Culture

‘I’m against parallels’: Hilary Mantel is wary of drawing shallow links with the past

Hilary Mantel is known for her outspoken views on politics and the royal family, and of course for her Wolf Hall trilogy, with its vivid recreation of the lives of Henry VIII, his wives and his consigliere, Thomas Cromwell. So it is striking that when we meet, a few days before the death of the Queen, she is reluctant to be drawn on the subject of the present-day monarchy or our new prime minister.

“I’m against parallels, you know, and people are always trying to force me into making them,” she says, firmly.

It is Mantel’s ear for the interplay of past and present that makes her trilogy a landmark of early 21st-century fiction, though it is perhaps unsurprising that she is wary.

She made headlines a year ago, when she suggested the monarchy could be facing “the endgame”, and may not “outlast William”; and a lecture she gave in 2013, entitled Royal Bodies, in which she described the then Duchess of Cambridge as a “plastic princess”, caused an outcry. Many people wilfully misread her criticism of what she explained as “the way we maltreat royal persons, making them one superhuman, and yet less than human”.

Today, Mantel says she is alive to the danger of drawing shallow links with present-day politics and society.

“I am, as I think a lot of authors are, concerned about the speed at which we are consuming history now, the way that the past, the very recent past, is being made into a version and real-life people walking around have to live with their representatives and so on,” she says, not naming names, but nodding when I mention the TV series The Crown and Kenneth Branagh’s imminent appearance as Boris Johnson in This England.

We are meeting to discuss The Wolf Hall Picture Book, on which she has collaborated with the actor Ben Miles, who played Thomas Cromwell in the stage versions of her Wolf Hall trilogy, and his brother, the photographer George Miles.

Hilary Mantel with Ben Miles (centre), an actor, and his brother, George, a photographer, with whom she collaborated to create the Wolf Hall Picture Book.
Hilary Mantel with Ben Miles (centre), an actor, and his brother, George, a photographer, with whom she collaborated to create The Wolf Hall Picture Book. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian

The book’s origins, the three of them explain, lie in a walk Ben and George took shortly after Ben had been cast as Cromwell in the summer of 2013, and combined his desire to construct a mental notebook of significant sites in his character’s life with a revisiting of places central to the brothers’ family history. The previous year, their mother had died, and they started out at their grandmother’s flat in Surbiton, in south-west London not far from Cromwell’s childhood home, aiming to get to the Tower of London, on foot and by boat, in a single day.

The result is a collection of ambiguous, disquieting images in which the present rubs up against the past, accompanied by excerpts from the novels, some taken from deleted scenes that, thrillingly for Mantel fans, have never before been released.

Among other things, it is an interrogation of the way we interact with history; of the gaps in the record; its elusive nature; and its unexpected resonances with our contemporary lives.

Mantel is preparing to leave Devon to set up home with her husband, Gerald McEwen, in Ireland this month, having previously expressed her shame at the British government’s treatment of migrants and asylum seekers and her desire to become an Irish citizen. She has become a byword for a particular kind of intensely-felt, brilliantly subtle exploration of the past.

Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies have been the only consecutive novels by a writer to have both won the Booker prize, and Mantel was closely involved in their transition to stages in Stratford, London and New York, also seeing them adapted for BBC television. She also published, in 2014, a collection of short stories, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.

But among Mantel’s many remarkable attributes is her desire for constant reinvigoration.

George Miles sent her a dummy book after he had collected a critical mass of photographs. “I remember saying, ‘we have to do something with these’, Mantel says. “But I had no idea what, at the time, or that it would be such an odyssey, marching on at the same time as the books.”.

At that stage, with The Mirror and the Light, the third in her trilogy, still several years from completion, “there was a long, long way to go. And, for me, it was just the refreshment I needed. It was more than a supplement, it was something really essential that I needed to do,” she says.

George Miles remembers a huge email arriving from Mantel. “It was astonishing, because it was the reason I’d been making the pictures expressed so clearly, and in a completely different form.”

For Ben Miles, with whom Mantel co-adapted The Mirror and the Light for its run last year at the Gielgud theatre in London, the project was part of a continuing collaboration of nearly a decade’s standing. The three of them began to visit places together, one of them often acting as a decoy to the helpful guides intent on showing them the official version.

George Miles describes a photograph his brother took at Hampton Court, showing Mantel holding a broadsword in the middle of a demonstration of swordfighting as Ben sneaked off to take a picture of Anne Boleyn’s room. “When you arrived at a place with your camera,” Ben recalls, “you often felt like you were on a route around the place that obviously wasn’t the designated route by the custodian of the place. And it was often one sort of long meandering digression. You never really knew what you were looking for.”

Some immensely striking and suggestive images followed: a ghostly hound in Richmond Park, which brought to mind Cromwell’s memories of dogs circling, scenting burned flesh; Boleyn’s robes, laid out on a table like a shroud in Lambeth Palace; a curling tong lying plugged in on the floor during filming at Cromwell’s mansion in the City of London, Austin Friars, looking for all the world like an instrument of torture. There it is again – the interplay between the past and the present day.

But the book is not an attempt on Mantel’s part to draw parallels with contemporary life. She was, she says, persistently bemused when people suggested to her, for example, that Boris Johnson’s former adviser Dominic Cummings resembles Cromwell. “I would think: no, not in any way.

“I think simply because I prize the long view so much. And that’s why I won’t make the parallels. I think that if you do, it turns real people into these kind of fantasy figures and unfortunately, they’re not. They’re real, present and dangerous.”

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