Hilary Mantel and Her “Wolf Hall”

I read New Yorker’s profile of Hilary Mantel in 2012 after she became the first female writer to win two Man Booker Prize. I was very intrigued by Mantel then, and put “Wolf Hall” on my to-read list. But never got around to do so.

BBC’s 6 episode “Wolf Hall” mini TV series was out earlier this year and i heard lots of praise. It is said that the screenwriter adapted Mantel’s work very nicely and captured the essence of the book.

PBS started broadcasting this series last Sunday.

I fell in love with it after watching Episode one.

The custom, setting, lighting were so well done, every frame looked like a painting.


The acting was marvelous as well. Even though most of them were not familiar to the US audience. But supposedly all of the main characters were seasoned stage actors in England, and it showed.

Some interesting comparison between the actors in the TV series and their actual portrait from the 16th century. Mostly by Hans Holbein the Younger, who was the official painter for the court of Henry VIII.

Cardinal Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce)

Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)

Thomas More (Anton Lesser)

Henry VIII (Damian Lewis)

Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy)

Jane Seymour (Kate Phillips)

Apparently the soundtrack of the TV series was also a hit in Britain. Too early to tell how it will fair in the US. I myself really loved the music.

The Guardian had episode by episode explanation of the story line, it was very helpful for people who is not familiar with the Tudor history (such as myself), which was pretty complicated.

I went back and re-read the New Yorker profile of Mantel and was mesmerized once again. She is such a fascinating author! So the main character Cromwell had always been depicted as an evil man in most of historian’s record. Mantel thought otherwise.

Before she began to write, she spent a long time learning about Cromwell and reading deeply in the period. She had always been intrigued by Cromwell’s villainous reputation. Among both his contemporaries and historians, he was widely thought of as practically a sixteenth-century Himmler, and previous literary depictions—Robert Bolt’s 1960 play “A Man for All Seasons,” Ford Madox Ford’s “The Fifth Queen”—had taken this view. Even his own biographer hated him. But, beginning in the nineteen-fifties, Geoffrey Elton, a historian at Cambridge, had argued that Cromwell was a farseeing modern statesman who had transformed the English government from a personal fiefdom of the king to a bureaucratic parliamentary structure that could survive royal incompetence and enact reforms through legislation rather than through fiat. In so doing, he helped to bring about the English Reformation without the kind of bloodshed or descent into absolutism that took place in much of the rest of Europe. By the time she began to read about Cromwell, academic fashion had moved on and a new generation hated him again, but she found Elton’s arguments persuasive.

Despite all the hatred, very little information was known about Cromwell. Historian had still not determined his birth year. So Mantel had to do lots of research and to fill in lots of blanks. Even though Cromwell Trilogy(“Wolf Hall”, “Bring up the Bodies” and the upcoming “The Mirror and the Light”) had been labeled as historic fiction, Mantel said all characters (hundreds of them) but one servant of Wolsey were real, she didn’t like to make things up.

She couldn’t always be sure that a character was in the place she said he was in at the time she put him there, but she spent endless hours making sure that he wasn’t definitely somewhere else.

Some other interesting quotes from the New Yorker article:

One of Cromwell’s advantages at court was that he did not underestimate women—neither their usefulness as informants nor their cunning as enemies.

Lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning, and when you come back that night he’ll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks’ tongues, and all the jailers will owe him money.

She believes that there are no great characters without a great time; ordinary times breed ordinary people (of the sort—dull, trapped, despairing—who inhabit modern novels).

Some say the Tudors transcend this history, bloody and demonic as it is: that they descend from Brutus through the line of Constantine, son of St. Helena, who was a Briton. Arthur, High King of Britain, was Constantine’s grandson. He married up to three women, all called Guinevere, and his tomb is at Glastonbury, but you must understand that he is not really dead, only waiting his time to come again.

It is necessary to understand that the dead are real, and have power over the living. It is helpful to have encountered the dead firsthand, in the form of ghosts.

The most recent issue of The Paris Review (Spring 2015) had an interview with Mantel. But one would have to pay $20 to read more than just the excerpt. I couldn’t find The Paris Review from SF on-line Library catalog last night. So i dropped by a bookstore this morning to read it. Since her teenager years, she liked not only to read, but also to analyze the structure of writing and to figure out how the author “did it”. Mantel had some interesting thing to say about which authors she liked. Her favorite writing is “Kidnapped” by Robert Louis Stevenson, she thinks it is the absolute perfect piece of work. She liked “Jane Eyre” when she first read it as a teenager because Mantel believed herself was also “an very unchildlike child.” But later she couldn’t re-read “Jane Eyre” since she constantly tried to edit it. “Kidnapped”, on the other hand, could be re-read and re-read and remain perfect in Mantel’s eyes.
(Paris Review only keep the new issues from been published on their website. One year later, you can now read the interview at its entirety.)

Interviewer: Did you read Middlemarch?
Mantel: Not until I was grown up. I’m not fond of Eliot. And I’ve never made my way through a virginia Woolf book. I can’t. I can read her essays, and I can read about her, and I can read all around her. I can’t read her novels. You know, it sounds terribly disrespectful to Virginia, but I like books in which things happen.

I’ve started reading “Wolf Hall” the book, finally. I’ve picked up a copy of “Bring Up the Bodies” at the bookstore. Looking forward to the publishing of “The Mirror and the Light”.