Hilary Mantel: “The monarchy is unjust, for the sovereigns and for the British”

from ANNACHIARA SACCHI

This interview taken from Lettura # 465 of 25 October 2020, on the occasion of the final chapter of the Tudor Trilogy. The English writer died on September 22nd. She was 70 years old.

Another beheading. Tommaso Moro, Anna Bolena and now Thomas Cromwell. Nothing that the school texts, the testimonies of the past and the fiction of today have not told us thousands of times. Nothing that does not belong to a consolidated European history (with all due respect to the brexiteer), although only the six wives of Henry VIII tend to be remembered. Yet that story Hilary Mantel manages to make us touch. All time. She rested on the shoulders of the protagonists and revealed their thoughts to us, not just their actions. She made her tale of her – the rise and fall of Cromwell – as compelling as a thriller, as vivid as a chronicle, as faithful as a textbook. She has renewed it without upsetting it, freed from dust without indulging in invention to restore its beauty and ferocity. Here then is The Mirror and the Light, the novel that closes the Mantelian trilogy of the Tudors, which started with Wolf Hall and continued with Anna Bolena, a family matter, both winners of the Booker Prize (fate not touched on the third …) and which arrives in bookstores for Fazi on Thursday 29 October. An expected release, preceded by 750,000 copies sold worldwide.

What is the cause of so much affection?

(Dame Mantel responds from her home in Devonshire, south coast of England; the weather is mild) The fact that that story is about aspects of the human condition that we all know: love, power, ambition, envy, revenge. The setting is specific, but the themes are timeless.

Not perhaps for a kind of revival of the historical novel?

I’m not so sure it’s a revival, at least in English language fiction. But surely the historical novel has more strength than the past, which has risen in rank. At one time, at least in Britain, it was considered shoddy, commercial. When I tried to publish one of my own, around 1980, it was a failure: those who received it expected a (romantic) genre book, while I proposed a political text, born from long searches. It probably didn’t help that I was a woman and around twenty years old either. To get published I had to focus on the contemporary novel. But I wanted to go back to the past.

Why?

You are in front of the mirror, you see your image and some figures are moving in the background, out of focus. You start studying their lives and gradually they become sharp, take shape, talk to you.

Even now that the trilogy ended?

Oh yes. And they help me in the dramaturgy of The mirror and the light for the theater.

Are they models for the present?

The characters of the past must be evaluated for what they were, not for what they tell us today.

Not all authors think so.

I took the risk of presenting an uncomfortable version of a story that everyone thinks they know something about. I wanted to eliminate certain errors, layers of disinformation, free the figure of Cromwell from centuries of prejudice. That’s why it took me so long.

Cromwell (1485-1540), son of a blacksmith, minister to the king, Earl of Essex, great weaver of Henry VIII’s policy, reformer of the English Church, should be grateful to her.

Yes, true. I’d like him to think that, to say I did a good job.

Who Owns the Truth: Historians or Novelists?

We all own it, we live in history. Historians and novelists run in parallel towards the end of the events. Historians stop there, while writers can go further, fill in the blanks, deal with aspects that do not enter records and documents: thoughts, dreams, desires.

A risk.

The facts are often far more interesting than what an author can come up with. The novelist’s art consists in giving shape to one’s imagination without distorting real events. And respect the ambiguities of the past.

In his books, there is a kind of indignation towards what happens to women. as if everything revolved around their body.

True, the crucial problem of Henry VIII’s reign lies in women and their bodies: their concessions, refusals, success or failure as generators. The king needs a son and only a woman can give it to him, but which one? Six wives take turns, two die without a head. Cromwell is beheaded the day Henry marries the fifth. Yet, despite the fact that women were “measured” by their reproductive capacity, many were brilliant, unconventional. It was very tiring for me to live next to them without projecting the demands of our century onto that era: their anger, not mine.

Safe?

Nobody can call themselves out of the book they are writing, of course. In the same way I think that an author committed to telling that historical period can count on intuitions and perceptions that male writers do not possess. But I repeat: I did my best to keep the two floors separate. I wrote my personal story in another book (The ghosts of a lifetime).

Speaking of perception, you said that Italians, French and Germans of the seventeenth century considered the English to be cutthroats. Now? Do we see you with the right lenses?

Now the image of the British linked to Brexit. And terrible for those of us who desperately want to be European. Perhaps if we voted now things would be different … In any case, I believe that the British are seen, also because of their government, as a people who look back, consumed by nostalgia. A painful stereotype.

Said by a person who mainly writes about the past …

But when you write a historical novel you tell the present, because the author knows what happened, the reader knows, but the protagonist doesn’t.

the hardest part?

No, the real stumbling block is managing an immense mass of information. And choose which ones to give up.

Would Cromwell be needed in the UK today?

With his talents he would serve in any age. He had an overall vision but did not leave out the details, a skill that politicians lack today. He was a creative politician who found original solutions. And he knew how to choose his team.

Do you see Cromwell as possible on the international scene?

No. Also because there is a big difference between faith then and today. We live in a secularized society, whereas then everyone knew that after death they would answer for their actions before God. Cromwell was a man of faith who wanted to bring the Bible – in English – to the common people. He cared about the souls of his subjects while today’s politicians only think about managing our bodies, and they don’t even know how to do it well.

Was Cromwell the first brexiteer?

On the contrary, he was the most European of Henry’s court, having worked in Italy and the Netherlands. He demonstrated this by marrying Henry the German Anna of Clves (the fourth wife). It was a good plan, but it failed because the king did not find a religious agreement with the Lutheran princes. Plus he didn’t like the new wife.

And here’s the gallows for Cromwell.

The more Henry became ill, the more he lost control of his body, the more unpredictable, more irascible he became. He feared for the future, he was terrified of leaving the kingdom without heirs. Invalid and dangerous, he suddenly changed his mind, pitted ministers against each other, a game of slaughter. Hence the end of Cromwell, which the king regretted almost immediately by blaming his advisers.

Like Trump …

(The author laughs but does not comment).

So better a king or queen, at least for Great Britain?

Neither one nor the other! Better without a monarch. unfair to the country and unfair to the sovereign. Nobody should be in that position.

Now that your trilogy is over, would you rewrite it the same way?

I would begin it with the same words. And I would conclude it with the same words. Maybe on the way I would make different choices: the mysterious creative process.

Is it true that in difficult and cruel times like this a new Shakespeare would be needed?We always need a new Shakespeare.

What are the historical novels of the past that you appreciate most?

The historical novel of the nineteenth century – and before that – can be a bit heavy. I think of books that belong to great literature – War and peace a splendid example – but which require a lot of patience on the part of the contemporary reader. Walter Scott? In Britain the revered father of the historical novel. I find it illegible. Anyway: my favorite, perhaps ever, a novel written in the nineteenth century and set in the eighteenth. The kidnapped boy by Robert Louis Stevenson. I first read it when I was 8-9 years old: for me it was the perfect story, and it still does: fast, smooth, action-packed, deep, dark, with brilliant dialogue. Just like a novel should be.

Preferences in historical fiction of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries?

One of the titles I love most The Leopard, among the best of the twentieth century. released in 1958, the same year one of Africa’s greatest novels was published, Things collapse by Chinua Achebe, the voice of a continent. I love Barry Unsworth’s books, in particular Losing Nelson (not translated into Italian, ed), who through the story of Admiral Nelson explores the myth of the hero. From America I appreciate the western of 1968 The Grit by Charles Portis, with his versions for the cinema: the second, of 2010, the best. Finally, I think that all authors of historical novels owe something to James Gordon Farrell: with The siege of Krishnapur it has shown us how the historical novel can be solid and wise without becoming heavy and solemn.

How is the pandemic experiencing?

Like everyone, with concern.

Has the virus affected your work?

I was lucky: The mirror and the light released in Great Britain a week before lockdown. I only had one presentation in London in front of a large audience: a whole year of travel was canceled, which is quite annoying, even though I’m used to a quiet and rather lonely life. I live with my husband in a rather safe seaside village (Budleigh Salterton). My main concern is my work on the stage version of The Mirror and the Light with actor Ben Miles, who played Cromwell in the first two pices. We had to do a side-by-side job, we replaced it with e-mails, without knowing when the theaters will reopen. But we are ready and hopeful.

Will I really not write any other historical fiction?

I won’t start another trilogy – if it takes me how long Wolf Hall I would finish it at eighty years old. But I’m full of ideas. I will work for a while longer.

September 23, 2022 (change September 23, 2022 | 13:41)

Hilary Mantel: “The monarchy is unjust, for the sovereigns and for the British”