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Royal Flush: The Women of Wolf Hall

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.

But it’s more than that. When Mantel expresses a view, people write about it; when she writes an article, everyone has a view. A few years before, she says, ‘nobody would recognise me, even when I was standing next to a pile of my own books’. Now when she speaks at events, as her agent Bill Hamilton observes, ‘you can hear a pin drop. It’s a virtuous circle of success and acclaim giving the platform for deeper recognition. And giving her the confidence to talk openly when her opinion is sought’. The voice was always there – incisive, sometimes brutal, always eloquent – but now we listen. Nicholas Pearson, her 4th Estate editor, says: ‘She has become someone we look to in order to help us understand the world a little more clearly.’

Mantel has used her new status to range widely, unafraid of wrestling with contemporary life. There was the essay in the London Review of Books on the Duchess of Cambridge and modern monarchy; then a short story, ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’. This is the work of someone who thinks deeply, and relishes the mischief she can cook up. When she is lambasted – as she was over both these pieces – she remains unfazed. After all, this has been a long time coming. Wolf Hall was her 10th novel; the other nine were critically appreciated but criminally under-read. When fame and success come late, the recipient tends to know what to do with them. This is a charged moment for her, though. Two books down, one to go. For some it would be a perilous position. No one, surely, writes happily when the world is waiting. Except
 Mantel. ‘I am more enthralled by the project
 now than when I started,’ she writes in an
 email. ‘I don’t see the day when it will end.
 After all, my involvement with my French
 revolutionaries didn’t end: not the first time
 I executed them, in 1979, for the version of
 A Place of Greater Safety which was to remain
 unpublished for years; or when I decapitated 
them again for publication, in 1992. They 
just stuck their heads back on and skipped 
into another version of the story.’

A Place of Greater Safety – an epic on
 the French Revolution – was Mantel’s 
first book, written at the age of 22, but
 the fifth to be published. She sent it out
 and was batted away with rejections.
 Even when the book made it to print, 
reviewers (mostly male) didn’t know 
what to make of it; one was concerned
 with a scene in which wallpaper 
was mentioned, as though evidence
of a woman writer’s trivial concerns.
 Never mind the other 800-odd pages
 of politics, violence and death. Still, says Hamilton, Mantel comes up against ‘certain sections of the misogynistic media that pursue vendettas against prominent women’. It says something about our culture that it required Mantel to write about Henry VIII – the ultimate alpha male – for her to receive the recognition she deserved.

But it’s the women’s story too, especially in Mantel’s version. In the BBC production, some of Britain’s leading actresses take on the roles of Anne (Foy), Mary Boleyn (Charity Wakefield) and Catherine of Aragon (Joanne Whalley).

As Whalley puts it: ‘You don’t automatically think of them.’ History has been dominated by the narrative of kings and politicians, but these women had their own kind of power; they were fascinating characters who ‘functioned within such restraints’, says Whalley. The actresses were guided closely by the novels. ‘We took Mantel’s book as our bible,’ says Wakefield.
 As for Mantel, she likes that her characters have ‘taken on different forms’, beyond the pages of her books. But when the last volume does arrive, that will be it, the end of the project. I ask her how it feels to be so close to letting go of Cromwell. ‘I’m not alone with my invention. At the beginning of the book he is dying, he believes, on the cobbles of an inn yard in Putney. He hears his father’s voice above him, saying: “And now get up.” When he is dying, he will hear a voice inside him, issuing the same command. And he will: not in bodily form, but in the thoughts of the writer, readers, actors, audiences.’

She’s right, of course. These books will live on, and on. This is only the beginning.

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