The unquiet mind of Hilary Mantel

A portrait of the author of the Booker-winning Wolf Hall. She talks to Sophie Elmhirst about memory, class, Bring Up the Bodies and the unsettled writer’s life.

Hilary Mantel. Portrait by Leonie Hampton
Hilary Mantel. Portrait by Leonie Hampton

The desk at which Hilary Mantel writes is pushed up against a window with a view out to sea. The sea isn’t in the distance, spotted between hills. It’s there, almost at her doorstep, the shingle beach just across the road. To write, she sits at her computer facing the large window and the sea can fill her vision. It’s the kind of view that swallows time. There is no sign of human life; nothing except waves and clouds. On her computer desktop, Mantel has put an image: a photograph of the view from her window. “It reminds me to actually look up from the screen,” she says.

**

Every summer, there is a music festival in Bud­leigh Salterton, Devon. From the flat where she lives with her husband, Gerald McEwen, Mantel can walk along the beach into town in ten minutes or so. Last year, once she’d realised that she was writing not one, not two, but three books about Thomas Cromwell, once she’d realised that the second was going to end with Anne Boleyn’s beheading, once the title – Bring Up the Bodies – had struck her as she wrote the words (it echoes the Tower of London order to bring the accused to trial), once she had told her publishers that they’d have a second instalment sooner than they’d thought (you can imagine their fists punching the air), once they had told her that they wanted to publish in the spring of 2012, Mantel began to write.

This was not writing that can be identified as writing in the ordinary sense: spasmodic, agonised, write-delete-write-delete. These were eight-, ten-, 12-hour days, marathons of prose, a 400-page book written in five months, between May and September 2011. (Don’t be encouraged. The words spilled only because Mantel had done long, professorial research into her subject. She first had the idea for a book about Thomas Cromwell in her mid-twenties; she had read everything – all the books, all the books about the books and all the original sources; she filled red Chinese chests with meticulous notes and cards and folders of information. She checked every fact, every source, every date, every letter, every name. Her Cromwell books are a combination of wild imagining and unimpeachable accuracy.)

One of her few distractions from writing was going to concerts at the music festival or going for walks along the beach: “I wasn’t really listening to the music, but listening to what was going on in my head and walking along the seafront home with my head feeling as if it was wobbling with the weight of ideas and voices inside it and then coming and sitting down at my desk to catch it all down.”

**

Budleigh Salterton: population 5,000, mostly elderly. It’s a town of gift shops and mobility scooters. For Mantel, perfection. On a walk through the town she stops to pet a pug and tells its owner about the pugs she once had, how much she loves the breed. At a restaurant, a man comes to the table to tell her how an article she wrote has resonated with him. “Oh thank you, thank you,” she says, smiling. The people are congenial here, she says. No one has the vulgarity to ask her how the next book is going.

Mantel first saw Budleigh’s roofs from a cliff­top when she was 16. She was escaping at the time. Along the coast, in Exmouth, her family was on holiday in a caravan, cooped up and crabby. She went for a walk along the coastal path and saw the town below her, houses falling down the hillside, and it imprinted itself on her mind as the place where she would live if she could live anywhere in the world. It became her idea of exotic, of Europe, the white houses by the sea. “I remember when I went back to school that year, telling people about it – they were all very sniffy because they were much more moneyed and sophisticated girls. They said, when you’ve been abroad you won’t think anything of a place like this. But even when I’d been abroad very extensively, it was still in my head and actually I can see why now, because” – she points through the living-room window, perhaps to where she stood as a teenager – “if you are up on the cliffs there looking at the view you’d be hard pushed to find a more beautiful spot anywhere.”

Mantel, born the eldest of three in 1952, spent her early years living in the village of Hadfield, in northern Derbyshire, surrounded by grandparents, parents, great-aunts, cousins. The first jolt was a move to a modern house, up the hill in Brosscroft. The second was more disruptive. One day when she was six, a man called Jack Mantel moved in. Her father, Henry, a clerk, didn’t leave. The family lived like that, an awkward, unspoken configuration of three children and three adults, until the shunning of the villagers moved them on to a small town in Cheshire, leaving behind all those relations and Henry, who she never saw again. She even took Jack’s surname.

Mantel was desperate to grow up and get out (her principal recollection of childhood is about how little it suited her). In her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, she recalls a pair of curtains from the family home. Their pattern was, self-referentially, windows, but not the kind of windows she knew from Hadfield or Brosscroft. They were Mediterranean windows, with colourful blinds and pots of flowers, windows that were used to the sun shining through them, warming the house. Many years later, Mantel told her mother about how she often fantasised about living behind those windows. “My mother turned away, so that I couldn’t see her face. She whispered, and I, oh so did I.”

It took a long time for Mantel to return to Budleigh, to this town of her dreams on the south coast of Devon, to a top-floor flat with windows looking out to sea. At last, she is here. “I don’t think I’ll ever want to move on from here, because what could replace it?”

**

This is a strange, suspended moment. Two books of a trilogy down, one to go. Mantel can’t wait to write it, but such is the success of the first two books that the demands on her time are overwhelming. There is no possibility of immersion, those sucked-under days or head-wobbling beach walks. For years, says her agent Bill Hamilton, Mantel said yes to every invitation to speak, every festival, every opportunity to promote one of her books, but the books never quite took off. Her subjects were odd and unpredictable: an 18th-century Irish giant, moor-dwelling nuns, a suburban social worker, performing psychics, Norfolk missionaries, 800 pages on the French Revolution. It took Henry VIII to usher her into the light.

She is aware – how could she not be – of how her readers have swollen in number. Before the Booker-winning Wolf Hall, she says, she could stand by a pile of her own books at a signing and go unrecognised. Now new readers write to her – after Wolf Hall many complained: it was confusing, ambiguous; why was the protagonist referred to as “he”? The novelist Amanda Craig wrote in this magazine that it was “one of those novels you either loved or hated. I belonged to the latter camp.” Craig, though a fan of both Mantel’s earlier work and Bring Up the Bodies, says now that she found Wolf Hall “attention-seeking . . . the combination of the historic present and the lack of clarity, the word ‘he’ – it gets in the way”. (Craig also says that she felt like a lone voice when she expressed her reservations, and was rounded on by friends in the literary world though many readers support her views. “People would just not say anything bad about this book; there was a great push for her to win.”)

Mantel wondered if she was being too demanding. But then she thought that to adjust her style in any way would be not only a loss, but patronising (“You simply cannot run remedial classes for people on the page”). Some will be lost along the way, but she doesn’t mind. “It makes me think that some readers read a book as if it were an instruction manual, expecting to understand everything first time, but of course when you write, you put into every sentence an overflow of meaning, and you create in every sentence as many resonances and double meanings and ambiguities as you can possibly pack in there, so that people can read it again and get something new each time.”

She can sound arrogant, Mantel, assured of her abilities and candid about them in a way that seems peculiarly un-English. But even the arrogance is purposeful. It is one of her pieces of advice to young authors: cultivate confidence, have no shame in being bullish about your ideas and your abilities. She was patronised for years by male critics who deemed her work domestic and provincial (one, writing about A Place of Greater Safety – the French 800-pager – dwelt on a brief mention of wallpaper). So she makes no apologies for her self-belief.

**

He, Cromwell. She knew after one page that she’d got it, the voice. “I just wanted to laugh in joy because I’d been wanting to do it for so long.” Historical fiction doesn’t cover it; these books are an inhabitation. Mantel, when describing how she writes, refers to a passage near the beginning of her earlier novel Beyond Black, about a performing medium, Alison:

She takes a breath, she smiles, and she starts a peculiar form of listening. It is a silent sensory ascent; it is like listening from a stepladder, poised on the top rung; she listens at the ends of her nerves, at the limit of her capacities. When you’re doing platform work, it’s rare that the dead need coaxing. The skill is in isolating the voices, picking out one and letting the others recede.

After all the research, the reading, the note-taking, the indexing, the filing and refiling, it is a question of tuning in. Alison, she says, is how she would have turned out if she hadn’t had an education – not necessarily a medium, but not far off, someone whose brain hadn’t been trained, and so whose only (but consi­derable) powers were those of instinct, of sensing, of awareness. Mantel describes herself as “skinless”. She feels everything: presences, ghosts, memories. Cromwell is researched, constructed and written, but he is also channelled. Occupying his mind is pleasurable. He is cool, all-seeing, almost super-heroic in his powers to anticipate and manipulate. (Craig thinks Mantel made the mistake of falling in love with her leading man and that her version of Cromwell is psychologically implausible for a man we know tortured people.) Mantel relishes his low heart rate, the nerveless approach to life, a mental state unbogged by rumination. She says that when she began writing Wolf Hall, first entering this mind, she felt physically robust in a way she hadn’t for years.

Mantel’s mind is different. Left to her own devices, she can get caught up: “Yesterday morning, I was enjoying a hot shower and I started thinking what it would be like if I were in prison, and I couldn’t have this shower? And then I thought, ‘Well, I wonder, if I were in prison, would people bully me, or would I bully them?’ And then I stared thinking, ‘Well actually, it’s unlikely that you’d have to go to prison now, although earlier in your life you probably could very well have murdered someone . . .’”

Sorry, what?

“I think there was probably a time in my life when I did have that capacity if I’d encountered the right circumstances. So by the time I’ve got out of the shower, I’ve been through this whole scenario in my head where I’ve gone to prison for a variety of offences at a variety of ages and of course I’m suddenly miserable and frightened. But it’s like an exercise, the way a dancer would go to the barre every day and go through a routine: I think this is how you live as a writer. You wake up with some uncomfortable thought and instead of dismissing it, like a normal person, you find yourself indulging it.”

**

Education is the difference between Mantel the morbid, murdering shower fantasist and Mantel the person who can trap such a fantasy on the page. Education is the difference between her and her mother, who left school at 14. If she hadn’t gone to school (a convent grammar) and university, the sensing side of her, her inner Alison, “would have been the only side of me I could have used. It may be pushing it a bit far to say I’d make a living reading the cards, but what else could you do? If you’re all sensibility and sensitivity but no knowledge or analytical powers.”

She was always a reader, though, even before she knew how. She remembers being read to – King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table on repeat – and knowing passages by heart, coloured by her fierce imagination into something more vivid, so that when finally she came to learn to read, she was disappointed by the simplicity of children’s books, with their “short, dull words”. Just as, when she went to primary school, she was desperate at the mindless infancy surrounding her. Jane Eyre was Mantel’s kindred spirit in childhood; at last, a cousin on the page, a girl who was also guilty of being “unchildlike”.

After school, Mantel went to the London School of Economics to study law. But then she met Gerald, a geologist, whom she married and moved with to Sheffield, Botswana, Saudi Arabia and then into the traffic-throttled towns of London’s commuter belt: Woking, Windsor, Sunningdale. Early on, she worked briefly as a social worker, and this experience and the stints in Africa and Saudi Arabia fed into later novels. They also shaped a sensibility: she listens to, and writes about, the overlooked. And she knows, from spending time in places oversimplified by the west, that things are always more complicated than they seem from afar. Saudi Arabia taught her – an ardent feminist – that the women there didn’t necessarily envy women in the west. She doesn’t like to talk about politics, going only as far as to describe herself as a “radical” and, once upon a time, a member of the Young Communist League. Nowadays she resists signing petitions; to be a novelist is to relish uncertainty, to be shot with doubt. She makes a hopeless newspaper columnist because, she says, she is unable to “generate opinions. I have to say, wait, I have to think about that, if you could come back to me in two years . . .”

Though Mantel never became a lawyer, her brain remains legal. She can think in straight lines. In her memoir, just after she reveals that her thoughts go at two and a half times the speed of human conversation, she remembers playing chess with her father as an eight-year-old. She castles him, wins the game’s advantage, and he “leans forward, fascinated, and says, did you know you were allowed to do that?”. The mind of a chess player lives in the body of a medium. “So yes,” she says, “I have to live with being skinless, but also fiercely cerebral.”

**

History breathes in Mantel’s version. There is nothing closed about it, nothing finite. The Cromwell books are written in a present tense that thrums with urgency and a sense that everything is uncertain, that history could be rewritten: maybe he doesn’t marry her, maybe she has a son, maybe they don’t break with Rome. It lives for her, too; the membranes are thin. She remembers going to Hampton Court as a child on a hot summer’s day and walking into the Wolsey Rooms “and crying and crying. But trying to conceal from my family the fact that I was crying, and I don’t know what it was about. Something had hit me.”

She hasn’t lost that susceptibility in adulthood, though now she can control her reactions. While writing Wolf Hall she went to see Ralph Sadler’s house in Hackney. Down in the cellar she found the original Tudor bricks, and in one she spotted the imprint of a dog’s paw. Centuries ago, when the bricks were made and then laid out to dry, some unknown mutt had run across them. The sight moved her. Most of us would see a paw print; Mantel hears the dog, smells it, feels its rough fur under her fingers, watches it lope down a stinking London street.

The dead feel close, “only just out of range” – the legacy of a large Irish family who spoke of uncles and aunts long buried as though they were still living next door. Uncle Martin’s house was still known as Uncle Martin’s house even though he had died before Mantel was born. She sees her brother now, reading a newspaper (a brother too young to remember their real father) and she is jarred by her father’s presence: the way he throws one knee over the other, how he turns the pages.

She gets frustrated by how novelists represent memory. A character walks down the street, for no reason starts to think about how he met his wife and 50 pages of laboured flashback later you drift back to the present. It doesn’t work like that. To Mantel, it’s all about Proust and the madeleine – something sensory will trigger a glimpse of the past, and then it will pass. “Memory isn’t a theme,” she says, “it’s part of the human condition.”

She wonders if her own brain is cross-wired. “I am prone almost to have this reminiscence, in that if you were to refer to a certain incident in my childhood, for example, I am apt to be plunged back in there in a way that feels very visceral, very real, and it doesn’t feel like a memory, it feels like living . . . The memories are very dense, very textured and they’re all-embracing, because you really are back in that room at that moment, and once you can do that for your own life, the next step is can you do it for someone who has never existed? Or someone who’s been dead 400 years? I think that’s the aim, to give your characters memories that are as real as yours.”

**

Her books are her babies. Christmas, 1979: aged 27, after years of pain deemed imaginary by doctors who prescribed her frenzy-inducing anti-psychotic drugs and then hospitalised her in a psychiatric ward, she accurately self- diagnosed chronic endometriosis. It was confirmed by a doctor, and she went into hospital and had her womb, her ovaries and part of her bowel removed. Things fell apart. On a 12-week break back from Botswana at the end of 1979, her first manuscript for A Place of Greater Safety was rejected (the book was finally published in 1992); her marriage to Gerald broke down (they divorced, and then remarried); and the potential for motherhood was cut out of her body. The only thing she knew was that life was unlikely to get worse.

You can’t write about Mantel without writing about her body. From her memoir: “One of my favoured grim sports, since I became a published writer and had people to interview me, has been to wait and see how the profiler will turn me out in print. With what adjective will they characterise the startlingly round woman on whose sofa they are lolling? ‘Apple-cheeked’ is the sweetest. ‘Maternal’ made me smile: well, almost.”

As a child, she was frail, thin, small, but a combination of illness and medication distorted her natural shape. For much of her life Mantel has felt she is inhabiting a stranger’s body. She looks in the mirror and can, sometimes, see the ghost of the person she once was, but it is concealed by flesh. And then there are the other ghosts: those of the children she couldn’t have. In all her books, but especially the Cromwell books, there are wombs, foetuses, the unborn, shadows of dead children everywhere. If Gerald and she had been able to have a daughter, they would have called her Catriona.

Does the body’s collapse alter the mind? In Mantel’s view, undoubtedly. If she’d had a different body, one that obeyed, she would have had a different personality. She knew from early on that she would have to predicate her life on mental effort, because she was so physically erratic. “My thoughts,” she says, “have been the thing I can rely on.”

**

The mental effort hasn’t only produced novels. To supplement the middling success of her first books, Mantel worked as a journalist, becoming the film critic of the Spectator and reviewing widely. She soon began to write for the London Review of Books. Questions are sent to the paper’s owner and editor, Mary-Kay Wilmers, of the conventional sort – how did you discover her; what were your early impressions; how has her writing developed? This is her response:

The first piece Hilary Mantel wrote for the LRB – it was published in October 1987 – was a review of a book about Saudi Arabia. “No newspaper in Jeddah or Riyadh,” Mantel wrote, “would publish details of the private lives of the 5,000-strong royal family – though, curiously enough, the doings of the Princess of Wales are of great moment to young Saudi women. Even the censors, with their big black felt-tips, have been known to spare the royal décolletage; the Princess shares with the Empress Maria Theresa, whose image graced the old silver coinage, the distinction of being the only bared bosom on view. As a matter of honour, arms, legs and faces must be covered up; so must facts.”

Who wouldn’t fall in love with the author of those sentences?

This is how her most recent LRB piece – alas not that recent – begins:

“Three or four nights after surgery – when, in the words of the staff, I have ‘mobilised’ – I come out of the bathroom and spot a circus strongman squatting on my bed. He sees me too; from beneath his shaggy brow he rolls a liquid eye. Brown-skinned, naked except for the tattered hide of some endangered species, he is bouncing on his heels and smoking furiously without taking the cigarette from his lips: puff, bounce, puff, bounce. What rubbish, I think, actually shouting at myself, but silently. This is a no-smoking hospital. It is impossible this man would be allowed in, to behave as he does. Therefore he’s not real, and if he’s not real I can take his space. As I get into bed beside him, the strongman vanishes. I pick up my diary and record him: was there, isn’t any more.” We are ardent suitors: she is an elusive bride.

**

Elusive – the word is used often by people around Mantel, even those who have known her for decades. Bill Hamilton describes how in conversation “she’s always three steps ahead of me . . . I mean, I just like sort of throwing tennis balls at her and seeing what comes back. You have no idea where the ball’s gone.”

Hamilton plucked Mantel off the slush pile. She had found him, at the literary agency A M Heath, in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. She knew little about the industry, apart from its rejection of her first novel, and simply sent in a letter and the manuscript of what became her first published book, Every Day Is Mother’s Day. Her habit now is to show Hamilton a chunk of the next book when she feels she has captured the style, to give him an idea of what to expect. (The first 40 pages of Bring Up the Bodies were handed over during a lunch with him and Nicholas Pearson, her editor at Fourth Estate. She had a “glint in her eye”, Hamilton recalls). They exchange emails and calls regularly and when the reviews come out she merrily dismembers critics who have failed to untangle an obvious metaphor. She is, Hamilton says, a lively email correspondent, sardonic and candid.

There is a gap between Mantel in person and Mantel on the page. To be in her company, to walk beside her through a small Devon town, is to find a woman polite, wide-eyed, generous, chatty, occasionally unleashing spikes of wit. She conducts a tour of her flat – its two studies, a second bedroom that has been turned into a dressing room, the decision to paint everything cream because she was ill at the time of redecoration and couldn’t think about it properly – with the formality and attention to detail of a house-proud retiree.

But on the page, there is violence and brutality: entrails, cocks, fuck, cunt. “How can I write this, I wonder?” she asks in her memoir. “I am a woman with a delicate mouth; I say nothing gross.” Her writing self, she says now, is “much tougher than my everyday, operating self, much less compromising and much less afraid”. It was always the way: she doesn’t think she’s got braver as time and books have passed; she hasn’t had to steel herself gradually to write about executions and seductions in bald detail. “No. I think I started off fearless on the page.”

**

Any worry Mantel has about the future of the novel is not for the form, but for its authors.

“I worry about people who can’t make their voices heard . . . People like me from working-class backgrounds could sort of weasel through and I’m not sure that applies any more.” On the night of 6 October 2009, when Mantel won the Booker Prize for Wolf Hall, she sat at the Fourth Estate table with Pearson and, minutes before the announcement of the winner was due, she told him about a young writer she thought he should read. They were both anxious, hyper-aware that this was the career-transforming moment, that she was on the cusp of industry recognition long overdue, but she thought she would use the time and the opportunity to recommend a new author to her publisher.

Booker night awaits again. She is shortlisted this time for Bring Up the Bodies, and if she wins on 16 October she will be the first British author to win twice. Her plan is straightforward: get through it, press on to the end of the year, then shut up shop. Next year she wants a repeat of last summer, months of saying no to everyone, week after week lost to a book. If she can get this one right, put all the mirrors in place, catch all the reflections that she has been preparing since the first pages of Wolf Hall, if she can, as she puts it, “bring the third volume home in the style I would like to complete it”, then she will feel something approaching satisfaction. She knows that she will look back at the Cromwell books as the central writing of her life, because “it was a book in which I felt instantly at home. I felt I’d been waiting all my writing life to get there.”

**

For so long, it wasn’t like this: the glory, the prizes, the money. Pearson describes the frustration of publishing, for book after book, an author who was that respected but limited thing, a writer’s writer. Cromwell has propelled her. Why? A reader and fellow author of historical fiction, Sarah Waters, emails: “Well, it’s tempting to be cynical about it and note that, after a respectable but underappreciated career of writing mainly about women, she was finally recognised as a literary heavyweight once she produced a novel that was all about men . . .”

Waters then tempers this, suggesting that perhaps it is due to the sudden surge in interest in historical fiction, or maybe the darkness and strangeness of the earlier novels put people off, or it was because she never pursued a conventional authorial path and was always unpredictable in subject and style. But then, “Maybe it’s more simple – maybe it’s just that, with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Mantel has hit her stride as a novelist; that her writing, now, is too good for anyone to ignore.”

There is no one else writing like her, says Pearson. “I haven’t seen anything like it, not in this country.” Hamilton is sure that once people have caught up with these books, once they’ve twigged that every sentence has a parallel text, once people reread them and grasp the extent of her achievement, then she will be acknowledged as a “first-rate writer who will be read and studied for ever, I think”.

**

Mantel offers clues. We know the third book (to be called The Mirror and the Light) has to end with Cromwell’s fall, but to get there she must weave together all the other strands and settle the fates of a ranging cast of characters. She will turn her attention to Gregory, Cromwell’s hapless, kindly son, and Cromwell will realise that he has oppressed Gregory in his own way, just as his father oppressed him. It will, inevitably, be tinged with tragedy. It will end in death.

On Mantel’s desk is a ring binder. She opens it and leafs through an assorted jumble of pages: a paragraph written on branded hotel notepaper in her slanting hand; a page of lined A4 paper covered in hurried scribbles; a recipe for quail, torn out of a Sunday newspaper supplement. “Jane Seymour, during her pregnancy with the future Edward, couldn’t get enough quail, and they kept sending them over from Calais,” she says, still amused by Seymour’s cravings. “I suppose I thought, ‘OK, I’ll cook some quail.’”

She writes the books in collage – distinct, hermetic scenes that she then arranges and rearranges and stitches together to make a whole, though the overall architecture is always in her mind and she has the chronology to lean on. History is useful like that.

She sees something she has written about Seymour tucked towards the end, pulls the rings apart, removes the piece of paper and places it towards the front, where it should be. This is Mantel making the third book.

**

For years, Mantel followed Gerald around the world. Now he follows her. Retired, he looks after the business of her authorship; the contracts and engagements and logistics. He travels with her, collects visitors from Exmouth Station and drives the car so that she can sit and think and write in her head. He brings coffee and biscuits elegantly arranged on a plate.

They agree that he will go and see her mother, who is staying in their other flat up the road. (They bought it for their pension, she says, and it’s a good place to house guests so that she can control how much, or little, she sees them. Her mother is a talker, and Mantel likes to work uninterrupted in the early mornings.)

As they make this arrangement, they stand opposite each other in the cream living room, holding each other’s hands, one pair up, one pair down, as though caught in a still moment during a dance.

**

Not long ago, Mantel gave a talk in Sydney. She didn’t go to Sydney, preferring not to travel, so the interviewer sat on the stage with a laptop on his knees on which he conducted a conversation with her which was beamed on to a large screen. The audience numbered nearly 1,000 and was, apparently, silent throughout, enthralled.

For someone who lives so much in her mind, who is fearless on the page, who describes herself as a “creature in paper and ink”, she can perform. She can pick a stitch from a question and unravel an answer. She has the ability, which is said of many but in her case is true, to speak in sculpted paragraphs. Here’s one:

“I think if I hadn’t become a writer I would just have suppressed that part of my personality. I think I would have put it in a box that I never opened. I’m not sure I would have been happy doing that. Sometimes people ask, does writing make you happy? But I think that’s beside the point. It makes you agitated, and continually in a state where you’re off balance. You seldom feel serene or settled. You’re like the person in the fairy tale The Red Shoes: you’ve just got to dance and dance, you’re never in equilibrium. I don’t think writing makes you happy, not that you asked that question, I’m asking myself. I think it makes for a life that by its very nature has to be unstable, and if it ever became stable, you’d be finished.”