By Mccrum, Robert
Newsweek , Vol. 159, No. 20
Byline: Robert Mccrum
Hilary Mantel returns to Henry VIII's bloody court.
"I've always been on the side of the man on the make," says the English novelist Hilary Mantel, speaking of Thomas Cromwell, who has consumed her creative life for the past decade. Like her protagonist, "my story is climbing, climbing, climbing ..." she says.
When Mantel won the 2009 Man Booker Prize for her historical novel Wolf Hall, she was the favorite with the bookies and the booksellers, but an outsider at the ceremony. Attired in a shapeless, glittery gold dress, she seemed a cross between a star pupil and a Star Wars extra, both doll-like and otherworldly. Her acceptance speech was odd, earnest, and faultlessly delivered in schoolmistress periods. There were no jokes, a lot of thank-yous, some awkward candor, and the breathless admission that she was "happily flying through the air."
Wolf Hall and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, which has just been published worldwide, are of a piece with Mantel's appearance that night. Both books are conventional (a retelling of Tudor England's great marital and state drama, the many wives of Henry VIII, and the Protestant Reformation) yet innovative and highly original (narrated in the "historic present," using 21st-century dialogue). The first takes the figure of Thomas More (the saintly hero of A Man for All Seasons) and subverts his image to that of a religious fanatic. He's viewed through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's chancellor and sinister enforcer, who rises to power and influence within the court. All of this takes place against the backdrop of a raucous Tudor London, high intrigue in the royal palace, and Henry's desperate need for an heir. The new novel narrates the fall of Anne Boleyn. Each volume is spellbinding, by a writer whose craft has been hard won, against the odds.
Success came comparatively late for Mantel. Somehow, from the day she was born in 1952, it's always been a struggle. Her parents were of Irish descent from working-class Manchester. For much of her life she has had to fight terrible illness and misdiagnosis. Despite all of this, Mantel's default position is true northern grit. Her prose is sharp and bracing, shorn of sentiment or whimsy. "Trust the reader," she says.
Since that dizzy moment in 2009, the old struggle has returned. She would not let the Booker go to her head. "You could spend your life going round literary festivals," she says, "so I just said, I already have a full diary." Many Booker laureates disappear into a limbo of signing sessions and frustrated expectations, but not Mantel. "I knew I was living on borrowed time," she confesses.
Even before prize fever took over, her health was deteriorating. From July to December 2010, she suffered a medical nightmare. Mantel describes her terrifying sequestration in a provincial hospital as "a strange time, but it drew a line under Booker." It also brought her face to face with the limits to authorship. Pitched into her own medieval world of pain and degradation, already explored in Wolf Hall, "there were times when I thought I was dying," she says. High on morphine after a botched operation, she found that illness stripped her back to an authentic self, though it was not one she wanted to meet. "I live in two simultaneous realities," she wrote at the time, "one serene, one ghastly beyond bearing." She dreamed she was meeting the devil.
Mantel has always described her investigation into the life and times of Cromwell as "the Project." Finally convalescent at home, in the spring of 2011, she began to reengage with her Project, but from a different perspective. Her brush with death "made me start again," she says. After approximately six months Mantel realized that she had actually completed the sequel. She called it Bring Up the Bodies, a quotation from the brutal summoning of the accused in the treason trials of Henry VIII. This new installment carries Cromwell's story forward to a cathartic climax, but it stands alone and delivers a crisper, sharper, and more confident narrative than Wolf Hall. …