British writer Hilary Mantel has taken the literary world by storm by writing back to back award- winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, which have not only sold in huge numbers but have been developed into a highly touted PBS series and Broadway stage plays. Although she has been made a Dame of the British Empire and is obviously well known in the U.K., until the last couple of years, she was a virtual unknown in the United States.
Hilary Mary Thompson was born in Derbyshire, the oldest of three children. Her mother and father separated, and she did not see her father after age 11. Jack Mantel had joined the family, becoming Hilary’s unofficial stepfather, and eventually, she adopted his surname. In 1970, after attending Harrytown Convent school in Cheshire, she began studies at the London School of Economics then transferred to the University of Sheffield and graduated with a Bachelor of Jurisprudence in 1973. She married Gerald McEwen in 1972, and the couple spent many years living in both Botswana and Saudi Arabia.
During her twenties, Mantel suffered debilitating pain and was diagnosed with a psychiatric illness and given anti-psychotic drugs. One psychiatrist she consulted told her that her problem was “stress brought on by an excess of ambition, unnatural in a woman” and that she should stop writing, as it wasn’t good for her. While in Botswana, she tried to diagnose herself with the aid of a medical textbook. She believed she was suffering from severe endometriosis, which was confirmed by doctors in London. The resulting surgery and treatment left her sterile. “I wasn’t certain, and I’m still not certain, whether I wanted children,” she said in a 2012 interview with The New Yorker. “What I wanted was the choice. I have felt most sorrow in later life, over the last ten years, when grandchildren are being born, I suppose because I was very close to my own grandmother.”
Treatment of steroids caused her to gain an enormous amount of weight, and even today, she sometimes feels she is “not in the right body.” Despite her physical difficulties, Mantel continued to write, beginning with a memoir of her stay in Saudi Arabia, where her life as a female was greatly restricted. Her first novel was published in 1985, and she and her husband returned to Great Britain the next year. Following several years publishing modestly successful novels, she became the film critic of The Spectator, for which she wrote until 1991. She continues to be a reviewer for newspapers and magazines in both Great Britain and the United States.
Mantel had been thinking for a long time about writing of the life of Thomas Cromwell, infamous adviser to Henry VIII. With the 500th anniversary of Henry’s coronation coming up in 2009, she felt this was an opportune time research and write her book. As she began reading and delving more deeply into the life of Cromwell, she felt enormously happy—that writing this book was what she was meant to do and said later: “I knew from the first paragraph that this was going to be the best thing I’d ever done.”
Wolf Hall, the first of a trilogy, begins with Cromwell in his forties having traveled all over Europe, where he worked in banking, fought as a soldier in France, and eventually became an aide to Cardinal Wolsey. He was a man of many talents, and it was said he could recite the New Testament from memory. Cromwell was the son of a violent alcoholic blacksmith, and it is surely amazing that this lowborn man managed to break through existing cultural barriers, ultimately becoming a close adviser to the king. Although many historians consider Cromwell to be villainous, others, Mantel included, believe that he was a statesman who helped transform English government into a structure able to survive the incompetence of the royals. It seems reasonable that a king like Henry VIII, who was looking for a way out of one marriage and into another, would want Cromwell on his side to fight his battle with the church.
Americans have always held a particular fascination for Henry VIII, I think, in part, because of the idea of royalty. We have never had the centuries of kings, queens and the history and blood feuds. Castles, knights, jousts—it all sets the imagination whirling. And, of course, we’ve had generations of books, movies and untold TV programs on the various individuals who have sat on the English throne. Henry is interesting because of his many wives and his methods of disposing of those who didn’t measure up. As Mantel explains: “Nobody else has this monster king, of whom we are perversely proud.” Henry has always seemed a bit larger than life, but in Wolf Hall, it is fascinating to me that he is a secondary character to Cromwell.
The first two books in the trilogy, Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies, have BOTH won the Man Booker Prize, and Mantel is the only woman to accomplish this feat. Upon receiving her first award, Mantel happily said that she would spend the prize money on “sex, drugs and rock n’ roll!” Wolf Hall has the honor of being the most successful Booker in the history of the award, selling, as of this month, 650,000 copies in the United States alone.
Now that the PBS mini-series is airing in the U.S and the Broadway show is garnering such positive reviews, it would seem that Mantel could simply rest on her laurels for awhile, but no. She has been very active as a consultant with the stage version of her book and is currently hard at work on the final novel of the series to be titled The Mirror and the Light. You would think after all the research and time writing about Thomas Cromwell that she would be thoroughly tired of him, but she says: “I’m more fascinated by him than ever I was. I still can’t add him up. I suspect he’ll elude me at the last, and as soon as his head’s off he’ll get up and put it back on again.”
What is your favorite depiction of Henry VIII and his Tudor family?