton College Chapel

Students on Birkbeck’s BA History of Art visited Eton College Chapel in November with Lecturer in Renaissance Art Dr Joanne Anderson. Three students give their accounts of the visit.


Sheelagh Daley, part-time 3rd-year student – BA History of Art

The visit to Eton College was a unique opportunity to see an English mural cycle not just in its original location, but also still in the context for which it was painted – that of a working chapel. This made it much easier to think about the original context for the mural and to appreciate the complexity of the cycle as well as see how the mural cycle related to the rest of the building. This gave me an insight into how the mural paintings we have looked at on the course worked in practice. As an additional treat we were shown a secular wall painting in the Master’s study which gave an insight into medieval pedagogy as well as classroom discipline for naughty boys, which I’m glad that Birkbeck doesn’t emulate. Overall it was a truly memorable visit.

Kristina Dolgilevica, part-time 4th-year student – BA History of Art

I am a Year 4 student of art history at Birkbeck. When studying an academic subject it is important to venture out of the classroom – particularly if the subject contains a lot of visual material. At Birkbeck, on average, we have four trips/ gallery visits per year. Our recent trip to Eton College Chapel to see the 15th-century wall paintings was a real treat – I got to see the artwork in its original context, which without a doubt has contributed to my way of thinking about the subject, and is something you cannot get by looking at a photograph. Moreover, our group got to meet the people who work on site; they provided us with some valuable information and were very welcoming. I guess one of the most important aspects of venturing out of the classroom is that you get to spend more time with your group in an informal setting and discuss the subject you study in more detail, in a more relaxed environment. If I had to choose one word to describe our recent trip, it would be – stimulating!

Sue Prior, part-time student 3rd year – BA History of Art

Our trip to Eton was great; an excellent opportunity to get out of the lecture room and see some works of art in context. I enjoyed being able to sit in the chapel surrounded by the murals and with Joanne’s explanation of the scheme, imagine how they would have been viewed at the time. Seeing the predominantly grisaille frescoes in the flesh, we were able to really see the depth and contrast the artist managed to achieve with the limited colour palette.  It was an informative and fun afternoon.

. Reply . Category: Arts . Tags: , ,

Ways of viewing

This post was contributed by Nick Eisen, an alumnus of Birkbeck’s Postgraduate Certificate in Journalism.

Roth_masterclass_allBirkbeck’s audiovisual hub, the Derek Jarman Lab, presented two events in the second week of November. Ways of viewing was an important theme in both. How does the subjective outlook of someone in an audience influence the way that individual views a film? How does the way an audience sees a film differ from the way the filmmakers see it? And what control do filmmakers have over how an audience views their films?

That theme chimed with elements in the Derek Jarman Lab’s current project , a series of films to be launched shortly (watch this space) and referred to in the Lab’s “Masterclass with Christopher Roth”, which a group of film enthusiasts attended on Monday 10 November.

Contrasting approaches to editing

Christopher Roth

Christopher Roth

Film director Roth began the session by contrasting different forms of editing – one (citing Hitchcock’s Rear Window) where the editing of scenes illustrates an explicit, overriding, directorial narrative; the other (citing Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil) where the sequence results in something more open, which recognises that audiences tend to find for themselves links between different visuals and sounds with no explicit connection.

The intricate layering of images, words and sounds that emerged from the examples of Roth’s work, as presented at this session, resembled the more open approach.

Finding connections

That way in which viewers find links between different sequences in films could be seen as comparable with the way ancient peoples saw constellations when looking at stars.

In film each viewer may find a particular narrative link in a given sequence of images, so that one film may generate as many narrative perspectives as viewings, with each audience viewing differing from the way the filmmakers view that film.

Bartek Dziadosz, the Lab’s Managing Producer, looked at this tendency of audiences to create narratives in his presentation on Wednesday 12 November, when the Lab presented a session entitled “What Film Can Do For Your Research Career”, part of the Birkbeck Institute of Social Research series on developing careers in research.

Reflecting that filmmakers must remember audiences bring their own outlooks to viewing and their own senses of narrative, Dziadosz emphasised that filmmakers cannot assume their own views of a film will be communicated or accepted by its audience.

He illustrated this later in the session with reference to his own film about Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, describing how some saw the film primarily as a personal portrait, while others viewed it as a ‘sociological essay film’.

Dziadosz also discussed ways of using visual methods in humanities and social sciences, and those with a particular interest in this area should contact him via the Derek Jarman Lab.

Reaching audiences

After Dziadosz, the Lab’s Head of Post-production, Walter Stabb, described how film offered an exciting and, for many, new way for researchers to engage with peers and students. He also looked at some of the platforms researcher/filmmakers could use to show their work, including film festivals, academic bodies, galleries and online streaming.

Platforms for new filmmakers to consider include –

Planning your film

Lily Ford, the Lab’s Head of Production, then offered a practical overview on planning your film, setting out points to consider, ranging widely – from defining intentions, purposes, aims and objectives, and potential audiences, to obtaining funding, to planning a shooting schedule and even groceries for a crew on a shoot, a vital area, because film crews can shoot – like Napoleon’s armies marched – on their stomachs.

Accompanying the session was a handout summarising the points, which could also serve as a template for planning a specific project.

Ford also referred to the Lab’s potential as a source of advice and equipment, open to approaches from those with proposals for film projects.

Next steps for researcher/filmmakers

As the potential of the internet expands, the signs are that new ways of making and using films, combining media, bringing them to audiences and interacting with them will continue to grow, with vast implications for universities.

Those interested in exploring these and other questions further should contact the Derek Jarman Lab and ask about its courses in filmmaking.

. 1 comment . Category: Arts . Tags: , ,

100 Dubliners

This post was contributed by Anita Butler, a Doctoral candidate in English (King’s College London). Her thesis, ‘The Shakespearean Blush: Body, Colour, and Emotion on the Early Modern Stage’ was recently submitted. She completed her BA English at Birkbeck where her final year dissertation on Hely’s of Dame Street consolidated a passion for Joyce that she hopes to revisit for future early modern/modernist work.

31 October – 1 November 2014, Senate House, London


Ceremonial Staircase, The Grand Lobby, Senate House

I recently attended a two-day conference organised by Birkbeck’s Joe Brooker where a cornucopia of papers vivified the world’s largest centenary celebration of James Joyce’s Dubliners. In ‘Wandering Rocks’ Joyce conveyed simultaneous time disallowed to panel conferences: apart from plenary (‘complete’) panels, choices must be made, and an attendee/speaker/blogger can’t be in two places at once. My account captures snapshots from papers I did experience, with a Joycean ‘meanwhile’ for those I didn’t.


The first plenary: ‘Publishing Dubliners’. In Steven Morrison’s ‘James Joyce, Dubliners and the Irish Homestead’, we found ‘The Sisters’, ‘Eveline’ and ‘After the Race’ vying with stories such as ‘Monica’s Twin Sister’ – revealing titular denouement; and ‘After the Race’, excluded from the Homestead Christmas edition, but published after, may be ‘the pig’s paper’ reference in Ulysses’ ‘Scylla’. Next, Bernard McGinley’s ‘Grant Richards’ Other Dubliner, 1914’ informed the audience that Richards published Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, with traces in Dubliners palpable. Did Richards’ 1906 refusal stimulate a new story about Mr. Hunter – the embryonic Ulysses? Katherine Ebury’s ‘Tweeting Dubliners: Research, Outreach and Public Engagement’ showed possibilities for Joyce beyond the academy at a time of competitive memorial: her @Dubliners100 produced a top five: [5] ‘Grace’, [4] ‘Two Gallants’, [3] ‘A Little Cloud’, [2] ‘Ivy Day’, [1] ‘The Dead’. Would Joyce have tweeted? Probably no on world events, but probably yes on sandwiches.

Aside: why giving a paper is a bit like a staircase.

The Woburn Suite and G37 (our homes for two days) are in a corridor to the right of Senate House’s Ceremonial Staircase – starry steps (á la Astaire and Rogers) that share affinities with paper giving. You hope for stardust; ‘climb’ to be seen/heard. Climb is harder than descent. After, you may want to ‘slide down the banister’ – glad it’s over, or wanting to do it again (better: slower!)

In ‘Precursors 1’, Cóilín Owens’s ‘Gnomon and Lozenge: Joyce, Euclid, and The Book of Kells’, showed Joyce’s use of the gnomon, symbolising incompleteness and imperfection. Joyce knew the lozenge (rhombus) from The Book of Kells, and its geometric counterpart, a three-cornered rhombus (shape ‘L’) begins and ends Dubliners. Aki Turan’s ‘“Sent To The Devil”: Infernal Circulation on the Streets of Dublin’ used an audio clip – Thomas Moore’s song ‘Silent, O Moyle’ – to enhance his talk on the reader’s willingness to fill in the gaps of Joyce’s sometimes salacious narrative, using Dante as a foil for ‘Two Gallants’. My ‘In standing water between boy and man: James Joyce’s “Two Gallants” and Lost Boys Through Time’ posited the late-Elizabethan gallant as a prototype for the Joyce boys.

[Meanwhile] in ‘East’ I missed Zachary Kell’s: ‘Miscengenations on miscegenations”: Joyce’s Anti-Orientalist Narratives’; and Kuğu Tekin’s ‘Dublin and Istanbul: The Two Formative Forces in the Fiction of James Joyce and Orban Pamuk’

For ‘In the City’, Joseph Kelly’s ‘Dubliners and Urban Sociology’ – a work in progress – applied urban sociology and Google Earth to ‘An Encounter’. Kelly argued that in this story the middle classes invade the poorer districts; and that our ‘dark side’ belongs in the “other” parts of Dublin. David Bradshaw’s ‘Perished Alive: The Material Culture of Dubliners’ highlighted nine galoshes-mentions in ‘The Dead’ and rubber’s ‘dark’ side, with colonial brutality rendering the Congo Free State anything but free. Galoshes signified white cultural superiority. Multiple cross-tale examples were tempered with the caveat that you can find something in everything; but those ‘somethings’ could be more than harmless incidentals. Helen Saunders’ ‘Sartorial Exchange in Dubliners’ viewed clothing through Georg Simmel’s ‘Fashion’ and ‘Adornment’. The dichotomy: fashion relies on imitation and differentiation, on difference and social integration. If the two gallants ‘talk’ through hats, are they the least necessary accessory, as Simmel suggests; when is a hat ‘properly’ worn; and what is Joyce doing with those ‘lavender’ trousers in ‘Grace’?

[Meanwhile] in ‘Out of Ireland’ I missed Tony Jordan’s ‘Dubliners and Arthur Griffith’; Pauric Havlin’s ‘Dublin Inc. – Joyce’s Dublin and the World Literary Space’; and Rafael Oliven’s ‘Paralysis Here & There: a Brazilian Reading of Dubliners’

Next, ‘Experience 1’: Oliver Neto’s ‘“The Boredom Effect”: Tedium as Technique in Dubliners and Ulysses’ showed how the word ‘boredom’ rarely features in Dubliners yet the idea engages us, as for Ulysses’ ‘draymen […] barrels dullthudding’ and James Duffy’s epiphany in ‘A Painful Case’ where eight short sentences all begin with ‘he’. In ‘“All the living and the dead”: Social Minds in Dubliners’, Maximilian Alders examined the extent to which fictional and social minds coalesce: Dubliners- titles indicate shared experience, promoting (intra-narrative) collective entanglements, thwarted love, and social opinion. Tom Miles’s ‘“An Encounter” with the New: Anticlimax as a Modernist Sensibility’ argued that the anti-climactic becomes a mode in itself and that life is fundamentally so. In this vein, the influence of Dubliners can only be read back from Ulysses.

[Meanwhile] in ‘Precursors 2’ I missed Michael Mayo’s ‘Jesuitical Joyce: Reading Dubliners with the Spiritual Exercises’; Dominik Wallerius’s ‘Joyce, Chopin and the Question of Modernism’; and Paul Devine’s ‘Joyce’s Realism’.

Together for keynote speaker 1: Clair Wills’ ‘On Clay’ took 1960s realist Irish prose and Auerbach’s art to show how clay represents the cusp between the living and the dead; that God chose clay to make mankind; and that Maria’s negative fertility can be countered by her eventual return to earth/clay as part of life’s cycle.


In ‘Photography & Film’, Richard Brown’s ‘Dubliners, Atget and the Modernist Crime Scene’ showed prose can be photographic when aligned with Eugene Atget’s Parisian street scenes. Brown’s cogent photographic choices proved the possibility for a centenary edition of Dubliners – illustrated! Georgina Binnie’s ‘“This city is suffering from hemiplegia of the will […] I’m not afraid to live”: Photography and Paralysis in Dubliners’ used burgeoning commercial/professional photography to show how photographs affected how people saw others. Photos capture juxtapositions: paralysis/action; modernity/stasis; liberation/entrapment – while making the familiar, strange. Cleo Hanaway’s ‘“having one good look at themselves”: Pre-cinematic Perception in Dubliners’ brought early visual entertainments – the limelight lantern, the magic-lantern (surely a ‘prototype’ for Powerpoint!), the stereoscope, and the kinescope – to reconsider ‘Araby’ and ‘The Dead’ (Gretta perched atop the stairs). The development of 3D allowed protean perspectives.

[Meanwhile] in ‘Intertexts’, I missed Brian Fox on ‘Joyce and the American Short Story in the Age of Roosevelt, 1901-09’; Maureen McVeigh’s ‘“Scrupulous Meanness” Reflected in Creative Works of Other Authors After Dubliners; and Paul Fagan’s ‘The Celibate Lives of James Joyce and Brian O’Nolan, Dubliners’.

In ‘Experience: 2’, Onno Kosters’s ‘Paralysis Betrayed’ argued that stasis is often agency, not inertia: Joyce’s exile frees him while his Dubliners remain ‘Little Chandlers’. But choosing stasis is an act: paralysis gives into liberation. Kaori Hirashige’s ‘Artistes on the Scene: Joyce’s “A Mother” and the Rhetoric of Silence’, showed the narrator’s controlling Mrs Kearney’s voice: first active then progressively passive; an expected musical performance is only hinted at; and the style of a music review reflects contemporary complicity between journalists and music society members, with artistes denied a true voice. Amber Zawada’s ‘Wonder Moments in Dubliners’, argued that epiphanies are moments of wonder and awe minus the romantics: the cycle of awe can paralyse if we over-think the moment, fail to move, and spiral downwards.

[Meanwhile…] For ‘Reception & Adaptation’ I missed Lise Jaillant’s ‘Cheap Modernism: Dubliners in the Travellers’ Library and the Modern Library Series’; John Vanderheide’s ‘The Mechanics of the Labyrinth, or, John Huston’s Wakening of The Dead’; and Joseph Nugent’s ‘Dubliners: New Ways of Reading, Novel Ways of Knowing’.

We came together for an address from the Irish Ambassador, His Excellency, Daniel Mulhall, for whom writers’ lives and works provide purchase on Irish history – with Joyce’s era his ‘go to’ or ‘default’. Leaving Dublin allowed Joyce to scrutinize his homeland from afar, with Gabriel Conroy a version of Joyce had he stayed. New (wary) Ulysses readers should be tempted with ‘Cyclops’.

In the second plenary panel, ‘Dubliners into Joyce’, Clare Hutton’s ‘Joyce at Work on Ulysses: From Dubliners to “Hades” and the “Wandering Rocks”’ compared the fourteen episodes in Ulysses published in The Little Review. Joyce’s mode of revision was to add, never to cut. He redeploys in Ulysses 27 Dubliners from 9 stories, excluding ‘The Sisters’, ‘An Encounter’, ‘Araby’, ‘Eveline’, ‘After the Race’, and ‘Clay’. Serial Ulysses dialogue hardly changes, but comparisons in narrative style between ‘Grace’ and ‘Hades’ are striking. Jim Le Blanc’s ‘After the Grace’ focused on Shem the Penman’s narrative to consider reused lines and inter-textual correspondences between Dubliners and Finnegans Wake. Kevin Dettmar’s ‘Grant Richards’ “Mistake” as a Portal of Discovery’ asked: if Dubliners had been published in the bitter, Ibsen-inspired realist culture of 1906 instead of 1914, would reception have been stronger? The Joyce-Richards correspondence, seemingly negative, did invaluable advance work for Dubliners.

A short panel – ‘Reflections on 100 Dubliners’ – allowed Finn Fordham to consolidate the breadth of papers heard. Cleo Hanaway‘s informal question to attendees throughout the conference (where & how did they first encounter Joyce?) prompted Kaori Hirashige’s Joycean Tokyo tales; and my discovering Ulysses in Joe Brooker’s class (2006) – the happiest hour of my week.

We ended on a high with the second keynote speaker, Andrew Gibson, whose ‘Dubliners and Irish Melancholic Tradition’ revisited a historic Gaelic culture dedicated to poetry, music, story-telling, art; and its Bards (poets: satirists: minor nobility). The 1601 battle of Kinsale instilled melancholy and capitulation – for James Clarence Mangan, a vastation of the soul. Stephen Dedalus doesn’t learn Gaelic and neither does Joyce: both move on by assuming the coloniser’s language.

And finally…we began in October-sunshine with coffee and ended in November-rain with wine (two cases – thank you, Irish Embassy!) Reflections on a past event can be flawed: like a photograph – an image that remembers but is always in reverse.


. 1 comment . Category: Arts . Tags: