The release of The Mirror and the Light—Hilary Mantel’s third and final novel about the life and death of Thomas Cromwell, advisor to Henry VIII—is a major event. The previous two novels in the series have won Mantel the Man Booker Prize and a devoted worldwide readership. The third book had been scheduled to be released in 2018 and the holdup in publication has only increased the anticipation and fervor surrounding her work.
To bide time while waiting for the latest installment, I decided to read Mantel’s other work and her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, astounded me. One sentence, in particular, is seared into my brain: “I used to think autobiography was a form of weakness, and perhaps I still do. But I also think that, if you’re weak, it’s childish to pretend to be strong.”
Mantel’s deep insight into Thomas Cromwell’s psyche reminds me of the kind of character work a lot of actors (including me) do in preparation for a role. We’re supposed to know what the character carries in their pockets, even if it never shows up in a script, what their school uniforms looked like, and what their favorite meal consists of. I do my best for a part, but I pale in comparison to Mantel, who could not only tell you Cromwell’s favorite dish, but when and where he first tasted it. In other hands, Cromwell’s narrative might feel like dusty, creaky history but Mantel colors the books with the smells, tastes, textures, and tempers that make his universe come alive.
Sentence for sentence, Mantel’s work makes me gasp, sigh, and weep. I’ve become such a fan that I even created a hashtag, #fantels, for fans of Hilary Mantel. It hasn’t caught on—yet. Imagine my excitement and terror at the opportunity to speak with the author herself after so many imagined conversations with her in my head. Reader, I’m not ashamed to admit that I quietly sobbed at one point during the following conversation. Hilary Mantel does not disappoint.
Gillian Jacobs: How are you feeling?
Hilary Mantel: I’m exhausted. You know, you inch your way towards the end page by page. And it’s only when it’s done that you think, “This is 15 years of my life wrapped up in this.” But of course, there’s no time to be exhausted, because the thing about my main character, Thomas Cromwell is he’s never really dead. He often just jumps up, and puts his head back on, and off we go again, because I’m working on the stage version now.
So, I haven’t had this moment of feeling, “It’s over. What am I going to do with my life now?” Because I’ve immediately launched into the publication process and also transferring him into a different medium.
Jacobs: Well, that’s so interesting that you say that, because that is a theme that struck me throughout the three books—that the dead are never really dead, and that it seems, in fact, when people die, they seem to become an even larger presence in his life.
Mantel: Yes, nothing’s ever really gone. I think, really, with the process of history, we never know when something’s over and done, and it has a way of sneaking back on us centuries later. And it’s this force, or these factors represented in the book by the ghosts.
Jacobs: I wonder what you were surprised by in writing these books?
Mantel: I was a bit surprised by my own process sometimes, because when you’re reading the historical record, I think you’re always looking for history in its purest form. You’re looking for inventories and lists, particularly lists of people’s possessions, and pages of account books, and the prices of things, because there’s no agenda behind those, so you can trust them in a sense.
And I suppose what surprised me quite early in the book was how those would come to life for me. What seems like just an item on a list, or the price of something in a column of figures, would spark off a whole train of thought.
When I began writing Wolf Hall, the first scenes are about Cromwell’s childhood in Putney, and as we move to find him a grown man with Wolsey, the cardinal, who’s a very splendid man, a rich man [and] surrounded by opulence and luxury—the whole book to me, then took on a kind of very rich, visual component, and I kept seeing swirls of black and gold, a kind of glittery light, shade, like gold thread, as if reality had become threaded through with gold and was always moving, sometimes like a cyclorama or backdrop. And I realized then I’d seen the book as it were. There’s a moment you hear it, and there’s a moment you see it, and it’s emotional.
Jacobs: Did you have a favorite character to write in the third book? I really loved Jane Seymour. She made me laugh a lot.
Mantel: I like Jane Seymour, too. It’s a very interesting comment on how women in history have been treated. I mean, Jane’s the third wife. She’s a young English woman from a good family, but not a particularly famous family. And until Jane comes to court [and] is a lady-in-waiting, we don’t know anything about her life. And even when she’s queen, she doesn’t seem to speak for herself much, so she remains obscure.
Historians have usually assumed that because we don’t know much, that means there wasn’t much to know. And they’ve put her down as dull and even stupid, but my viewpoint was opposite. This is a woman who’s very good at becoming part of the wallpaper. She’s watching, she’s waiting, she’s plotting away. To me, she’s the reverse of stupid. But then I thought, “Well, maybe Jane’s weapon was silence.” Maybe she let everybody else do the talking, and she mapped out what they were saying, and she made use of it.
Every time you get her onto the page, you feel, “Okay, well, here’s a woman who’s not had a voice, and I’m able to give her one.”
So Jane, in my book—she is one of my favorite characters too, because she’s rather funny. She trips people up; they never quite know whether she means what she’s saying, or whether there’s a double-meaning in it, because she makes completely artless comments. But actually, when you think about it, she’s saying something quite sarcastic.
She’s one of those characters you really love to write, because every time you get her onto the page, you feel, “Okay, well, here’s a woman who’s not had a voice, and I’m able to give her one.” And I’m not ignoring the facts about her to do that; I’m using the few facts we found, and then I’m building on it.
Jacobs: Can you talk about plotting out the three books?
Mantel: Yes, in a sense, although when I began, I didn’t know it was going to be a trilogy. But in the first week or two of writing, I had to envisage the whole project, because I had to know where we were going at the end of the book. Obviously, you’ve got this historical fact of his execution, but when you think about the end of a book, often it’s not what happened that matters, it’s how the reader feels when they close that book.
So I had to work out what the tone of the ending was going to be, because you have something tragic to tell your reader. But although it might sound contradictory, you don’t want to plunge your reader into misery. You want the reader to close the book with a sigh, but a good kind of sigh. So I had to, in a sense, think the whole project out in my mind. I didn’t know then it was going to be three books, or 15 years.
And sometimes, Gillian, I look back at the beginning, and I think, “Who was I then?” It’s like an era. And I’m definitely not the same person now, so much has happened. You write your books, but your books write you as well.
Jacobs: In your memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, you wrote, “So now that I come to write a memoir, I argue with myself over every word. Is my writing clear: or is it deceptively clear?” Does that weigh on you when you’re writing someone else’s story? Did you feel any of that when you were writing Thomas Cromwell?
Mantel: I think this question of, “Am I clear, or am I too clear?” is something that every writer of historical fiction has to think about, because the story that you know as the writer is almost infinitely complex, and you have to find a way of making it clear to the reader, but not too clear, because that would be to cheat the reader. Either because you’re oversimplifying, or you’re pretending you know more than you do. Because what's always interesting are the ambiguities, the gaps of what's gone missing from the historical record.
And in the same way, when you write a memoir, the bits that you’re putting on the page are the bits you can bear to think about. The bits in some way, you’ve come to terms with. And my memoir, Giving Up the Ghost goes right from early childhood, and it then picks up when I’m a young adult, but it doesn’t have much about my teenage years, because I just wasn’t ready to write about them.
And it might sound strange: You get into middle age, and you’re not ready to deal with that material. And now, I’m not sure… I don’t know whether I’m ready to deal with it now. But on the other hand, those things that you haven’t faced, or you’ve not yet faced—it might be that the source of your power as a writer resides in those hidden things. They needn’t be fully expressed on the page to be present and kind of charge you up day-by-day as you write.
It’s quite wrong to say that the past doesn’t change. It changes behind you.
It’s the same way really with Cromwell’s early life, which none of us know very much about. You see, rather than trying to make up a whole story that would account for him, for his birth till he comes onto the historical record, I’ve said, “No, what I’ll do is, I’ll give him fresh memories when he can bear to remember something.” Or sometimes the memories force their way through, and he has no choice.
But I’m interested in a way that as you go through your life, your memories change. It’s quite wrong to say that the past doesn’t change. It changes behind you, and every time you try to remember back, in a sense, you’re making a fresh version. What you’re doing is you’re holding up a mirror, and really, that’s why the book is called The Mirror and the Light, because it’s a mirror to the books that have gone before and it has fresh light.
Jacobs: Did you feel the weight of the first two books, as you sat down to write the third, or were you still just so immersed in the story and the characters, that it was more of an internal pressure than external one?
Mantel: I felt internal pressure. So much has happened for these books and the prizes, and the reader expectations, and so on. But I think when I’m actually writing, I’m just in 1536, or whenever it is. And the pressure comes from me, and the rest of the world has receded, and the world of Thomas Cromwell is more real. And then of course, you emerge, breaking into the daylight, saying, “I’ve been away.”
Gillian Jacobs is an actor and director, best known for her roles on the TV shows Community and Love and the short documentary The Queen of Code for ESPN. Her coming projects include the films I Used to Go Here and Fear Street. She’ll direct an episode of the documentary series 616 for Disney+.
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