review page logo
Hilary Mantel
Cromwell’s journey from blacksmith’s son to the most powerful man in England and his transformation to a man of experience, culture and refinement are powerful themes in WOLF HALL. Was this journey, and its suggestion of human potential, one of the things that attracted you to his character?
It’s an amazing story, when you consider how much rank and connections mattered in sixteenth century England. Talented men from the lower ranks of society could make it to the top – as Cardinal Wolsey did – but the usual way was through the church. Thomas Cromwell did it on the basis of his own talents. I wondered what kind of a man had that sort of daring and ambition and foresight. And what gave him the self-belief and inspiration to carry on, when he knew all the dangers of serving Henry VIII.
You’ve quoted David Starkey’s assessment of Thomas Cromwell as ‘Alastair Campbell with an axe’. Would you take the analogy with present-day politics further?
I don’t write primarily to make analogies with present-day society. It’s easy to see that the negotiations required to get power and hold on to it are similar even today. But, though I’m interested in the ways that people in the past are like us, I’m still more interested in how they’re different. And I think history is interesting for its own sake, not just for what it tells us about ourselves and our own times.
Extreme violence is a leit motif through the novel and the fear of death is ever-present in the background, sometimes spilling into graphic accounts. At one point a young courtier is tested by being made to witness an execution at close quarters. Was the polarisation between high culture – the refined tastes and sensibility of the court – and casual brutality part of your interest in the period?
It’s one of the things that makes them so strange to us – the acceptance, by educated and feeling people, of the spectacle of public suffering. (Though I suspect that if there were public executions today, you’d be able to sell tickets.) The execution of a public figure was an arena for teaching. It was a demonstration of the power of the state but also an arena where the condemned man or woman could demonstrate virtue by accepting their fate and showing they repented. There was a element of theatre about it. Witnessing it was an important duty. But there are other executions where the accused retains no dignity, is allowed no dignity, and becomes nothing but a shameful dehumanised spectacle. The object seems to be to spread terror.

These characters contain so many contradictions – you have poets who are also politicians, scholars who are practical men of affairs. Henry himself is the most capacious kind of man – the cultured king who composes music and has a taste for theology – but he’s also a tireless hunter and an expert in the dangerous sport of jousting. There’s the link, I think – sport and leisure imitates war. And men like Henry are ambivalent about war. Their humanist studies teach them that it’s wrong. And yet they know it’s the great proving ground for masculine and national reputation.

I am puzzled about how the sixteenth century thought of pain. Until recently in history, even an average uneventful life – one that included toothache and maybe childbirth – included an intensity of suffering that today we have a fair hope of avoiding. I want to know, and I don’t know, if that fact influenced how people thought of the suffering of others.

One thing is definite – at Henry’s court, one mistake could be your death warrant. The price for success is set very high. And of course that intensifies our interest in his court – it’s like watching people walk the tightrope without a net.
There were times in the novel when I would have liked footnotes. For example, I wanted to know whether Thomas More’s contemptuous treatment of his wife was recorded anywhere. Were you ever concerned that you were taking licence with history in order to reinforce your portrait of a character?
Not in the case of Thomas More, who is very well-documented. Even his greatest admirers retail his single-minded prosecution of heretics, and how proud he was of it. They also admit to the misogynistic strain in his writing, and it’s widely thought that certain ‘fables’ and little stories that occur in his own work refer to his own family. That said, we would think most men of that age as misogynistic – their norm was different from ours.

Of course, it must be understood that my novel doesn’t aim to be neutral. Thomas More and all the other characters are being seen through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell.

Generally, I try not to speculate except on the basis of some evidence. But certain aspects of private life are lost to us for ever. For instance, we don’t know anything about Thomas Cromwell’s relationship with his little daughters, who died young. We do know how attentively he brought up his son, and that he was able to express his admiration for strong women, even if they were his opponents – for Catherine of Aragon’s stand against Henry, and even for Anne Boleyn’s courage in her final days. I’ve had to build on those two things.

But when it comes to documented aspects of life, to public careers, public reputations, I try to find out as much as I can about what’s on the record, and to use it. I would never change a fact to make my fiction work better. I don’t see the point. If you are going to write historical fiction I think you must accept that the facts are seldom tidy and are often intrinsically undramatic, and your fictional technique must be supple enough to work with them, not against them.
One of the intriguing elements of the book is that we’re never entirely sure about Cromwell’s motives. He seems to spend a lot of time in the Tower trying to persuade heretics to compromise in order to transmute or reduce their sentences. Is it out of sympathy? Is it just real-politik? Or can he not grasp the conviction of someone who is prepared to die, hideously, for their beliefs?
I don’t believe, as some historians do, that Thomas Cromwell was a man without religious faith – I think that he was an evangelical, a protestant, but had to work hard and surreptitiously to promote his cause. In my book, he tries to talk the young scholar John Frith out of martyrdom, and he takes a dim view of Little Bilney, another proto-protestant martyr. Cromwell was a survivor, it’s my guess that he didn’t have the martyr’s temperament. He’d rather live to fight another day, I feel; how can you argue your point when you’re dead? With regard to Thomas More, it was not in Cromwell’s interest to have him die. It was in his interest to get More to back down and recognise Henry as head of the church in England. We know from More’s own accounts of his imprisonment how hard Cromwell worked to manufacture some compromise. For Cromwell, there was a political point at issue. I don’t think he would have regarded More as a religious martyr like Little Bilney or Frith. Henry himself was still a good Catholic – just not a papist. The quarrel was not about doctrine or faith, but about how Christendom should be organised.

Behind it, for sure, lie points of principle, if you choose to make them principles. But you do have a choice. More believed he had no choice, but Cromwell tried to persuade him he did. It’s a matter of how you frame it. I don’t think Cromwell was cynical, or (as I’ve said) that he was unprincipled himself. But he did have a keen eye on his own survival and advantage: without which, nothing.
In a novel full of ‘he’s, you refer to Cromwell almost always as ‘he’. When you do name him, it is “He, Thomas Cromwell,..” Why did you choose to do that?
Calling him ‘he’ is implicit in the chosen viewpoint. It’s as close as I can get to ‘I’ without writing in the first person. From the first page, Cromwell is ‘he’ and the camera is on his shoulder. His is the central consciousness of the novel. Sometimes I used ‘He, Thomas Cromwell,’ to avoid ambiguity in particular sentences.
Your sympathy with Cromwell is evident in your writing. Will you find it painful to inflict his inevitable end on him in the sequel to BRING UP THE BODIES?
Cromwell to me is a still evolving character. There are all sorts of things I don’t know about him. But the end is part of the story; if he’d retired, as he seemed to intend, to an estate in Leicestershire, would he be so interesting? I think men like Cromwell never get to retire – they die in harness, or, after the great spending spree of their lives, someone sends them the bill. They must suspect that will happen – but they live as if they don’t know.

But when the two books are finished, I will feel – what? I don’t know yet. It will have been the greatest effort of my writing life, my biggest project. I’ll probably feel cold.
Lastly, who do you like to read?
I like Anne Proulx – her novels are good but her short stories achieve greatness. I was a big Cormac McCarthy fan until The Road, which I can’t take. I read a lot of Irish writers – I hugely admire William Trevor, without in the least being able to say how he works the magic, and feel I learned a lot from John McGahern. I think VS Naipaul and Margaret Atwood are among the contemporary writers who will really last. Among current English writers, I think jane Gardam is underestimated, and so is Adam Thorpe. And I think Ed Hogan, who wrote Blackmoor, is a young talent who will do something extraordinary.
Hilary Mantel

Recommend this site to a friend

Find us on Facebook

Follow us on Twitter