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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.

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