Dame Hilary Mantel is a warm, engaging speaker. Her fascination with people living and dead give her words a passion and energy that quickly win over her listeners, as was plain to see here in the Hague last night. Twice winner of the Man Booker Prize for fiction and many others on both sides of the Atlantic, Mantel is clearly a natural and gifted storyteller. Writer of both contemporary and historical fiction, it is the latter for which she is best known and about which she spoke in depth at this Crossing Borders festival.
Mantel began her first novel at the age of twenty-two. She explains that she began out of a desire to write about a topic which had fascinated her for years – the French Revolution. ‘I didn’t want to become a writer’, she tells us with typical candour, ‘I just wanted to write that one book.’ And this is what she did. It took her five years to complete. Three of which were dedicated largely to research as she spent evenings and weekends in libraries – she already had a day job. Once finished she submitted it to various publishers. ‘Might you look at my novel please. It’s very long and it’s about the French Revolution. It’s not a romance.’ The young Hilary could not get a publisher to look at it.
‘My characters are real people, they just happen to be dead’
It would be more than a decade before she returned to A Place of Greater Safety, quite by chance. A journalist friend of hers was writing an article about the unpublished first novels of various authors and asked Hilary if she had one. By this time, Mantel had, had two contemporary novels published and admits that her first and apparently unsuccessful tome lay largely forgotten on a top shelf. Nevertheless, this article proved to be the push that was needed and after a summer of re-working parts of it, her first historical novel was published. ‘I think there’s a peculiar intensity about historical fiction’ she tells us. ‘The characters are real people, they just happen to be dead.’ She admits too that as a young writer, she thought writing a novel was largely about plot. Later she realised that it is the characters that drive the plot. ‘In historical fiction, God has done the plot for you, so I thought, maybe I can get away with this.’
Indeed it is her characters that have won the writer hearts and awards. Mantel speaks about two of her historical characters in particular – Robespierre from A Place of Greater Safety and Cromwell from her Thomas Cromwell trilogy. She admits to being fascinated by how both of these historical figures have been represented in history. Mantel became increasingly angry by the manner in which ‘History blamed Robespierre for almost everything just because he was dead’. Her representation of Cromwell, at the expense of a less than glossy portrayal of Sir Thomas Moore has garnered criticism from some historians. But Mantel admits that she is a revolutionary at heart and has been this way since age four. A strong desire to fight injustice fires many of Mantel’s novels. This is perhaps why her work has proved so popular.
‘Every generation needs its own revolution’
She tells us that by age six, she had realised that the children in her class at the Catholic convent school she attended, were treated quite differently. ‘Even at that age, we didn’t expect liberty, but we did expect equality. I think my passion for justice started there.’ Hilary went on to study jurisprudence at the London School of Economics which she describes as ‘a ferociously political institution that suited me perfectly.’ The writer maintains that ‘every generation needs its own revolution, even if it’s one that seems to turn backwards’. Mantel is no stranger to controversy. Her short story, “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: 6 August 1983” resulted in calls for a police investigation. When asked last night about Brexit and how it might echo aspects of the French Revolution, her response was characteristically uncensored, ‘Beheading is too good for the likes of Boris Johnson.’ Hilary tells us that she has always thought of herself as a writer from the North of England and as a European writer. ‘ I felt my identity could only be found in Europe’.
Looking forward, Mantel’s enthusiasm for her work is undimmed and she tells us that she has begun work on a play version of her Cromwell trilogy. The final part of which, The Mirror and the Light, is due for release in April of next year. She tells us that the novel begins with the execution of Henry VIII’s wife, Anne Boleyn and we then see him marrying his third wife Jane Seymour and then his fourth, Anne of Cleves. On the day of Cromwell’s execution, King Henry marries his 5th wife. ‘All six wives are in the novel’ she tells us with a twinkle in her eye. There is a tiny clue for the 6th one she assures us. Perhaps it is Mantel’s enduring fascination with her characters and her craft that draw readers and listeners alike to her. Or perhaps her candour and modesty – ‘History is never done – in the course of time it could turn out that we’re all dead wrong!’ she laughs. Souwie Buis 31st October 2019
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