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23 September 2022

Hilary Mantel: “I had to be in middle age to imagine what the weight of life does to you”

The Booker Prize-winning author on late fame, her mother’s death and the books she is yet to write.

By Rachel Cooke

On 23 September 2022, the publisher Fourth Estate announced that Hilary Mantel had died aged 70. This interview was first published in the New Statesman on 9 September 2021.

In the long, strange, stop-start months since The Mirror and the Light was published last March – the book came into the world minutes before the first lockdown began, which was both well timed, given its great length, and appropriate, given the contagions that stalked the reign of Henry VIII – I’ve often wondered about how its author came finally to kill off its central character. By then, after all, she’d been living with him for almost 15 years. Did she procrastinate madly, dread rising inside her like poison every time she approached her keyboard? Or did she just get on with it, determined her own cut would be swifter and neater – altogether kinder – than that of his real-life executioner, who reputedly did not quite manage to separate head from neck at the first attempt?

But writers don’t always begin at the beginning, and end at the end. Sometimes the unconscious, having staged a coup, puts paid to simple chronology. And so it was with Thomas Cromwell, whose death, it transpires, Hilary Mantel drafted even before she’d completed the first book of her trilogy about him (Wolf Hall came out in 2009; the books trace the career of Henry VIII’s chief minister from 1527, when he is Cardinal Wolsey’s right-hand man, until 1540 when, following the king’s disastrous fourth marriage to Anne of Cleeves, a warrant for his execution is signed). “One day, you see, it came to me how to do it,” she says. It was all a bit unfortunate. She was in Sainsbury’s with her husband, a realm not usually inhabited by Tudor ghosts. “We got to the checkout and I started to cry. I cried really hard, on our groceries and on my hands; they were all wet as I pushed things along the belt. We paid, and I sniffed, and then I went home, and I wrote a draft – several drafts – and then I put them away. When it came to the day, many years later, that I had to write the scene, all I had to do was pull out those drafts.” She looks at me carefully. “I wrote it, and something inside said, ‘Now leave it to me.’”

I’ve come to see Mantel in Sunningdale, Berkshire, at the flat she uses when she needs to be in London. Each of us is sitting on a plumped sofa, a coffee table on the pale carpet between us – a piece of furniture that, every now and then, will suddenly strike me as incongruous (when Mantel talks, her cadences straight out of Derbyshire and the Bible, you travel to other places, only returning to reality with a start). She remembers with perfect clarity the morning she wrote those final scenes: the waking knowledge that this day would be the one on which she led Cromwell to the scaffold. She was at home in Budleigh Salterton in Devon. “I got up, and I said, ‘At most, I’ve got three hours’ work to do, and then the book will be finished.’”

[See also: Hilary Mantel’s complex, conflicted Thomas Cromwell]

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Soon after this, she went into the sitting room to find a picture of Henry VIII had fallen from the wall on which it had been hanging. “It was as if, in the night, I’d transmitted the mental energy that had done this. The hook had snapped clean through. I couldn’t believe it because, of course, at the end, it’s not really Cromwell who is down; it’s Henry. The next seven years of his reign are going to be horrible. He realises quite soon after the execution that he’s made a blunder.” Mantel reminds me of Cromwell’s final moments, as they are written in the novel: the door that is the last thing he sees, and behind it, the light that represents the next life, in which he believes with his whole heart. She went with the bloodiest accounts of the execution – three goes of the axe – the better to allow his consciousness to ebb. This scene would have been “quite a thing to face if I’d had to do that work at the end”, she says. “But sometimes, a writer’s psyche arranges things very nicely.”

How did it feel to be done? Again, the memory is vivid. “I phoned Jez [her husband, Gerald], and asked him if he could come and collect me [she writes in a flat not far from their home]. ‘I’ve finished,’ I said.” When he arrived, they looked at one another, standing in the hall, and burst out laughing. What was that about? “Relief. Incredulity. This project that I’d been working on since 2005 was home at last.” Her mind goes to Henry’s portrait, resting at an angle on the skirting board. “Things like that do happen to me,” she says. Since childhood, she has known the world as uncanny: a sphere not only of powerful signs and curious presences, but one in which the past is not – to pinch from William Faulkner – really past at all. When she talks of Cromwell now, he’s neither a historical figure nor her own creation, but something in between: a person with whom she “collaborated”, and whose uncommon pragmatism and vigour, having been somehow transmitted to her like electricity, she will henceforth miss.

In the small silence that follows this part of our conversation, I hear someone outside throwing what I take to be a ball against a wall (I hope it’s a ball). Like another home of hers I once visited – before she moved to Devon, she lived in a converted lunatic asylum in Woking – this flat is in a somewhat anonymous development on a somewhat anonymous road, in a place that is about as perfect an embodiment of Middle England as you could hope to clap eyes on. It makes me think, with sudden longing, of Beyond Black (2005), the last novel she published before Wolf Hall (it is about a Home Counties psychic called Alison and her assistant, Colette, whose job it is to book the Travelodge). Thunk, thunk, thunk, goes the ball. Such places suit Mantel very well, I think. Their seeming placidity – though she knows things are stirring beneath the surface – offers her a neutral canvas. The imaginative darkness can rise more easily here, for it has no obvious competition.

She is in Sunningdale now because the stage version of The Mirror and the Light, which she has co-written with Ben Miles, the actor who played Cromwell in the RSC’s adaptations of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and who’ll reprise the role in this third play, is now in rehearsal. “We’re at the fraught stage,” she says. “My anxiety is: have we cut enough?” But I can sense her excitement and satisfaction, too. “With the first two plays, I contributed a great deal, but it wasn’t until they got to New York that I got a credit. I said to Ben, ‘I can’t let this one out of my hands, but I also feel too inexperienced.’ I asked him if he could think of anyone I could collaborate with, and he said, rather nervously, ‘What about me?’” Did that feel right? “I had no hesitation. What could be better than the practical craftsmanship of hammering out every scene with the actor who will play those scenes?”

They did not expect to have to do the whole thing via email – Covid-19 saw to this – but it wasn’t so hard. “We’ve always been in touch, even once the last play finished. We have another project, with Ben’s brother George. We’ve formed a creative family, meeting up to go on our trips.” When Miles was cast, he and his photographer brother walked Cromwell’s life, from Wimbledon, where Ben was also born, to Tower Hill. “They started at their grandmother’s gate, taking photos [as they went], not of tourist sites, but of things that caught their eye. They made a little booklet, and Ben brought it to rehearsal one day. I was really taken with it, and this developed into a project. We go to the obvious places – Hampton Court, Westminster Abbey – and two of us talk nicely to the curator while the other one sneaks away and takes photographs of the dustbins.” Next year, this project will become a book, the pictures matched to text from the trilogy. “The idea is to show past and present rubbing up against each other. Whereas most photographs of historic sites are carefully angled to remove the electricity wires, for us, that’s the object. We like things that are covered with dust, or held together with sticky tape.”

Are there two Cromwells for her now: the one she sees in her mind’s eye, and the one played by Miles? “Mostly, I don’t see Cromwell,” she says, softly. “I feel him.” She’s looking out, through his eyes. “So the idea of him inhabiting a different body doesn’t really disturb me. Ben has a whole track of Cromwell memories. He has become him, in a sense. In the first play, there was a long, silent scene in which they all waited for the king to sign death warrants. Ben would think of different parts of Cromwell’s life, and after the show, he would email me and say, ‘This is where I went [in my mind], and this is my question about it.’ He helped me stitch together a past for Cromwell.” Eventually, this fed into the final novel. “Memory is more dominant in the third book. Cromwell represses his memories to a certain point, but then they start to sneak through. He has to reckon with his early life. Cromwell became [for me] an extraordinarily complex construction, with his own unconscious life.”

As Mantel wrote The Mirror and the Light, it was impossible not to feel the approach of Brexit – or at least the heat of the emotions that propelled it. “I suddenly saw the Pilgrimage of Grace [a revolt of 1536-37, which began in Yorkshire] in very sharp focus. This incoherent outbreak of populism. A pervasive, ill-defined discontent. Cromwell thinks there’s always some man who gets up and calls himself Captain Poverty or Robin Hood. The great populist outbreak in the middle of Henry’s reign – a lot of it is about the south not understanding the north: people in Cornwall wondering why they should pay for the defence of the Scots border, and people in the north wondering why they should pay for defences against the French.

“People make this false analogy between the Reformation and Brexit, as if it hadn’t happened in Germany first,” she continues. “The real parallel is with populism, a nation turning against itself. Discontent is knitted to the human condition. A politician can’t necessarily solve it. Some appeal to inner logic: the Keir Starmers of this world. Others are of a more primitive nature. I mean, Donald Trump is a primitive person. It was as if he had direct access to bestial human nature, to the beast inside. Henry’s courtiers think, what do these people want? What they want is an illusory Golden Age with a chicken in every pot, and spring water that provides eternal youth.” If we extend all this to Boris Johnson, what do we get? “He’s not what he appears at all. I think he has a very sophisticated mind, but he has a character defect. I don’t think he’s fit for public office.”

[See also: How Hilary Mantel became a publishing phenomenon]

The book, which looks towards the succession, also made her think, at moments, about what comes next for us. “I tried to imagine kingship sympathetically, though I’m not sympathetic [to the institution]. You’ve no choice if you’re born royal. There is an outburst of Henry’s in which he expresses frustration at having been watched all his life, everything he says reported and interpreted. You think of Charles, who has been waiting so long. Such a period must be corrosive. One sees possibilities folding up. If he had come to the throne in the vigour of early middle age, he might have changed things. We might be taking climate change more seriously, for instance. But he has had to watch a lot of that power ebb away.” What will happen when the Queen dies? Does she expect paroxysms of hysteria? “My reading of it is that people will say, ‘She was a very old lady’, then there’ll be all the obituaries in which she is Boudicca, Gloriana and all the rest of it, and then people will start to feel it quietly, and for a long, long time. When there’s such continuity, people must feel it at a deep level. They’ll think it doesn’t matter, and then they’ll discover that it does.”

Mantel’s 2003 memoir, Giving up the Ghost, is powerfully, almost overwhelmingly, suggestive of all the sly, nefarious ways in which a person’s beginnings might rise up to bite them once again. It describes her working-class Catholic upbringing in Derbyshire – the family silently reconfigures when her mother’s lover one day comes for tea, and never leaves, her father moving miserably but without argument into the spare bedroom – and the later exile from her own body that was the result of the agonising endometriosis for which she was treated as a young woman. It also seethes with ghosts, shades that cannot always be identified. Five hundred years ago, I sometimes think, its author would have burned at the stake as a witch (when I tell Mantel this, she laughs, but doesn’t disagree).

Are they connected, the childhood belonging to Giving up the Ghost and Cromwell’s stubborn memories, as depicted in The Mirror and the Light? She believes they are. Her parents’ misery was all-encompassing; it hung, like fog, and all she knew was that she had to escape it. “It’s easy for me to write about someone who’s fleeing their past,” she says. “It would be far more difficult for me to write someone who’d had a happy early life. And there’s also the factor of getting out of your native country, which I did in my twenties and Cromwell did earlier, before coming back in your thirties [she and Gerald, a geologist, lived in Botswana and Saudi Arabia; in the former, Mantel worked as a teacher, and in the latter she was stuck at home in Jeddah while Gerald was at work, an experience she turned into her 1988 novel Eight Months on Ghazzah Street]. I couldn’t have written the books earlier. I had to be into middle age before I could imagine what the weight of life does to you. Things that have been enormously significant drop into the background, and vice versa. Some things stand out very sharply: words you never forget, the way the light fell in your room.”

[See also: Why we need Hilary Mantel’s critical snark]

We come back to the precarious, unnerving fact of it: that the past isn’t past. “The hard thing is to work out where you have choice, and to exercise those freedoms realistically and bravely,” she says. “Most of us don’t grasp this until midlife, nor that, sometimes, you have to pay a price for this. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, what freedom means in an individual life. It’s funny, because I seldom look back on my books, but I picked up the memoir two nights ago, and read a section. I don’t think I’d do it differently now, but I am conscious of what’s missing. My American publisher is keen for me to write about my teenage years, but I said, ‘I can’t, I’m not ready’. I was in my fifties when I wrote Giving up the Ghost, but I was not able then to come to terms with that [later] material enough to set it down coolly, and I don’t think I am yet. I am not sure I have enough distance.”

She is as still as marble. “My mother died four years ago. Yesterday was the anniversary of her funeral. She is a very potent presence. I’m very conscious of carrying her inside, along with my grandmother, and a whole set of women whose talents were stifled; of having to do it for them all. I think there might be more memoir, and when I’m feeling mentally strong, I will get back to my journals. But… I have a real struggle to forgive. People say that you ought, and I think, why? How can you ever forgive, if sorry was never said? Really, I’m speaking of my stepfather.”

Everything she did seemed to enrage him (eventually he and her mother moved away; Mantel went with them and never saw her father again). She has written of the tension that was always in the air, like the “breathing stillness” between lightning and thunder. “On one level, I can understand and sympathise with him, but I also feel there are circumstances in which the adult has all the power, and the child has none. My teenage years were so incredibly miserable… I was counting the days until I could get away from home. The trouble is, you’ve got home inside you. Such a powerful place is correspondingly hard to escape.”

How did she feel when her mother died? “All my life, since I was about three, I considered I was responsible for my mother’s happiness. She made it be so. After my stepfather died, she told me she could never be happy again, not even for an hour. It put me in the position of having to work harder to make her life acceptable to her.

“I was absolutely wiped out by her death. We were very close. I spoke to her every day on the phone. I found it very hard. I was writing The Mirror and the Light. My life was fairly lonely and austere. The winter after she died, most of the day was writing, and an hour or two was her clothes, and sorting her possessions. She had beautiful clothes, and I laundered and pressed everything. I think I’ve agreed to be haunted by her. I said to my youngest brother, ‘I find great consolation in using her things’.”

Was her mother proud of her? “Yes, but she didn’t understand my world, the kind of fame an author gets. She couldn’t understand why I wasn’t on television all the time.” Did she read the novels? “She skimmed them. There was also the problem that if any character had a mother, she took that to be herself.” Did Mantel feel mothered, or un-mothered? “Smothered,” she replies, italicising her words. “She was not able to see me as an individual, only as a reflection of herself, and obviously I wasn’t a very satisfactory reflection. I think she was narcissistic. She was very beautiful and talented, in that she could draw, sing, dance, but it was all stifled, squashed.”

Did this make her envious of her daughter? “The form it took was ensuring that I had no fun. I remember raising the possibility that I could go to drama school instead of university, but absolutely not. During my teenage years, if I wanted to go out on a fine weekend afternoon, she would give me a terrible row. I should be at my books! I was going to fail my exams!” She laughs. “There was about as much chance of my flying as of failing my exams!” This maternal regime took its effect. “It made me a workaholic. I never went dancing. I am still inclined to think virtue is being bound to your desk for eight hours a day.”

The question is: will Mantel ever shake off her Stakhanovite tendencies? She believes that, any day now, she will. “I’ve got a new phase coming up,” she says. “I don’t want work to be a tyranny, as it has been. I need to change. Gerald is wanting to ease up. We are 70 next year. We are intent on moving to Ireland. We would have done it already, if it hadn’t been for Covid. Partly, it’s Brexit. The need to be European. Jez is an Irish citizen. But he would like me to be more… temperate in the way I work, and more selective. He has never asked anything of me, so the fact he wants to do this means that I must – and I do want to go, too.” Where will they go? “To West Cork, we think.”

Can she see beyond Cromwell, as her readers see beyond Henry? He will be around for a while yet: after the play, there will be another television series, too. “But mentally, I must let that stuff drain away sooner or later,” she says. She believes she has at least one more novel to write. She hopes to return to the 18th century, but can’t talk about it yet. Perhaps, too, she will write a play, possibly about Margaret Thatcher. “I’ve a whole box full of scenes,” she says, mischief in her voice.

Her readers are not, she notes, the kind of people who post reviews on Amazon in which they complain of unlikeable characters (her Thomas Cromwell, like history’s, is many things, but he’s hardly likeable). “That wish to make nice,” she says. “I can’t understand it. I’ve never gone to books for that. Since childhood, I’ve gone to them to learn more about life than I could from my own circumstances; to be made aware of what was coming at me, what weapons I needed. I require books to advise and to warn, not to make me feel good. You want to be enriched, not consoled. A clear window, not a rosy light.”

[See also: Anthony Horowitz: “I couldn’t possibly support the Conservative Party now – it makes me feel queasy”​]

For her, literary fame took a long time to arrive. Wolf Hall was her tenth novel. Before it, there were no bestsellers, no crowds of avid fans; her male near-contemporaries – Martin Amis, William Boyd, Adam Mars-Jones – got all the attention. Uncertainty ran through her writing life. She felt it even as she wrote the first pages of Wolf Hall, knowing they were her best work, but also that the book could go out into the world and still fall flat. There is luck involved in all this, as well as talent. At an event for her first novel, Every Day is Mother’s Day (1985), a man in the audience told her: “I wrote a novel once.” It was, she says, “one of the saddest sentences I’ve ever heard”.

Women, though, do come into their power later on in life. On the evening she won her first Booker Prize in 2009, I was in the audience at the Guildhall, in the City of London. In the moments after the announcement, I went to the loo, and there she was, shimmering in gold according to my memory, which probably exaggerates. I’d only recently interviewed her. She knew me. I was, she tells me now, a friend before the “loneliness” ahead, a night of press conferences and flashbulbs and struggling down the line to America. I remember wrapping my arms around her. She responded by putting her forehead on my shoulder. “Yes!” she said, very quietly. I fancied that her fists were clenched. It was an enormous “yes”. It went all the way back to her childhood, and all the way forward to posterity.

“The Mirror and the Light” runs at the Gielgud Theatre from 23 September to 23 January 2022

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This article appears in the 10 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Eternal Empire