Hilary Mantel Hopes to ‘Surprise Herself’ with New Short Stories

Hilary Mantel Hopes to ‘Surprise Herself’ with New Short Stories

Double Booker Prize-winning author Hilary Mantel today joined the Guardian’s Charlotte Higgins in a conversation about The Mirror and the Light – the third in her Cromwell trilogy, which is longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize – as part of the 2020 Edinburgh International Book Festival online. You can watch this event in full now: Hilary Mantel: Inside the Head of Thomas Cromwell

Filmed at the author’s home in the South West of England, Mantel began by reflecting on the use of the mirror as a device throughout the three books. The title of this final novel in the trilogy is taken from a phrase in a letter written by Thomas Cromwell to Thomas Wyatt, which described Henry VIII as “the mirror and the light of other kings.” Playing on the idea of instruction manuals for rulers – Mirrors for Princes and Mirrors for Magistrates – that would have been familiar to both Henry and Cromwell, the third book casts new light on everything that has gone before, acting as a mirror to the previous books, as if someone has just changed the angle from which the reader is looking.    

She explained that while she wasn’t a historian, she fulfilled a different role as an historical novelist and her real work began where the historical records stopped, filling the gaps in the realms of private lives and private thoughts. “I spend a lot of time doubting myself. Historians can feel safely enclosed by the rigidity of facts. I never feel any certainty that any piece of paper is quite solid – I always want to see what might have been written on the other side,” she said.  

The discussion moved onto the nature of power as Mantel reflected that Cromwell’s rise was always unfeasible, and likened it to the metaphor of a ladder – “he makes his own ladder, and props it up against the institutions of state and starts to climb.” However, unlike the great families of state, who related to the metaphor of the Wheel of Fortune – to rise, fall and rise again – he had no great family behind him, no-one holding the bottom of the ladder and at the centre of Cromwell’s world was an individual who was extremely unpredictable.   

Drawing parallels with 21st century politics, she said: “This type of power would have been alien to us until quite recently, it’s certainly far from any idea of democracy. I think that nowadays once again image counts for so much and image can be so easily constructed. So, you have a figure like Donald Trump who shows every sign of being prepared to tear up his own country’s constitution and would love to do that if it suited him. Then you get some idea of what it is when an individual exercises arbitrary power.”  She added, “The soundbite has become the preferred method of ruling, both here and in America. So although we seem to live in an age of information it is just as easily distorted by rumour, moral panics and conspiracy theories as Henry’s age.”  

Higgins ended the conversation by asking Mantel now that she had killed and buried Cromwell, what was next. Smiling, Mantel confirmed that Cromwell’s head is back on and she is working on the stage adaptation which she hoped would be in rehearsal in 2021, and that would be followed by the TV adaptation. She confirmed that she didn’t think she had another big, important historical novel in her and didn’t want to lock herself into another 15 year project, however she thought she might go back to writing short stories, following up on ideas that had come to her during the writing of The Mirror and the Light and that she’d put aside. 

“I think I can do original work”, she concluded. “What I hope is I might surprise myself.” 

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This event was supported by the Hawthornden Literary Retreat. To watch the session in full, go to the event's videoplayer page: https://www.edbookfest.co.uk/the-festival/whats-on/hilary-mantel-inside-the-head-of-thomas-cromwell/player#

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