Hilary Mantel: on “opening up the past”

Hilary Mantel: on “opening up the past”

Dove Grey Reader, a delightful UK literary blogger—”a Devonshire based bookaholic, sock-knitting quilter who was a community nurse once upon a time”—has said that she feels fortunate to live as a contemporary of Hilary Mantel: “… perhaps this is how the Victorians felt about George Eliot or Dickens…

That’s a wonderful thought. There are times when I think I would do well simply to immerse myself in the work of Hilary Mantel, as well as the books she has found enlightening.

There are many video interviews of Hilary Mantel on YouTube. I love this one especially, where she talks about “opening up the past.”

The amazing “photo” at top is by Flóra Borsi. It expresses, for me, the depth of what one might learn by immersion in the work of someone like Hilary Mantel.


Ian Mortimer and Hilary Mantel on historical fiction: a cure for complacency, fizzing on the page, and inviting characters to have a seat


I’ve enrolled in “Plagues, Witches, and War”—a free on-line Coursera class on historical fiction. It’s awesome! I’m  busy right now preparing for our move south, but I always have time for reading. You can see the course reading list here.

I read two of the “core” articles yesterday, both of them excellent, ones I would recommend to anyone interested in historical fiction. 

Here’s from the excellent article by Ian Mortimer (who is both an academic, and writer of historical fiction under the name James Forrester), on “Why Historians should Write Fiction“: 

“It teaches you how little you really know about the minutiae of the past, and destroys professional complacency. It humbles even the most experienced researcher. It demands that you think deeply about human character, and how it is formed, and how people integrate. But most of all it shows you that there is a different sort of truth beyond the measurements of facts and dates: truths about human nature which are timeless, or, at least, very slow-moving. And it leaves you thinking that these truths, although they are unproveable, are probably the most important historical conclusions of all, for they reflect what we are, and what we can be, both as individuals and as a society.”

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The other article is a New Yorker profile of Hilary Mantel: “The Dead are Real.” It moved me profoundly.

Mantel on character development

Right now, between drafts, I’m often simply thinking and making notes about Hortense and her world, exploring character. A technique Mantel sometimes uses for getting to know her characters interests me: 

“When she’s starting a new book, she needs to feel her way inside the characters, to know what it’s like to be them. There is a trick she uses sometimes, which another writer taught her. Sit quietly and withdraw your attention from the room you’re in until you’re focussed inside your mind. Imagine a chair and invite your character to come and sit in it; once he is comfortable, you may ask him questions.” 

(A technique which dovetails nicely with another “course” I’m taking, on learning to meditate.)

Mantel on making changes to the historical record

The following passage reverberated for me especially because I recently had to sort out quite a tangle in THE SHADOW QUEEN because I had tightened the narrative timeline for dramatic purposes. 

“She couldn’t always be sure that a character was in the place she said he was in at the time she put him there, but she spent endless hours making sure that he wasn’t definitely somewhere else. “Once you play around with history, it trips a whole load of consequences,” she says.”

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Mantel on a certain type of writer’s block

This passage expresses a fear I often have, and most writer have as well:

“I don’t think one ever quite learns to trust the process,” she says. “I feel, What if I wake up tomorrow and I can’t do it anymore? I know I’ll always be able to write, in the sense of having a robust style that’s sufficient to the occasion, and I know that books can be got onto the page by craft, but the thing that makes a phrase that fizzes on the paper—you always fear that may not be there any longer, because, after all, you did nothing to deserve it. You did nothing to contrive it. It’s just there. You don’t understand it, it’s out of your control, and it could desert you.”

Fortunately, I’m not a writer of phrases that fizz, but there is a certain passion and energy that one brings to a story and I do worry about fatigue. The cure for that, for me, is invariably research and inspiring reading. I’ve chosen to read A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens for the class: such a passionate writer! 

The New Yorker: a six-course meal

In addition to finishing The Unlikely pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce—a wonderful novel—I finally worked my way through the Oct. 15 issue of The New Yorker. I have quite a bit to say about Harold, but the NYer must come first: my husband has been waiting for the hand-over.

This was an exceptionally writerly issue. First, a profile of the religious right-wing writer Lynn Vincent, “Lives of the Saints.” Vincent gives a writers’ workshop on “The Sacred ICPID”: an acronym for I couldn’t put it down.

She’s into formulas, and, being a former math major turn novelist, I particularly liked this one: (B+C-I-P)n, which translates: (Butt + Chair – Internet – Phone) times the number of words you can write without breaking a sweat. Her magic number is 350, the number of words she aims to write twice a day. There’s something about that concept that appeals to me. It’s not nearly as intimidating as 1000 words in one go, which is what I aim for when I’m cooking.

And then there was a lengthy profile of the divine Hilary Mantel, “The Dead are Real.” This article, by Larissa MacFarquhar, had quite a bit to say about historical fiction.

“Historical fiction is a hybrid form, halfway between fiction and nonfiction. It is pioneer country, without fixed laws.”

“It has difficulty distinguishing itself from its easy sister the historical romance. It is thought to involve irritating ways of talking, or excessive descriptions of clothes.”

One of the wonderful things about Mantel winning two Bookers—the first for Wolf Hall, and the second for Bring up the Bodies—is that it plants the Historical Fiction flag firmly in the land of Literary.

I am full of admiration for Hilary Mantel’s work. Having read both novels, I’m tempted to read them again in anticipation of the third and final volume. I have heard that she works in an office lined with corkboard, onto which she pins index cards of scenes. I long to know how she manages the depth and freshness of detail that she does. The wit and the humor!

“I like filing systems. But the whole process of writing novels is the opposite of that—it’s do not label, do not define, do not decide, leave everythign loose. You have to say to yourself, I take my hands off, I let my unconscious work for me. It’s desperately uncomfortable!”

She is a writer with a huge brain. “… I know that books can be got onto the page by craft, but the thing that makes a phrase that fizzes on the paper—you always fear that may not be there any longer, because, after all, you did nothing to deserve it.”


At the end of The New Yorker issue was an article on how women became readers: illuminating. I loved this quote from an account of the reception of the novel Pamela by Richardson:

“The blacksmith of the village had got hold of Richardson’s novel of “Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded,” and used to read it aloud on the long summer evenings, seated on his anvil, and never failed to have a large and attentive audience.”

Is that scene not enchanting?

Real-life update: I’m back in San Miguel de Allende now, and most everything is sorted out. (What goes where, etc.) I’ve been working hard on draft 9.0 of In the Service of the Shadow Queen, which I intend to print out tomorrow.

I’ve started a newsletter, which I hope to get out soon: I have Real News! If you’re not on the newsletter mailing list, sign up here.

On Sunday my husband and I will pack for a trip to California to see my soon-to-be-95-year-old dad and the rest of my family for a wonderful U.S. Thanksgiving. Our son is flying out from New York, and our daughter, her mate, her step-daughter and baby flying down from Toronto. There will be twenty-four at the table, and all my dad’s progeny will be there. Thanksgiving, indeed!

More on Mantel

My blog posts here get automatically posted to my Facebook home page (but not, BTW, to my “fan” page, as I would like, for reasons I’ve yet to sort out). Typically, on Facebook, there can evolve quite a discussion, which is what happened to my post a week ago Friday, “Weeping over History.” Margaret Donsbach, Katherine Mary Govier and I got into quite an interesting discussion about the POV Mantel used in her brilliant novel, Wolf Hall. Govier has now written an excellent review of that novel for the Canadian National Post, “Why I love Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall,” in which she mentions some of what was discussed.

Meanwhile, I’m still under the spell of that brilliant novel. I’ll be adding it to my Great Historical Novels lists. Few can compare.

Weeping over history


I highly recommend this wonderful article by Hilary Mantel, on researching Wolf Hall. I admire this writer more and more. (I had something to say about her writing in my previous post.)

How It Must Have Been” is an insightful review of Wolf Hall by Stephen Greenblatt in the New York Review of Books. He has a lot of interesting things to say about Cromwell and the nature of historical fiction.

Greenblatt asks: What is historical fiction? His definition is more narrow than I would have it, focusing on known characters and events:

At issue then is not merely the setting in an era different from the present of the novelist, the interest in significant historical events, and the representation of identifiable, documented historical actors, though all of these are important in establishing the parameters of the form.

The emphasis’s in the quote are my own: for me, historical fiction does not have to touch on “significant” events or people. For me, historical fiction need only take me back in time, and Greenblatt expresses this quality well:

Historical novels have a further characteristic. They generate a sense in the reader best summed up in exclamations like “Yes, this is the way it must have been”; “This is how they must have sounded”; “This is what it must have felt like.”

And further: “The historical novel then is always an act of conjuring.” (As is true of all fiction.)

The historical novel … offers the dream of full access, access to what went on behind closed doors, off the record, in private, when no one was listening or recording.

Greenblatt and other reviewers have noted Mantel’s unique point-of-view in this novel.

Mantel contrives a telling effect by often referring to Cromwell as “he” without further identification, so that in many sentences the reader must figure out where, in a welter of “he’s” and “him’s,” Cromwell is

Here is an example of the sometimes disorientating use of “he”:

“Master Cromwell,” he says lightly, “either my calculations are wrong, or the universe is not as we think it.”

He says, “Why are comets bad signs?…”

The first speaker is the king’s astronomer, and normally, the second “he” would refer back to him. Not in this novel. The second he—”He says”—is Cromwell speaking … always Cromwell. It’s effective, but it takes a little getting used to.

I have a theory about this, a hunch. I suspect it possible that the novel was first written in the first person voice and then changed to the close third. There are a few instances of the first person voice remaining. For example:

Very well. I dry my tears, those tears from All Hallows day. I sit with the cardinal, by the fire at Esher in a room with a smoking chimney. (page 162, Canadian edition)

This passage stands out. It is a rare use of the first person voice. This passage would normally have read: Very well. He dries his tears, those tears from All Hallows day. He sits with the cardinal, by the fire at Esher in a room with a smoking chimney. 

But as I said: just a hunch.


I’m in the middle of the novel now, and I’m having a little difficulty with the transition. Wolsey, wonderful Wolsey, has died, and Cromwell now serves King Henry VIII. There isn’t the same emotional connection. Cromwell has lost his bearings, and so have I. I’m confident, however, that we will make it through.

Image above: portrait of Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1532-3.