Hunting ‘The Wolf’


In the  latest of her literary-themed travels around these islands Lorna Hogg visits locations featured in the historical novels of Hilary Mantel

Thomas Cromwell, King Henry VIII’s grim faced and corpulent ‘ political adviser’ initially sounds like an unlikely character to draw wide public interest. However, when he inspired two Booker Prize winning stories  –  and a popular TV series, curiosity grew. The final book of the Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and the Light  is due out shortly , and another TV series has been commissioned – so can Henry’s Chancellor provide author Hilary Mantel with a hat-trick of three Booker Prizes?

Hilary Mary Mantel was born on July 3rd 1952, in Hadfield, a  mill-town in Derbyhire, the eldest of three children born to parents of Irish descent, Henry and Margaret Thompson. When she was seven, she found herself sharing the family home with her mother’s lover. This understandably created considerable gossip in the village, and intense school curiosity around the bright and sensitive, but sickly child. Her father eventually ‘faded’ from their lives –  Hilary never saw him again, and the new family group left for Cheshire, with Hilary eventually taking the name of her mother’s new partner

She was also strongly influenced by her years of growing up in a Catholic background, and the marks it left on her psyche. Her 2003 memoir,  Giving Up the Ghost, deals with those years. However, she overcame her circumstances with the help of a place at grammar school. She went on to attend the London School of Economics, transferring to the University of Sheffield. She left as a socialist, with a degree in jurisprudence.

Early jobs included social work in  geriatric hospital and as a sales assistant, and in 1972, Mantel married geologist Gerald McEwan. However, her personal challenges were not over. In her early twenties, a debilitating illness was misdiagnosed as having psychiatric origins. In Botswana, where she had accompanied her husband, she self diagnosed endometriosis. Back in London, necessary surgery left her unable to have children – and with weight issues. Her marriage failed – but the couple re-married later.

Her first novel was Every Day is Mother’s Day (1985) with its sequel, Vacant Possession in 1986. Gerald’s work abroad would help with inspiration – a spell in Saudi Arabia influenced  Eight Months of Ghazzah Street. (1988)   A Place of Greater Safety (1992) about the French Revolution,  won her The Sunday Express Book of the Year Award

Mantel became the film critic for  The Spectator,and worked as a newpaper reviewer. However, from the start, its was clear that personal experiences would inform her highly  imaginative creative writing, and also that she had a wide range of interests, from social to supernatural. Fludd, set in a Northern village, centres on a Catholic church and convent.

A Change of Climate (1994) tells the story of a Norfolk couple who had been missionaries in South Africa, and devoted their lives to charity. An Experiment in Love(1995) relates the story of three girls who leave home for university, and won Mantel The Hawthornden Prize. However, her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost  which won the 2003 MIND Book of the Year Award, used her own very personal experiences, namely those linked with Catholicism. ‘You grow up thinking that you’re wrong and bad. And for me, because I took what I took what I was told really seriously, it  bred a very intense habit of introspection and self-examination and a terrible severity with myself….It’s like installing a policeman, and one moreover who keeps changing the law.’

Beyond Black (2005) was based around a medium, and short-listed for the 2006 Orange Prize for Fiction.  It was, however, an historical book which brought this writer with a niche but enthusiastic following, to wider popular attention.Wolf Hall, the story of Henry’s VIII’s marital `fixer’ Thomas Cromwell, led to her first Man Booker Prize. The prize money was £50,000 – which she jokingly said in her acceptance speech would be spent on ‘sex and drugs and rock and roll’ She later suggested that rehab and her pension pot might be more realistic.

The TV series Wolf Hall inspired public interest in Cromwell and their ambitions. Mantel has said that he was a man who `’conquered the system – from within.’ Her meticulous research clearly helped in transporting readers back to Tudor times, along with her ability to `’inhabit’ his mind. The next Cromwell book, Bring Up the Bodies won her a second Booker Prize in 2012 – she was the first woman to win twice. Mantel presented the shadowy Cromwell as a `poor boy made good’ and man of his times, pointing out that then as now, the questions the book deals with are familiar to us all – ‘the world as we find it, and the world we would like to see.’

She may have a slew of awards, prizes, Doctorates of Literature, plus a CBE and DBE after her name – yet Mantel’s forthright comments have drawn controversy. They have targeted Margaret Thatcher and the Duchess of Cambridge, the latter described in one speech as a  woman forced to present herself  as a `’shop window mannequin,’ with her main purpose being to deliver an heir to the Throne. In a newspaper interview, she confessed about fantasising about the assassination of Margaret Thatcher – an event she fictionalised in a 1983 short story.

Can modern politicans learn from Cromwell?  Mantel’s response is  – ‘Be careful.  You are no longer executed for your failures – but the Tower of London is still standing’ As indeed, are its international equivalents.

Henry’s Palaces

 Henry VIII and his wives, plus ex-wives, had plenty of choice from his sixty palaces, but only a few remain remain, in original or part form,

The Tower of London is synonymous with Tudor intrigue – two of Henry’s Queens were beheaded on Tower Green. Along with  Hampton Court Palace, the Tower is cared for by Historic Royal Palaces – check the website for historical background.

The riverside Greenwich Palace, once the largest in Europe, has gone, but the site now holds the UNESCO rated Royal Naval College, complete with its Painted Hall. Trace the grisly journey of  prisoners to the Tower, via the modern river bus services, from Greenwich.

Hampton Court Palace can also be reached by river, Allow a full day to see the litchens, state rooms and gardens of Cardinal Wolsey’s splendid Palace, handed over the placate the King.

Wolsey also handed over his London home, which later became Whitehall Palace. River fronted, it once stretched approximately from Downing Street up to Trafalgar Square and Charing Cross. The famous Banqueting Hall was built in 1600s, but you can still see the old Tudor tilting yard where jousters fought, on what is now Horseguards Parade. Its archway is on the site of the old entrance to the palace.

Anne Boleyn was born and brought up at the beautiful fairytale Hever Castle in Kent, open to the public. On their honeymoon ‘Progress’ they stayed at Thornbury Castle, near Bristol, which is  now a luxury hotel.

Sudeley Castle in the Cotswolds, is where Henry’s last wife, Catherine Parr moved after Henry’s death. She then married her true love, Jane Seymour’s brother Thomas Seymour. Sadly, Catherine died in childbirth there, and is buried in the chapel.

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