The scene is an early supper at the Arden Hotel, Stratford-upon-Avon. The time is just between the penultimate all-day Saturday performances of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the RSC’s adaptations of Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker-winning novels; the shows will close here in a week’s time before reopening at the Aldwych, in London, in May. The cast round the table is composed of Hilary, her husband Gerald McEwen, her younger brother Brian, Mike Poulton—who crafted these plays in close collaboration with Mantel—and me. We are discussing how familiar most of the audience are with the books. Mantel remarks on the opening of the first play, which finds Thomas Cromwell and Cardinal Wolsey in conference; at the edge of the stage is a young man playing a lute. A few moments in to the scene Wolsey sends him off with an abrupt, “Enough now, Mark.”
“A woman just near me leaned over and whispered to her companion, ‘That’s Mark Smeaton!’—she was very excited,” Mantel says. It is Smeaton who will, in Bring Up the Bodies, play a crucial role in the fall of Anne Boleyn. And indeed, on the Saturday I was there, although I didn’t hear a whisper, a distinct frisson of recognition ran through the sold-out Swan. And that is the genius of both Mantel’s novels and now their stage adaptations: yes, you know where this story is going—but you are no less glad to be along for the ride.
That said, it’s not necessary to be closely acquainted with the books—or indeed with the history of Thomas Cromwell’s rise at the court of Henry VIII—to be enraptured by these plays, which opened to near-universal praise in January. The adaptations, wrote Susannah Clapp in the Observer, “go to the heart of Mantel’s fictions and give them a different life.” That is thanks not only to the elegant and energetic direction of Jeremy Herrin, but in a very large degree to the remarkable writing partnership that Mantel and Poulton have built. The three hours between the two plays allows plenty of time for dinner and a quiet conversation with Hilary in the hotel room that has come to seem much like home to her and to Gerald. They travel here at least once a week from Devon, driving up the M5 to Stratford and the Swan where, in the foyer, I watch Hilary greet a succession of adoring fans with both gravity and grace. She signs books and programs and playscripts. I say to Gerald that she doesn’t look like she minds the attention at all. “Oh, no, she’s shameless,” he beams. Married for four decades—with a small hiatus in the middle in which they were divorced and then remarried to each other—they are now a working partnership too, with Gerald, formerly a geologist, driving the juggernaut that is Hilary Mantel, Inc.
And that is quite an enterprise these days. Born in Glossop, Derbyshire, she was for decades an enormously respected and successful author whose books were an established and admired fixture of the British literary landscape. Her first novel was her bracing account of the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety—though it would be published as her fifth book. When she tried to sell the manuscript, she was told that no one was interested in historical fiction—so, practical woman that she is, she sat down and produced Every Day Is Mother’s Day, her first published book, released in 1985. She has proved adept at moving between the present and the past in her fiction. The Giant, O’Brien is a fictionalised account of the damaged and damaging relationship between the 18th-century Irish “giant” Charles Byrne and the English surgeon John Hunter; Beyond Black builds a darkly funny bridge between the living and the dead in the size-22 form of Alison, a modern medium.
But her Tudor novels took her onto a different plane. Drawn to the enigmatic yet enormously powerful figure of Thomas Cromwell, the brewer’s boy from Putney who rose to be Henry VIII’s chief minister, she knew she’d have to publish Wolf Hall in 2009, the 500th anniversary of Henry’s accession; again, practical as ever, so she did. As to what drew her to Cromwell, not so long ago she and I discussed the so-called romance of her late-blooming success. She didn’t see her own story as romantic at all. “I think it’s the story of a hard-boiled careerist, like Thomas Cromwell,” she told me.
But now Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies—two densely woven novels that make no concessions to the reader—have become part of the national conversation: this year Mantel became the first Booker winner to make the top ten most borrowed since PLR records began (Bring Up the Bodies was the eighth most borrowed—poor old J. K. Rowling was bringing up the rear at tenth). Both books, on publication, received the kind of praise likely to go to any author’s head, though there were a few dissenting voices. (Susan Bassnett, professor of comparative literature at Warwick, called Wolf Hall “dreadfully badly written” in the Times Higher Education Supplement; Andrew Holgate, in the Sunday Times, said that Bring Up the Bodies was “curiously flat and leaden.”) She is the only living author with a portrait in the British Library.
That means that these days anything she says is liable to be pounced on by the press. This was most evident in February last year, when a sophisticated lecture she gave at the British Museum (and which was then published in the London Review of Books) was interpreted, mainly by those who hadn’t even bothered to read it, as slagging off the Duchess of Cambridge—or “Princess Kate,” as the Prime Minister, David Cameron, called her in an inept remark in her defense. A remark which made it perfectly clear that he hadn’t read the piece either. What does she think this whole fiasco said about the level of public debate in Britain?
She settles herself in her chair and folds her hands in her lap. “I think …” she smiles, coolly, “I think many things. I do think the level of public debate is debased. To know how far it is debased—well, you have to be on the receiving end of a hate campaign like that to know how bad it is. To be honest, it didn’t get to me or upset me as much as people might have assumed. It was very funny to have press camped out across the road in our quiet seaside town, and if the pressmen saw any fat woman of a certain age walking along the street, they ran after her shouting, ‘Are you Hilary?’ Pathetic! But it did furnish us all with a great deal of entertainment.
“Also, it taught me what I’ve long suspected: that public opinion is not something that features very highly in my life. Nobody should go into a trade like writing expecting applause, or universal approval, or even popularity. What appalls me is that people mistake this constant storm of trivial abuse for some kind of freedom. ‘Me, speaking my mind!’ ” Her tone is boldly dismissive. “It’s not. It’s actually a huge distraction of the bread and circuses variety. To a large extent proper civic engagement, community engagement, proper political debate and activism, has been replaced by this. By illogic. By platitudes. And actually a lot of it is just abuse and bullying. There’s a nasty, narrow little conformism. And people are afraid, quite understandably, to differ from the norm. I think it’s a very sad state of affairs.”
There was a personal and unpleasant aspect to the response to her perceived criticism of the Duchess of Cambridge’s appearance—plenty of people felt free to criticize hers. “Mary Beard has pointed out that if you are a woman who ventures an opinion in public, ‘You are fat and ugly’ is thought to be an adequate response. This is what I got all the time after the Kate business. And, you know, I’m 61. Do people think my self-esteem is invested in my personal appearance? If it was, I’d be an idiot!” She laughs.
Mantel’s recent ascent to the stratosphere of writerly fame has not given her any illusions of grandeur. When Playful Productions, the company behind these theatrical adaptations, first got her together with Poulton, she saw herself as very much the “junior partner” in the process. “I didn’t know how it would be,” Mantel says of their first encounter. “And on Mike’s part there was a certain wariness, because he didn’t know how protective I would be. But we got a lot of that out of the way at the first meeting, and I don’t think he would have agreed to do it if he hadn’t believed me when I said that I was very flexible in my thinking, and that I didn’t really see it as an adaptation, but as a new work. So Mike’s first job was to demolish the structure, really.” She says this so easily, so lightly, that it’s only later I reflect on what creative confidence this remark reveals. Mantel knows what she is capable of; she trusts others to be as capable, too.
Poulton confirms that he was indeed wary on first meeting Mantel. Acclaimed as an adapter of literary works for the stage—his plays include a version of Schiller’s Don Carlos, starring Derek Jacobi, in 2004, as well as adaptations of Dickens and of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales—he is used to working with authors who, by virtue of being long in the grave, can’t answer back. Asked by Playful’s Matthew Byam Shaw whether he thought Mantel’s books could be adapted for the stage, “I said, ‘Of course it can be done, if you get the right person—but please don’t ask me!’”
He was, however, persuaded to meet Hilary and Gerald—all the while thinking, “If she’s too protective, it will be impossible.” But she was not. “We got on straight away. It was only because of Hilary’s generosity in saying that while she had created these characters, they were waiting to leap off the page. We’ve fired each other up. Theater is her great love: she just has that instinct, the eye for detail that a production needs.”
Theater is indeed Mantel’s great love.
Theater is indeed Mantel’s great love. One could argue that she was writing for the theater long before this collaboration began. A year and a half ago—at the end of 2012, when Mantel had been named Waterstones UK Author of the Year—she and I had an opportunity to discuss the method by which she constructed these vast, intricate historical novels. “What I try to do before I write a big scene is go over all the ground again,” she told me. “Get all my notes, and all the historical information, and have a last thrash through them to see where the contradictions are. At that stage, things jump out at you. If you can come to it with that sense almost of mental emergency—a feeling that everything is prepared—it will then go down on the page very quickly.” I said at the time that it sounded to me almost like rehearsing for a performance. “Exactly,” she said. “So each scene is preceded by stage fright. And usually a day of misery! And wondering if you’re up to it. So I suppose going through the historians, and my own notes, is like a technical rehearsal—and then it should be 95 percent there.”
Her love of theater began right here, in Stratford, when she was just a girl. The summer after she had taken her O-levels she came, with two school friends, to see four plays: As You Like It, Troilus and Cressida, King Lear and Faustus. She is still very close to one of the two girls. “The other I’d lost touch with—but I ran into her in the foyer at Wolf Hall in December!” she says. “We were very lucky; John Barton’s Troilus and Cressida was a groundbreaking production. But it was only then that I realized that there were people who did nothing but study Shakespeare, because there was the Shakespeare Institute here. But I had to sort of sheer away from it—it seemed too good. And I couldn’t …” she hesitates. “My stepfather”—Jack Mantel, whose name she took after her own father left the family when she was a girl, a story she recounts in her 2003 memoir, Giving Up the Ghost—“was a very angry philistine. And one of the things he was angry about was Shakespeare. And this was deeply unfortunate, because I managed to get hold of the complete works when I was ten, and absolutely adored it. Nobody had told me it was supposed to be difficult, so I didn’t find it difficult. I took it in through my pores. And so we made a very unfortunate combination. But imagine the faces if I’d said, ‘I want to go to university and read English and I intend to be a Shakespeare scholar!'” Instead she took a more practical route—no surprise there—studying law at the London School of Economics and Sheffield University. But the writing life she has built brought her back here at last. “With that turning not taken, it’s especially lovely for me to find myself working, virtually living, in Stratford and working with the RSC. It’s more than I hoped for. This has actually been the best part of my writing life, this last six months.”
Better than two Man Booker prizes? “They’re for what you know you can do,” she says. “The interesting thing is what you can do that you don’t know yet.” As the nine separate drafts of Mike Poulton’s scripts were crafted, she was deeply involved in the process, the two of them often emailing each other through the small hours. (One of the reasons they get on so well, I’m sure, is that when Mantel describes Poulton as “a perfectionist, and very hard-working, and whatever hours are required, he’ll put them in” she might as well be describing herself.)
Now she is working with Poulton on the changes that will be needed for the London transfer. They want to shave some minutes from the six-hour running time (“You don’t want people worrying about the last bus,” Poulton says) and, crucially, the configuration of the Aldwych is very different from that of the Swan. With the Swan’s thrust stage, the audience surrounds the players, who move on and off stage through the stalls; the Aldwych has a more conventional proscenium arch.
The adaptation isn’t a straightforward job. One of the chief things Mantel has learned, she says, is “the business of tailoring your storytelling to the fact that you’ve got a cast of 21 people, some of whom are playing two parts, some of whom are playing three. You can’t just have them walk on and off when you like. This makes you clever. Constraints are good for a writer. There are 159 characters in the books, and they all have their little parts to play; with a much reduced cast, trying to tell the same story, it’s a question of who can stand in for someone else.”
And so it was her deep understanding of character and history that was very useful to Poulton, she says. “I could say, ‘Well, actually, Thomas More cannot plausibly say this line, but Stephen Gardiner can.’ So you sort people out into blocks, according to their factions, friendships, known attitudes, all the cross-currents of friendship and enmity.” And this was possible because she realized very soon on that Poulton “would take the history as seriously as I do and not compromise. We won’t decide that Anne Boleyn can die six months before she really did—to take a crude example. We live with the shape of history.” And that in itself is a great constraint. As Poulton says: “The whole thing is like an arch, where every stone is a keystone: if you pull it out, you’ve got to restructure the whole thing. Sometimes the director and the actors can’t understand why if we make the slightest change it affects everything. But it’s like taking a little cog out of a watch and then wondering why the watch doesn’t work.”
Mantel, clearly, will do whatever it takes. She adores “the unnerving exhilaration of writing scenes in the middle of the night and handing them to actors at ten o’clock the following morning. The buzz of that is like nothing else. It’s the pressure, and the fact that you are thinking on your feet.” Her face is lit with pleasure. “I’m not dissing the Booker prizes! It’s just that this is something so unexpected. We all hope that if we work and work and work we might win the Man Booker one day. So that was within …” she chooses her words carefully, as she always does, “not expectation, but it was reasonable to hope for. This was not reasonable to hope for!”
Now she really is laughing with delight. “There have been extraordinary times late in rehearsals where Ben”—Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell, the production’s riveting focal point—“would say, ‘I don’t think that line’s right. Give me a new one, Hilary’—and there’s your line. There’s something very bracing about that atmosphere.”
Bracing—and perhaps just a little bit eerie. For it becomes apparent during the course of our conversation that it is not just Mike Poulton she’s been working with. In Ben Miles she has, it seems, a living, breathing personification of her complex and chilling protagonist, dead these past five centuries or so. Miles, who is almost never offstage for the plays’ six-hour running time, has created his Cromwell not only from the scripts but also from a total immersion in the books that are their source. He is, Mantel remarks to me at one point, “the only one who really understands the structure of Wolf Hall”; perhaps in part because he made himself a timeline of the novel, and of Cromwell’s life, which he kept pinned up on the walls of an office he had in the rehearsal rooms of the RSC. “It was like that scene in A Beautiful Mind,” he tells me, “when Russell Crowe’s office is discovered and there are just these scribblings everywhere.”
The experience of working with Mantel, Miles says, is “unique.” “I feel I can get as close as I can without actually sitting down with the guy. With Cromwell,” he says. “When you are rehearsing classic plays, particularly Shakespeare, there’s often a moment when the director says, ‘If only we could call him on the phone and ask him what he meant by that line or this scene.’ With Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, you can. You can email the author and she will give you a fabulous three-page essay on a look; or she’ll send one killer line which will explain half an hour of dialogue. Early on I realized that we had, running alongside the rehearsals and the staging, a seam of gold in Hilary. And she does it in the most humble, enthusiastic way—it’s as if she wrote these books last month!”
She is, of course, still writing them—at least, the final volume of Cromwell’s life, The Mirror and the Light—and this is where things start to get spooky. “There is a scene in Bring Up the Bodies when Henry says to Cromwell: We ought to go on a trip down to Kent, we ought to go to the Weald,” Mantel says. “And the trip never happens. It’s just a Henry fantasy. But talking to Ben about that scene the other week I said to him, ‘I think that if you give it three or four years Henry will think that trip did happen.’ And he responded so positively that I went away and thought about it—and two days ago I saw exactly how that scene should be placed [in The Mirror and the Light]. And so I wrote it.
“That kind of thing, well—it’s not usual! That scene wouldn’t be there if I hadn’t had the conversation with Ben. So plays don’t normally work like this, and novels don’t normally work like this. But this is different, and the two things are feeding each other.”
In the hours I spend with Mantel in Stratford her enjoyment of the relationships she has formed here is palpable, as is her gratitude for the circumstances that have brought her here, not the least of which is the fact that her health is much better than it has been in a long time. “A year ago I knew this was going to happen, but I didn’t know what a difference it would make in my life. I’ve had huge health problems over the years, but the last year has been better, and the best year, really, since I was a girl, in terms of not having chronic pain.” She suffers from endometriosis, which causes not only chronic pain but many other problems, too. She has said to me in the past that her life has been “needlessly hard” because of it; she dismisses the idea that there is any stoic self-improvement to be gained by suffering. She is very, very glad not to suffer. “Not to sound pathetic, but it was just such a presence in my life,” she says now. “I’m not out of the woods, but at an earlier time in my life if this [the stage adaptations] had come along I wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of it. By which I mean, I wouldn’t have been able to be always on the M5, or working really strange hours. So it’s really very special the way this has worked out.”
So it is not just hard work, but luck that has its part to play, too. Everything has changed for her, she knows, because of those two Man Booker prizes; but the books “could well not have won either”, she says. She recalls the time she was a Booker judge, 1990, the year that A. S. Byatt’s Possession (rightly regarded as a modern classic) took the prize. But: “That year Chatto & Windus [the publisher of Possession] had about five titles that could have been put in for the prize. There was a wonderful David Malouf novel from Chatto, The Great World, which I still think about.” That novel doesn’t even appear on the shortlist of that year’s prize. “And whether it had been a different publisher, in a different year…?”
So she is slightly hesitant about recent changes that have been made to the prize—of which I am a judge this year. It’s not the fact of Americans being eligible that bothers her; but that imprints which have had greater success in past years of the prize will be able to submit more titles than imprints which have not. Previously, every imprint could submit two titles, full stop. “Unfortunately, this means that not all authors have a level playing field any more. Because your success as an author is tied to the success of another author—one who you may not even know, who happens to be published by your publishing house. That to me seems the most undesirable aspect of it.”
But now there can be no talk of prizes; she is hard at work on The Mirror and the Light, and there will be a book of contemporary short stories published in the autumn, provocatively titled The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. Although she is no longer the ardent socialist she was in her youth, it’s clear from our talk about the Kate Middleton fiasco that she still has plenty to say about the present day. And there will, of course, be television versions of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, to be screened—most likely—some time next year, adapted by Peter Straughan. She has been much less involved in these than in the plays. Straughan, she says, “has a very sure touch, and a lot of the problems you have on stage you simply don’t have. One of them is that he can have a much bigger cast.” There will be no feature film. Thomas Cromwell’s story, and the story of his king, could never be squeezed into Hollywood’s standard couple of hours.
Last summer I chaired an event with Mantel at her home-town literary festival in Budleigh Salterton (she is its president) where she read a scene from the new novel, something she had not done before and would not do anywhere else. That scene, from the book’s opening—the morning after Jane Seymour’s bridal night with the king—was hilarious, and dialogue-heavy, and I wondered now, having seen Mike Poulton’s plays, whether just the fact of working so closely with scripts had influenced her style. She dismissed that idea. “That particular scene was written long before this started. I’ve got all sorts of material that goes right to the end of the book. But it does affect it in a very strange way. It isn’t that I will change my style. There would be a temptation perhaps to make a bare novelization of a play that you are already shaping in your head; but it won’t be like that at all. I think that would be cheating my reader. They want the complexity, they want the detail. And we want to get back all the characters we haven’t had in the plays.”
But the past months have been a transformative experience, that is clear. It may well change her future as a writer, once The Mirror and the Light is finished.
“It’s just extending the frontiers of what you can do, and seeing things opening up for the future. Now, if Mike and I want to work on something, we can do it. If I want to write a play, by myself, I can get a commission. It’s not that I intend to do these things—my first commitment is to the third Cromwell book, everything revolves around that—but it’s great to have the options.”
And here is the mark of Mantel the artist. Just because you work hard at your trade doesn’t mean you ever master it. “The inner process, the writing life, it doesn’t change at all. Every day is like the first day, it’s like being a beginner. There’s no time for complacency. You need to be extending your range all the time.”
This piece originally appeared on newstatesman.com.