Mistresses on the Make, Mail Order Brides - and Murder. No Wonder We Can't Get Enough of the Terrible Tudors; Her Novel about Henry VIII Is Tipped to Win This Year's Booker Prize. Here, Author HILARY MANTEL Explains Our Enduring Fascination with Britain's Bloodiest Dynasty

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Byline: by Hilary Mantel

HILARY MANTEL'S novel Wolf Hall is the hottest favourite the Booker Prize has seen for years. Announced on the shortlist this week, the epic tome brings to life in vivid colour the story of Henry VIII and his working-class, utterly ruthless minister Thomas Cromwell. Meanwhile, the BBC TV drama series The Tudors continues to grip audiences with its salacious brand of pop history and lashings of sex. We asked Ms Mantel why we find the Tudor period so compelling ...

THERE'S an old joke among authors about how to write a bestseller. The perfect book would begin like this: 'I'm pregnant!' said the Queen. 'I wonder who can be responsible?' No book can fail with the three top ingredients -- royalty, mystery and sex.

Fact is stranger than fiction, of course, and there is an era in English history that provides the magic three -- plus gritty power politics, seduction, betrayal, violent death and broken hearts.

The real story of Henry VIII and his court beats anything a novelist or film-maker could invent. Imagine this: a glamorous young man becomes King before he's 18. He's clever, handsome, brilliant at every game he plays, cultured, generous, and he even writes songs.

Nearly 40 years later, he's still on the throne -- a throne that now buckles under his huge weight; he's swollen, grotesque and disgusting, prone to terrifying rages, a caricature of the golden boy who lit up his nation.

On the way he's had six wives; he's divorced two of them, and two of them have been publicly beheaded.

This story is part of the legend of what it means to be English. It is so lurid, so unlikely, that we never get tired of telling it, and every time it's told, it's made new.

The Tudors survive anything -- tough in death as in life. It seems you can replay their saga any way you like, and its essential truths -- about men and women, about human nature -- come shining through.

You can tell the story as romance, concentrating on the women, wrenching them out of context so that they think and behave like modern women, which they weren't.

You can twist up all the facts, like The Tudors TV series, casting the tiny actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers as the King who, at 6ft 2in, towered over most of his subjects.

Still the story survives, and readers and viewers sense they have not heard the whole of it.

A scholar like David Starkey interprets it for us, but we intuit murky depths, something unexplored, an area of darkness that eludes historians. It's as if this story is written not just in the pages of the history books but deep in our psyche.

It's a fairytale, a horror story, and -- most potently -- a combination of the two. Henry is Bluebeard, luring young women into his castle. He's a serial killer, but he's also a man who -- when he fell in love with his second wife, Anne Boleyn -- risked his whole kingdom to have her by his side.

These sexy, flamboyant, cruel people are ourselves, but on a massive scale, glowing in stained-glass colours. They are our own impulses, recognisable and familiar, and close to the bone, but dressed up in furs and brocade, sliding silently in velvet slippers through the palaces of our dreams.

The Tudors are our secret nighttime selves. They enact for us, on our behalf, what we fleetingly desire.

Which husband hasn't thought, even just for a shocking instant, of striking his wife dead? From Anne Boleyn to Diana, we use the royals as surrogates -- their triumphs and suffering are public property, whereas our dramas are private, small, intimate.

BUT there are special reasons why Henry's reign attracts us. Much of our history, until the Tudor era, appears unfinished, only half-real, a half-told tale. It's because women -- apart from a very few outstanding individuals -- make no mark on it.

They are passive princesses, to be married or given in marriage. …