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Hilary Mantel’s triumphant Tudor novels enjoy a new life on stage and screen
By Sophie Elmhirst
In some ways, it was an accident. A few years ago, Hilary Mantel signed a contract with her publisher for two books: a modern novel set in Africa, and a Tudor novel set in the court of Henry VIII. ‘Theoretically, I was working on the African novel,’ she recalls, ‘and I thought I’d take a day off and play.’ Mantel wrote a line of dialogue and wanted to laugh with delight. She’d got it. She’d got him. Not Henry, but Thomas Cromwell, the King’s adviser and her leading man. There was his voice, clear on the page: his cool, all-seeing gaze. She was off. ‘I had to say to my publisher, “You won’t get that novel, but you will get this one, if you don’t mind.”’ They didn’t mind.
The beginning was an experiment, but the book had been long in the works. Mantel’s Cromwell novels are born of deep, marathon reading. She is as meticulous in her research as she is free and daring in her writing. The facts are rock-hard; the fiction elaborate. I first met her two years ago, on the day the second volume, Bring Up the Bodies, was published. It was already clear that something extraordinary was happening. Wolf Hall had been a hit, won the Booker, sold handsomely, and here she was with Bring Up the Bodies – the most intelligent political thriller you will ever lose a week to – nominated once more. Grateful as she was for the attention and praise, Mantel was impatient to get on with the next volume. Next year, she said, meaning 2013, was to be ‘uninterrupted’, devoted to writing.
It didn’t quite work out that way. A few weeks after we met, Mantel won the Booker for the second time: the first woman, and the first British writer, to do so. There was to be a play, a television adaptation. She was in constant demand. Two years later, the pace has barely slowed. The play, a sell-out hit for the RSC in Stratford and the West End, transfers to Broadway in the spring. The six-part, richly financed BBC production – with Damian Lewis as Henry, Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn, Mark Rylance as Cromwell – is soon to air. Her publisher, 4th Estate, gave me the latest figures: almost 1.5 million copies of Wolf Hall and just about a million copies of Bring Up the Bodies sold in the UK and the Commonwealth. The books have been published in 36 countries. Mantel has become an industry. Read the rest of this entry »