Hilary Mantel: ‘Any nation that’s got warlords has got a Cromwell’

The Mirror & the Light author on a king’s impotence, adaptations and the creative urge

What better day to parse the love life of Henry VIII with Hilary Mantel than St Valentine’s – at its origin, a celebration of courtly love? As Storm Dennis howled outside the bay windows in her flat overlooking the sea, we sat down to discuss how it feels to close the book on Thomas Cromwell, her creative process, and what’s next for one of Britain’s most cherished authors.

Mantel and her husband, Gerald, welcomed me to their home in Budleigh Salterton, population 5,000, on the Devon coast, in southwest England. She first fell in love with the town at 16, when she spotted its rooftops while on a family holiday in nearby Exmouth. Coming from Derbyshire, in the English midlands, “it was exotic and foreign” to her, the white houses and pebble beach invoking an image of Europe. At that moment, she vowed that would “get herself here” one day.

It would take just over four decades to realise that dream by settling in Budleigh, but Mantel does not lack for tenacity. One of the most anticipated literary events of the year, The Mirror & the Light arrives eight years after its predecessor. Given the “masses and masses of material” she had to sift through to write the last instalment of the trilogy, “it seems to me as if I’ve been quite brisk!” says Mantel.

One doesn't as much read Mantel's historical fiction as inhabit it; Mantel immerses her audience in the texture of the Tudor court

The Mirror & the Light concludes the story of the epic rise of Cromwell begun in Wolf Hall (2009) and then Bring Up the Bodies (2012). One doesn’t as much read Mantel’s historical fiction as inhabit it; Mantel immerses her audience in the texture of the Tudor court. Both books won the Man Booker prize, making Mantel the first woman and the first British author to win it twice. They have been translated into more than 30 languages and together have sold over five million copies worldwide.


Among Cromwell’s chief duties is “to get the king new wives and dispose of the old”. Having previously arranged the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon and orchestrated Anne Boleyn’s trial, this volume sees Cromwell facilitating the wooing of Jane Seymour (who dies shortly after childbirth) and leading the negotiations for the nuptials with Anne de Cleves. Bookended by beheadings, The Mirror & the Light covers the last four years of Cromwell’s life, opening with the demise of Anne Boleyn along with five of her supposed lovers (including her brother) and ending with Cromwell’s own execution, on charges of treason and heresy, in 1540.

English storytellers are lucky, says Mantel. No one else has “a king who had six wives and executed two of them, or a 16-year-old girl who was queen for nine days”. The Tudors “are a gift, and they’re the gift that keeps on giving”. In addition to the dramatic fates of Henry’s wives, Cromwell resonates as an archetypal tale. “It’s rags to riches, obscurity to fame, rise and fall,” she says. “Any nation that’s got warlords has got a Cromwell. Even if they don’t share our particular historical and political structure, they understand the man on the make.”

Replete with dynastic rivalries and political manoeuvring at home and abroad, intrigue abounds in The Mirror & the Light. With the Tudor bloodline at stake, for Henry, of course, sex is politics. On the king’s wedding night with Jane Seymour, all of England prays for his success. “He must fertilise the whole nation,” writes Mantel. “If he is impotent, every Englishman falters, and foreigners will come by night and cuckold us.”

Like Bring Up the Bodies – the title of which is a chilling direct quote from the historical record – the title of The Mirror & the Light leapt out at Mantel

Like Bring Up the Bodies – the title of which is a chilling direct quote from the historical record – the title of The Mirror & the Light leapt out at Mantel. In a letter to the diplomat Thomas Wyatt, Cromwell writes that Henry is “the mirror and light of all other kings and princes in Christendom”. “Whether his heart was behind that image we can’t really know,” she says, but the phrase caught her attention because the third book is “a mirror to the other two; it casts fresh light on the events in the other two”.

Mirror imagery recurs throughout the trilogy, including an earlier scene in which Henry catches a glimpse of his reflection and likes what he sees. One of the key dramatic moments in The Mirror & the Light is when Anne of Cleves sees her husband-to-be for the first time and unwittingly flinches. “He’s seen himself in the mirror of her eyes,” says Mantel, “and it is a terrible moment for him.” Henry had been handsome in his youth before deteriorating “from golden boy to wreck”. The standard story, still prevalent in popular history, is that Anne was “monstrously unattractive” and that the king found her ugly. But Mantel is convinced that “it was the other way around”. Anne was 24 years old at the time, and “no one else saw anything wrong with [her] appearance”.

One of the factors that undid Cromwell might have been Henry’s humiliation about his inability to perform, Mantel tells me. The day after the wedding night, “Henry came to him and said, ‘nothing done’.” He couldn’t look at him after that without remembering that conversation. “The more Henry said ‘it’s because I’m not in love with her’, the more you can imagine the expression of contempt growing on Cromwell’s face, because empathy has its limits,” she adds, chuckling. “As a politician, he’d be thinking ‘What do I do now?’ and as a man, I think he’d be looking at Henry with complete incomprehension.”

More sombrely, she notes that Henry had chronic pain by that time, which is “not conducive to marital harmony”. Living with pain is something Mantel is all too familiar with, having suffered from severe endometriosis which was overlooked and dismissed by doctors until she diagnosed herself from a medical textbook. She writes candidly about the illness and its after-effects in her stunningly rendered memoir, Giving Up the Ghost (2003), and an essay on hospitalisation, Ink in the Blood (2010).

Mantel, who has a playwright’s ear for dialogue, has always taken a theatrical approach to her writing. “I tend to be both hearing and seeing it,” she says. She hears every sentence – so much so that they’re sometimes scrawled phonetically in the handwritten notes that accumulate as she builds a book. In its initial stages, a book arrives in flashes: “You might get a bit of dialogue or a picture in your mind or just a fact that sticks.” Mantel gets them down on loose-leaf paper, “then I stick them into a ring binder and start shuffling.” With The Mirror & the Light “three times the length of a normal book . . . you can imagine that’s a lot of ring binders!” Gradually the notes sort themselves out, “first thematically then chronologically”.

Working with the actors on the stage adaptation “was extraordinary because it was like an oasis in the middle of this long project, where I got a lot of refreshment”, says Mantel. Working with actors on adaptations of the first two books informed the content of the third. “If a performance is life, rehearsals are super life, because you never know what’s going to happen next.” She would get “little breakthroughs” seeing her characters embodied by actors and receive feedback from them about “how it felt from inside to be that character”.

In The Mirror & the Light, Mantel imagines more of Cromwell’s childhood, which “was very much developed in rehearsal, where a little word from one of the actors would make me go, ‘Ah! I’ve got it,’ and spark off a whole story,” she explains. Ben Miles, who plays Cromwell on stage, would ask Mantel for more backstory, some of which ended up in the book as flashbacks.

Mantel relishes the collaborative process of the theatre, which “couldn’t be more different” from the solitary act of writing a book. She describes experiencing a state of flow in the rehearsal room: “When you’re writing, you can’t lose self-consciousness because . . . you’re writing it but also reading it, so you’re in two places. But working with actors, I sometimes felt as if we all come together . . . you’re just absolutely in the moment.”

I grew up accepting that I didn't have a father. It was a case of what you never have, you never miss. It was only later, much later, that it struck me that that lack might have implications, and it drew me into thinking about fatherhood

The Mirror & the Light was more challenging to write on a technical level than the first two books. As Cromwell grew in prominence, there is more on the historical record about him, “and those years are extremely crowded with incident,” says Mantel. She had to perform a delicate balancing act of “trying to preserve the nuances but not bury [the] reader under a mountain of facts.”

While there is an abundance of material about this chapter of his professional life, Cromwell’s personal life remains shrouded in mystery. In The Mirror & the Light, she introduces the character of Jenneke, an illegitimate daughter from Antwerp who appears after her mother’s death. “She is my biggest invention”, says Mantel, and “one that takes a little bit of explaining.” In real life, “it appears – though we can’t be sure – that [Cromwell] did have an illegitimate daughter... But the big headache for a novelist is you don’t know who her mother was.”

For Mantel, who takes great pride in respecting historical facts, this ballooned from a headache to a migraine. “If I didn’t know who the mother was, I’d have to invent her. And I couldn’t bear that because I would definitely, definitely be wrong.”

But “if I don’t give him a daughter, then people who know would always be... putting this to me as an item of news”. In the end, she compromised by giving Cromwell “a kind of mythological daughter”. “It felt somehow wrong after his daughters had died to wittingly remove a daughter he might have had.”

Mantel never saw her father after the age of 11, when her mother moved the family away with her new partner, Jack. “I grew up accepting that I didn’t have a father. It was a case of what you never have, you never miss,” she tells me. “It was only later, much later, that it struck me that that lack might have implications, and it drew me into thinking about fatherhood.” Writing the book has been “a chance for me to explore those themes and also what it’s meant to my own life.”

Probably John McGahern is the Irish author who's meant most to me, because I grew up in a transplanted family. Reading McGahern made me understand my own family

Mantel, who is of Irish descent and whose husband holds an Irish passport, reads a lot of Irish authors. “Probably John McGahern is the one who’s meant most to me, because I grew up in a transplanted family,” she tells me. “Reading McGahern made me understand my own family, perhaps more so than any other writer, and it’s not just for that that I value him.”

She wrote a tribute to Ireland with The Giant O’Brien (1998), based on the true story of the Irish giant Charles Byrne. (Until she wrote Wolf Hall, it was her favourite of her novels.) Byrne’s “bones are hanging up even today in a London museum,” Mantel wrote in an essay On Modern British Fiction. “An awful symbol to remind us of how the body of Ireland is cut apart.”

The village in which Mantel grew up had a large Irish Catholic community. “We were our own culture, and I was very conscious of belonging to an Irish family . . . Englishness was something that happened in the south, and it was an Anglo-Saxon Protestant construct.”

Until writing Wolf Hall, “I’d always felt not really English, I felt like a northern writer,” says Mantel. “The departure from Europe seems a very serious thing to me. Personally, I take it very hard, because . . . I always identified myself as a European writer. That’s where I find my home.”

Following a well-earned holiday, the stage and television adaptations of The Mirror & the Light will keep Mantel busy until the end of 2021.

After that, she has a number of potential projects in mind – “some to do with the theatre, some to do with books”. One idea is turning her short story The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher – about a fictional IRA gunman’s plot to kill the prime minister – into a play. Its publication in 2014 led to a Conservative backlash, but Mantel is not one to shy away from controversy. “I’ve got a box full of stuff already, scenes I’ve written . . . If this [stage adaptation of The Mirror & the Light] goes well, then I might have a crack at that.”

At 67, what Mantel won’t take on “is another huge historical novel,” she says. “I am beginning to think, well, you’d better pick and choose, because time is not infinite.”

Wherever she turns her attention, Mantel won't be putting down her pen. In her memoir, she describes a need to "write herself into being" every morning. Inspiration, which can strike at any time, is to be respected. "The day I refuse to get out of bed in the middle of the night for an idea, I'm finished, I'm written out," she tells me. Fortunately for Mantel's fans, Cromwell's final moments– in which he looks for the light – will not be Mantel's last word.
The Mirror & the Light, the conclusion to the Wolf Hall trilogy, is published by 4th Estate. Hilary Mantel will be in conversation on May 17th in the RDS Conccert Hall as part of the International Literature Festival Dublin.

Mia Levitin

Mia Levitin

Mia Levitin, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a cultural and literary critic