Thomas Cromwell is back – in Mantel’s new book, Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel to the hugely successful Wolf Hall (see my review). In Bring Up the Bodies, we find Henry VIII ‘seeing’ Jane Seymour for the first time. Of course, he knew her from her life about the court, but this was the time he saw in her something else. Cromwell, the master strategist and tactician, has to work out what this means, for Henry, for Anne Boleyn, for himself, for England.
There is no personal record of Cromwell’s life, perhaps because he erased it as he went, perhaps because he was determined to live in the shadows. But as an author, Mantel was able to read between the lines. His private life was like ‘the dark side of the moon’ – we know it’s there but we can’t see it. This is ‘where the novelist operates’, in the world that the historian cannot. Cathcart quoted historian Simon Schama who had said he often arrives into a scene only to find his subject disappearing around a corner. When asked whether she was following Cromwell around the corner, she replied: ‘I’m already around it’!
She spoke about other sources, such as his relationship with Thomas More. More’s death was not a victory for Cromwell. More wrote a record of all their conversations, sent to family members from The Tower to be keep safe, and these provide an accurate picture of the relationship and the sort of man Cromwell was. More thought of Cromwell as a ‘tender friend’, a relationship that is often thought of in a different light.
Mantel described the great modernising that Cromwell undertook, the innovation in public management, such as his introduction of the Births, Deaths and Marriages register, the taking of the bible out of scholar’s hands and putting it into the church, as well as the failed attempt to introduce a job creation scheme which would be funded by income tax. It is in this sense, the time when England begins to become a nation. When asked whether she liked him, she grinned and said, ‘Yes, I like him very much.’ Even at his worst. She marvels at how he gets into situations and is ‘chortling’ as he then slips out of them. He used ‘empathy as a weapon’, not just a shield.
When asked about how it was that she could bridge the five hundred year gap and get inside the minds of her characters, she said that the past is both strange and familiar. It was strange in that there ‘were no atheists in those days – everyone was keeping a tally of their sins to judge whether they were destined for heaven or the other place’. In a very funny line, she said that in those days it was an apt question as to whether the pope was catholic! There was a sense that if you said or did the wrong thing then that was it – your life was over, which added poignancy to every moment. On the other hand, the desires of people were the same as ours, their manoeuvrings similar to the ones we see today. The other thing she made note of which was interesting, was the fact that Wolf Hall had been translated into 30 languages; someone in Korea is making the same cultural leap to read the book, so it’s something that us humans do naturally to some degree.
Mantel expanded on her point about those key moments when she discussed the use of present tense. She saw scenes unrolling like a film, and wanted to show the possible turning points in conversations as they occurred, those moments in which history could have been different if something else had been said or decided. In Bring Up the Bodies, one such moment is when Henry is knocked unconscious in a joust. He was out cold for some time, perhaps two hours. Cromwell is summoned and on his way to the prone body of the king he is playing in his mind all the ramifications, of who the next monarch might be, of how to engineer outcomes. When he arrives, the moment is played out in a debate over the future of England. Anne Boleyn is told the news that the king is dead (another moment) and blames this news for the subsequent miscarriage of a possible heir.
There was an interesting discussion about the use of the pronoun ‘he’ in Wolf Hall. ‘He’ is always Cromwell unless Mantel notifies the reader otherwise. Most readers, myself included, ‘got’ this in the first couple of paragraphs, but there was confusion in the minds of some readers. The reason for the choice was her ultra close third person. Because we see everything through his eyes, she found it hard to have him as narrator refer to himself in the third person. In Bring Up the Bodies, she makes more use of ‘he, Cromwell’, to reduce confusion, but she noted that now some readers have said that the ‘Cromwell’ addition isn’t necessary – so you can’t please everyone.
In describing her writing process, Mantel said she writes in a ‘collage’, writing out different parts of the story, before taking a step back and seeing what she has and what the structure should be.
Has the winning the Booker Prize for Wolf Hall changed her? ‘Less than you’d think’ was her reply. She has increased confidence as a writer, but she still has to face the blank screen at the start of each day and those same insecurities are there – ‘you’re only as good as your next sentence’. Stephen Romei, in another SWF2012 session ‘But is it a Good Read?’, pointed to both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies as being archetypes of great literature. I’m very much looking forward to reading Bring Up the Bodies to experience what will surely be another cracking read, so I can test and savour all those beautiful ‘next sentences’…