“Planted thick with Rumour”: Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies

A shorter version of this interview is published in HNR, May 2012  (and online at the HISTORICAL NOVEL SOCIETY website)

“The border between truth and lies is permeable and blurred because it is planted thick with rumour”: Lucinda Byatt talks to Hilary Mantel

Bring up the Bodies (Fourth Estate, 2012) is Hilary Mantel’s second novel in what will now be a trilogy on Thomas Cromwell’s life. What prompted her decision to focus on the historically controversial event of Anne Boleyn’s fall, rather than continuing to the climax of Cromwell’s career? “I had intended to resume the story in September 1535 and carry it through to Thomas Cromwell’s death in the summer of 1540, and to cover this in The Mirror & The Light,” Mantel states.  “As I wrote the weeks leading up to the fall of the Boleyns, I became aware of the ferocious power of the story, and its layers, its complexity. I didn’t want to rush or curtail the reader’s experience of it. I felt that the narrative of Anne’s fall, though so often rehearsed, still held its mysteries and that they were worth exploring; they compelled attention.”

Mantel describes Bring Up The Bodies as “a taut, compact book, detailing a short span of time with great intensity,” adding that “it is very different in feel from Wolf Hall, and I expect The Mirror & The Light will be different again, more expansive, richer, more reflective.”  That said, however, the same focus is present: Anne’s downfall is viewed entirely from Cromwell’s point of view and, as in Wolf Hall (Fourth Estate, 2009), Mantel’s absorbing narration reveals a man who is unexpectedly appealing, cultured, humorous.  Anne’s destruction allows Mantel to question the notion of truth: how can this consummate, often radical statesman negotiate a “truth [he] can use”, a truth to satisfy Henry VIII, keep France and Spain at bay, but also one that will secure his own career?  Mantel admits her version may throw “more blame on Lady Rochford than perhaps she deserves”. “Jane Rochford is one of those characters we are compelled to read backwards. We know that she played a reckless, possibly malicious part in the destruction of Henry’s fifth queen, Katherine Howard, who was very young and inexperienced. In the light of this, it’s hard to see her as other than wicked or unstable.” That said, the scholar Julia Fox (Jane Boleyn: the infamous Lady Rochford, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007) exonerates her and gives a different reading of events.  Above all, however, Mantel tries “to show how difficult it is to get at the truth once fear becomes pervasive within a group of people.” Surviving the crisis, the knock-on effect of Anne’s fall, becomes – all too literally – a matter of life or death for many at court, and, as Mantel adds, “I’ve no doubt that many of them repeated rumours as facts, and maybe facts as rumours.”

The title of the book “comes from the formal instruction to ‘bring up the bodies’ of the accused for trial; they are living bodies but their death hangs over them.” Mantel says that she has been captivated by “the profound and quite swift alteration in belief” that resulted from the changing notion of purgatory during the Reformation. “One of the great questions of the 1530s was just this: where are the dead, where have they gone? As the decade moved on, the dead receded further. Chantries, set up to pray for souls in perpetuity, would soon be closed. Courtiers and clerics no longer knew whether those prayers were any use. Nor did they know whether they could secure their own future place in heaven by any human effort.” In response to a question about Anne’s own spirituality, Mantel confirms the view that, “Anne was a reformer who protected evangelical preachers, but I don’t know how much of it was conviction and how much was expediency; after all, there was no advantage for Anne in being a good daughter of Rome. In the Tower in the last few days of her life she said that she hoped to go to heaven ‘because I have done many good deeds in my life.’ That is an old-fashioned and very Catholic understanding of the means of salvation. But perhaps we shouldn’t take too much notice of what a frightened woman says; if she seems to revert to childhood under stress, it’s not surprising.” Mantel also agrees that “we find it difficult not to project modern cynicism backwards. Thomas Cromwell is usually taken to be an amoral man whose religious convictions were assumed for political advantage. But there is plenty of evidence that he was sincere in his evangelical beliefs, and certainly he stuck by them when they were of no practical use to him at all.”  She also adds that John Schofield in his recent life of Cromwell (The History Press, 2008) “explored his religious views and what they cost him; it’s a refreshing change to read a scholar who thinks that Cromwell (at least sometimes) meant what he said.”

Historical fiction, it is often said, appeals because it highlights parallels with the modern world. At times Mantel seems to confirm this, by dwelling on the growing power of the state in Tudor England, influential bankers, and – on a darker note – on the state-condoned use of torture. However, she refutes any intentional parallels: “Did I say that? It sounds as if a publicist was at my elbow. I am a great believer in studying the past for its own sake. We shouldn’t see it as a rehearsal for the present. We shouldn’t force parallels. I am interested in the fact that in this era, kingship is coming into its full glory, in England and elsewhere; kings are insisting on their godlike status, their divine appointment. But who really has the power? Increasingly, it’s not the man with the sceptre, it’s the man with the money bags.”  However, she agrees that our perennial fascination with Tudors goes far deeper than political intrigues, violent betrayals and court life: “When we look at what connects that age with this, I am interested in Cromwell’s radicalism; in the tentative beginnings of the notion that the state might take a hand in creating employment, that the economic casualties of the system deserved practical help; that poverty has human causes and is preventable, rather than being a fate ordained by God. I am disturbed to think that we might be going backward in this regard, back to stigma and fatalism and complacency.”

Hans Holbein, the Younger, Portrait of Thomas Cromwell
c. 1533, Oak, 76 x 61 cm
Frick Collection, New York

Mantel’s passion and her delight in this period infuse every page. “This whole project,” she says, “the two novels finished and the one to come, has given me the greatest pleasure of my writing life, and the greatest challenge.  I have also felt myself drawn forward by curiosity as to what I might write on the next page.” However, she admits to feeling that her knowledge of the Tudors is “shallow” compared to her research for A Place of Greater Safety (Viking, 1992).  “Feeling unready, I hesitated for a long time, many years, before beginning Wolf Hall. But by the end of the first page, I knew that it was the story I was meant to write, that it was these people who should fill my horizon for the next few years and command all the resources of my imagination.” That imagination, coupled with her dazzling talent and her insight into human nature, has produced another masterpiece.

Italian historical novels result in animated discussion

Thanks to Rita Charbonnier for drawing my attention to this great discussion among fans of Italian historical novels and four authors – at the moment of writing this, there have been a total of 428 comments!

It was a real eye-opener to discover the buzz of excitement created by Massimo Maugeri on his blog Letterattitudine when a few days ago he launched an open discussion focused on historical novels led by Andrea Ballarini, Marco Salvador, Cinzia Tani and Rita herself.   Filippo Tuena, Andrea Frediani and Giulio Castelli later also joined in.

At this stage, I should explain that I’m the profiles editor for Solander (the magazine published by the Historical Novel Society) and I also lived in Italy for many years and work as a translator.  So that explains the twin interest in historical fiction and all things Italian! By strange coincidence – there’s obviously something in the air! – I wrote an article for the latest issue (May 2009) of Solander on Italian historical novels (you can read the  article here).   For the record though, the novels I chose were by Manzoni, Tomasi, Eco, Maraini and Monaldi & Sorti.

But back to Letterattitudine.  Here’s a quick resume of the authors’ latest works based on the reviews included on the blog – and apologies for any inaccuracies as I haven’t yet read any of the books!

Andrea Ballarini, Il Trionfo dell’Asino (Del Vecchio) – Set in the late 17th century, Giacomo Crivelli – the narrator – belongs to a well-to-do family, but instead of following in his father’s footsteps as the “Provveditore Generale” at the ducal court, he is willing to give up everything for the sake of his one overriding passion in life: the theatre.  Having joined a group of travelling players led by Aristotele  Cereri, Giacomo becomes involved in the search for the text of an ancient comedy, a quest that leads them to Paris and the court of the Sun King, and then back to Italy – clearly, with plenty of entertainment, frivolity and excitement on the way.

Rita Charbonnier, La Strana Giornata di Alexandre Dumas (Edizioni Piemme) – This is Rita’s second historical novel (see her own website for further details about Mozart’s Sister: A Novel 2008) and again she focuses on a story about women whose existence has been overlooked and marginalised by history: in this case, Maria Stella Chiappini, a woman who told her extraordinary tale to the famous nineteenth-century French author, Alexandre Dumas – a scandalous story that could have shaken to its very roots the whole of the kingdom of France.

Marco Salvador, La Palude degli Eroi (Edizioni Piemme) – Marco Salvador has written three other historical novels on the Longobards (Lombards).  The protagonist of his latest is the extraordinary Guido da Romano, the adopted son of Alberico and natural son of the great condottiere Ezzelino.   The reviewer describes the book as a “genuine work of art” that enables readers to immerse themselves in the period.

Cinzia Tani, Lo Stupore del Mondo (Mondadori) – Cinzia Tani is an award-winning writer, journalist, as well as a TV and radio presenter.  Her previous novel Sole e Ombra won the Premio Selezione Campiello 2008.  Her latest book is set in the 13th century, in Sicily under the rule of the Hohenstaufen emperor, Frederick II, and the conflicts between the imperial forces, the papacy and the Lombard League.  The protagonists are Piero, Matteo, Flora and Rashid are brought together in a story filled with “heat and colour … emotion, adventure and mystery, where passions and betrayals alternate over the course of half a century”.

I couldn’t possibly translate all the comments that have been made, but Massimo launched a few key questions to get the discussion going:

1.  What are the key characteristics of a historical novel?

2.  What should be the aims of a historical novel?

3.  On the contrary, what should it avoid doing?

4.  How do you view the market for historical novels in Italy today?

5.  And in the rest of the world?

6.  Survey question – what do you think is the greatest historical novel “of all time” (the most representative of its kind)?

In particular, I was keen to guage the general trend of answers to questions 4 and 6.

On question 4, Cinzia Tani seemed to represent a general view when she writes:  “I think that the historical novel in Italy today is in good shape, but I believe this is just the beginning. Perhaps this is a way to revive a tradition of writing/reading novels that is completely lacking here in Italy.”  Marco Salvador also echoed an opinion that was frequently expressed: “apart from the writers participating here and a few others, there is an awful lot of ‘trash’ written – not because the authors aren’t good writers but because they mainly write fantasy.”

Answers to the question of the  “best historical novel” included – among others (and I’ve only mentioned the Italian authors): Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi, Sebastiano Vassalli La Chimera, Tomasi di Lampedusa Il Gattopardo, Luther Blissett Q, Wu Ming Manituana, Italo Calvino Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno, Valentino Rocchi 1504-Notte all’Hostaria La Guercia, Valerio Massimo Manfredi, Sciascia, Bufalino and Camilleri (not the Montalbano novels), Pirandello’s I Vecchi e i Giovani.

Thanks also, Marco, for the quote by Nathan Uglow which I didn’t know:

The historical novel is a literary genre characterized by the attempt to fuse strong dramatic plot lines and credible human psychology, within a setting constituted from specific historical detail (typically based upon diligent research into actual events, locations, and characters, as well as cultural customs, costume, and speech). [Nathan Uglow, Trinity and All Saints College, Leeds]

This highlights a recent trend here in UK for historical novels that are the outcome of years of serious research.  The question was the subject of a recent discussion by Hilary Mantel, Sarah Dunant and others at Birkbeck College in London.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t go but – thanks to Talking Books – you can listen to the fascinating debate here.