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29 September 2022

Hilary Mantel: “The writer occupies both past and present. She is never absent from the story”

In the novelist’s final published work, she considered the “creative friction” behind her Wolf Hall trilogy.

By Hilary Mantel

These images, taken by Ben and George Miles, loosely track Thomas Cromwell’s life, from what are now the satellite towns west of London, through the City and to the Tower, where he died in 1540. The Thames is the great artery that feeds these places, as in the 16th century it sustained England’s chief city.

The project began at around the time Ben was cast as Cromwell in the stage versions of the first two novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. The object was always to sneak around a location and get behind the obvious – to see what Historic Royal Palaces left out for refuse collection, or to catch a glimpse of a ghost’s coat-tail whisking away from multipurpose conference rooms or banqueting venues. We believe that you don’t attune yourself to the spirit of place by earnest enquiry. You just hang about, make yourself available. You show willing.

Kingston Upon Thames
“As a boy he was always climbing about on somebody’s roof, often without their knowledge. Show him a ladder and he was up it, seeking a longer view. But when he got up there, what could he see? Only Putney.” [The Mirror & the Light]

Sometimes all three of us were present when an image was made, sometimes one or two, but our response was always shared. Sometimes it is easier to show than to tell. When I am asked about the writing process, I want to be honest, but sometimes I feel my replies don’t go home; they sound either complacent, or mysterious. It is hard to be articulate about what arrives before the words do – hard to trace that network of neural connections that holds a novel together. I hope that by taking part in this project I can show how the creative process works for me. But the pictures are not a service to the text. They are images that exist in their own time and their own right. They talk to the text. They ask questions, as I try to do. When I come across a piece of evidence, even the baldest fact, I find it useful to ask, “What is this?” And then, “What else could it be?”

Sutton House, Hackney, formerly Bricke Place
“All over England virgins are crumbling. Our Lady of Ipswich must go down. Our Lady of Walsingham, which we call Falsingham, must be taken away in a cart. Our Lady of Worcester is stripped of her coat and her silver shoes. The vessels containing her breast-milk are smashed and found to contain chalk. And where her eyes move, and weep tears of blood, we know now that the blood is animal blood and her eyes are worked on wires.” [The Mirror & the Light]

The first two books in the trilogy were adapted for the stage by Mike Poulton. Not all the characters were names famous in history, and sometimes they spoke of incidents that are long forgotten by most people. In the rehearsal room I asked myself, what happens when the names of the dead are spoken aloud, perhaps for the first time in centuries? What peculiar resonance is set up? In rehearsal it was my practice to keep two notebooks open. One was for the scene unwrapping before me. The other was for scenes unwrapping in my imagination – projections into the final act of Cromwell’s story. So some of the incidents and conversation in The Mirror & the Light stemmed from rehearsal but other developments sprang directly from these pictures. I looked back, as Cromwell does, at his childhood, and I saw what I had missed. The camera captures the perception too quick for words, but then at a second glance – mine – the words start to flow. Sometimes the writer can pull out the essence of a picture, and sometimes the picture can extract the essence of the text, but the plan is to leave both intact – not to interrupt or over-interpret the image, but to open up the inner eye.

Austin Friars, kitchens.
He looks around at his guests. All are prepared. A Latin grace; English would be his choice, but he will suit his company. Who cross themselves ostentatiously, in papist style. Who look at him, expectant.
He shouts for the waiters. The doors burst open. Sweating men have the platters to the table. It seems the meat is fresh, in fact not slaughtered yet.
It is just a minor breach of etiquette. The company must sit and salivate.
The Boleyns are laid at his hands to be carved.” [Bring Up the Bodies]

There is a paradoxical process at work in writing a novel, and I think in these pictures too. By craft, by patience, by long practice and anticipation, you arrange for yourself a series of surprises – you throw up effects that you are not aware of creating. In the first two books, I was single-minded like Cromwell, and dealt in facts and figures. In the third, I let my mind range over what was missing from the record. Though the third book demanded iron control – there was a lot of information to be processed and retrieved – it also asked new things of me: that I cede control, and dream, and accept the strangeness of my own enterprise. For the writer as for the image-maker, the process can’t be precisely managed. Accidents will happen. Film unwinds unexpectedly when a camera is opened. Scratches and fogging are like the writer’s headache, her loss of confidence, her blurring of inner vision. You can’t pretend these glitches don’t occur. But the “useless” day’s work is often, in retrospect, the most revelatory.

What interests us is the creative friction that occurs when the past and present make contact. George Miles speaks of “the energy created when two unsympathetic things run against one another: plastic chairs and rood screens, chip shops and woods, the sacred and profane”. It is the same for a writer. She occupies both past and present and she is never absent from the story. Every mark she leaves on the page shows her thumbprint, behind the text like a watermark.

Tower of London, Thomas More cell
“The doors are opened into the lower room. It is a stony, vaulted and spacious chamber. The fireplace is empty and swept clean. The walls here are twelve feet thick, and light falls from windows set high above the head. There is a figure sitting at the table. Silently he asks ‘Is it you?’ Thomas More rises from his place, crosses the room and melts into the wall.”
[The Mirror & the Light]

One of the questions I have puzzled over is how “the past” becomes “history” – at what moment does it set like a jelly, into a form that can be consumed by those who are not witnesses, perhaps not yet living? And I enquire, as any consumer of history must, about the slippery nature of evidence, and why the record might fade, or be altered: rats, insects, fire, censorship, ink blots. When you read a document or look at an artefact, you must understand that for everything it shows, something else may be hidden. Connections may exist that are not causal, that run below the surface of events and can be glimpsed rather than grasped.

Wolf Hall
‘For Anne Boleyn I filled the streets with sleeping saints, with falcons the height of men. I unspooled a mile of blue, like a path to Heaven, from the abbey door to the coronation chair: I costed it by the yard and, lady, you walked it. Now I must begin again: new banners, painted cloths with the emblem of the phoenix; with the day star, the gates of Heaven, the cedar tree and the lily among thorns.
He stirs in his sleep. He is walking the blue, the waves.” [The Mirror & the Light]

We are also interested in the fugitive elements that never made a mark on the record – the passer-by as well as the main character. History is written by the winners, but the winners shape geography too. Some features are picked out to be noticed, century after century; they are those features that define success, serve the conquering will. Other locations are neglected and drop out of the story; structures erode or slide away from the eye. Collapsing wooden huts and workmen’s shelters huddle under the walls of palaces and cathedrals. Torn-up paper drifts on the wind. As a novelist approaching the historical record, you try to pick up what is scattered, rehome the abandoned, regard what has been overlooked. The aim of these pictures is the same.

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

This is the central project of historical fiction: a first aid demonstration at the Tower of London where, witnessed by a man who is Tudor above the knee, a worker tries to breathe life into a plastic artefact designed to simulate a human being. Another man crouches to record the event on camera, a flash in his hand. Unseen, off-stage, a third person photographs him.

Now, you look at the photograph and ask, what’s happening here? What does that gesture mean, from the woman in the pale dress whose hair hides her face? Who are the people who turn their backs and walk away, or those in the distance who seem to be climbing their own scaffold? The fingerpost in the background suggests a choice of ways we could proceed from here.

When we create historical fiction we put the inert past on the table and bash it about. We know it’s an artificial enterprise. But in the moment we feel it’s urgent, and we do our best. We feel this flesh is alive under our hands and we don’t want to be left with nothing but a corpse.

The Wolf Hall Picture Book” by Hilary Mantel, Ben Miles and George Miles is published by 4th Estate

[See also: Hilary Mantel, 1952-2022]

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