Hilary Mantel Re-invents the Historical Novel with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies

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 Mantel speaks to Prince Charles after the investiture ceremony (itv.com)

Hilary Mantel speaks with Prince Charles after the investiture ceremony (itv.com)

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 wolf-hall-bring-up-the-bodiesbrought 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.

Portrait of Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein

Portrait of Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein

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.

Mark Rylance plays Thomas Cromwell on PBS.

Mark Rylance plays Thomas Cromwell on PBS.

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?

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16 thoughts on “Hilary Mantel Re-invents the Historical Novel with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies

  1. My favorite Tudor depiction is Cate Blanchette as Elizabeth. Who can forget, when, at the end, she decides to put the throne above her personal desires, how she changes herself into “the white queen”?

    And, after reading Wolf Hall, I was surprised to realize what a good job of research Philippa Gregory did in The Other Boleyn Girl, which had seemed to me a rather slutty (but entertaining) book. Mantel covers some of the same ground.

    • I loved Blanchette at Elizabeth I, but I have to go with my first choice,
      Glenda Jackson in “Elizabeth R.” Think that ‘s the only cassette
      (yes, it was that long ago) I’ve ever paid full price for!

  2. This is so well written, Susan. Your prose flows and I was instantly interested in this British woman who I had never heard of before. I love reading about historical figures, both in fiction and non, but the current day ‘bestsellers” always seem to get in the way. Mantel’s books look to be the best of both worlds, and I am inspired to read them! Great job.

    • Many thanks for your kind words! I think Mantel has literally hit the
      jackpot with this trilogy–she may never have to work again! I so
      enjoyed getting to know a kinder, less villainous Thomas Cromwell
      in these books.

  3. I too became fascinated by Hilary Mantel and Thomas Cromwell. I so enjoyed Wolf Hall but have not tackled the other two. The Wall Street Journal Book Club chose to read Wolf Hall some months back and I profiled Ms. Mantel — or is that Dame Mantel — in my own blog on women at word!
    Glad to see others stumble on this marvelous work.

    • Such an amazing writer–I was rather late getting to Wolf Hall but
      wanted to read it before watching the PBS series. So glad I did–
      Mantel really spun a different look at Cromwell, didn’t she?

    • Henry is really a secondary character in this trilogy, and I loved getting to know the other people surrounding him at the time.
      Did you ever see the “Six Wives of Henry VIII” on public television?
      It was more than a few years ago, I’m afraid, but very well done.

  4. Sus, you outdid yourself on this one! And as you said, so timely. We are all so engrossed in the PBS series and/or the Mantel books. Also I think Mark Rylance (who was unknown to me) is doing an excellent job of bringing Cromwell to life.

    • Mark Rylance is supposed to be THE current “best” stage actor
      in Great Britain, and I think he does more with his eyes and eyebrows
      than many actors with their whole bodies! So glad you liked the post-it was a fun one to research.

  5. I just want to let Susan know how much I enjoyed reading her blog on Hillary Mantel. Very well written and interesting. I learned a lot about her. I have read both books and am now watching Wolf Hall on PBS. .
    Regarding the favorite Tudor depiction, I have to go with Cate, too, as Elizabeth. It’s one of the few movies I own.

    • Thanks so much, Brenda–it was great fun doing the research for
      this piece. I feel like I’ve had a history lesson! And you’re right
      about Cate–she was a wondrous Elizabeth, but you must try and
      see Glenda Jackson in the role, too.

  6. Wonderful praise coming from a working journalist! I learned a lot,
    too, doing all the research–thanks so much for your comments.

  7. Today’s my day to catch up on RU posts—sorry for late response —which has nothing to do with how much I enjoyed this post! Full of new-to-me info about HM’s bio. Sad life, but she’s made the most of it! She gives a witty radio interview. I once heard her answer a question about why it took her so long to write Wolf Hall with something like, “Well, in the end I suppose there’s a correlation between the length of time it takes to write something and the quality of the writing.”
    As for my favorite depiction of Henry VIII, that would be Moe Miller’s, when he and I went to a Halloween party dressed as Henry and Anne Boleyn. He carried a bloody veiled head in his arms that moaned whenever he moved (Party City), and I wore a cape with the neck closed tightly over the top of my head, so as to look headless. We won first prize. I thought it was for my clever costume design—and it was—but not in the way I expected—the judge said it was the hilarity of seeing Moe’s giant bow-legs in white tights!
    One more thing—while I’m enjoying the current PBS Wolf Hall on Sunday evenings—I can’t help but get annoyed by the actor who plays Cromwell—for his excessive mute and significant glances with his eyes. I want to scream, “Just speak already!” 🙂

    • My first response would be–are there any photos of you and Moe
      as Henry and Anne? Would love to see them! I have been enjoying
      the Wolf Hall PBS series, too, but my complaint would be how dark
      everything is. I realize it’s to bring more reality to the scenes but
      so dreary! Thanks so much for your comments.

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