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.”
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.