Hilary Mantel’s first person

A thousand pages of writing were framed by Mantel’s first paragraphs about Cromwell the boy: from the blood of her first pages, to the blood of his death with the executioner’s axe. Mantel was talking about Thomas Cromwell last night at Carriageworks, and the writing and research for the Wolf Hall trilogy, a little about her memoir writing, a dash of the Royals—every word probing, insightful, comic, subtle, and generous to her audience.

Hilary Mantel interviewed by Jonathan Green

She described how she approached writing Cromwell’s bungled beheading: the good fortune for her as a writer that his head had come off slowly so that she could imagine his dying consciousness and his awareness of his own death. Riveting and hilarious.

Illustration by Conor Langton

She also spoke about how she managed the close third-person that she uses for Cromwell. You’ll notice that Cromwell’s name is rarely used (it must be Cromwell; who else could he be as it’s his consciousness at all times). She manages the ‘he’ as the third-person equivalent of the personal pronoun ‘I’. The novels are all in present tense.

This decision on present tense, limited third-person came to her, she said, in a ‘split second’, as she wrote the first passage about Cromwell being kicked by his father, lying on the cobble stones eyeing his own blood.

Wolf Hall, extract, p1

My companion and I sensed that her interlocutor Jonathan Green, broadcaster and Meanjin editor, had perhaps not read as much of her work as others in the audience had, as we didn’t move far beyond her memoir Giving Up the Ghost, some essays and Wolf Hall trilogy. She is wonderfully acerbic and humane in her writing about the British royals, and again, when asked how she felt about Prince Phillip’s death, Mantel was adroit.

Hilary Mantel, ‘Royal Bodies’, London Review of Books, Vol. 35 No. 4 · 21 February 2013

But this prepared us not at all for his suggestion that her own childlessness had some creative connection to the childlessness of Henry VIII’s wives and the writing of Wolf Hall. This strange proposition could have derailed the whole conversation, and while she looked briefly perplexed, Mantel answered elegantly that the wives hadn’t been childless (their babies and children had died at birth/died young/were the wrong sex, and Henry and the kingdom needed a male heir). Mantel has written, and spoken publicly, about the endometriosis that caused her infertility and life-long health problems.

History, she was telling him, outshone his peculiar imaginary.

I think it took me half a page of Wolf Hall to think:

‘This is the novel I should have been writing all along.’

Hilary Mantel

Published by Jane Messer

Author, Mentor, Manuscript Assessor - The Bold Ink

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