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Editor's note: This episode of Bookclub is available on Sunday 6th October and will be available to listen online or for download.

 

Sometimes the past thrusts itself into the present, and you feel time playing tricks. Hilary Mantel, the queen of contemporary historical novelists, knows the feeling. When you hear her describing her encounter with a single brick in the basement of a house in Hackney, you understand why some writers feel compelled to write about the past.

In Bookclub, she described how she visited the east London home of Rafe Sadler, the young lieutenant to Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to Henry VIII and the character at the heart of her trilogy of which Bring Up the Bodies is the second volume. Poking around in the basement, she saw something that electrified her imagination.

On one brick, laid in the early 1530s, was the paw mark of a dog that had walked across the room before the clay was dry. It has stayed there in the dark ever since. She could feel the presence of the animal - see it, hear it, smell it. That riveting moment catches the passion of the writer who always wants to go back in time – what was it like in that room at that moment?

Mantel is a double Man Booker winner, first with Wolf Hall, which took us into the darkest corners of Henry’s court and began to spin the political and emotional yarn that leads, at the end of Bring Up The Bodies, to the execution of Anne Boleyn. However often I turn to those pages, I can’t restrain at the feeling of horror at Anne’s comment in the Tower that her neck is so thin it will be easy (she puts her hand round it as she speaks the words), and the simple boastfulness of the French executioner when he describes how he will sharpen his sword and hide it from the Queen in the straw to make everything easier. There are paragraphs in this book that make you want to turn back and read them again and again.

In the Bookclub conversation with Mantel, we were able to probe into her conviction that history is always with us: that the past and the present are intermingled, playing with time. “A fluid frontier”, she calls it. The stories of the past never leave us; they colour and shape what we see around us.

Listening to our reading group gathered around her in Budleigh Salterton in Devon, where she is the president of the literary festival, I was reminded why these books have captivated people around the world, some of them ignorant of the Tudor story before they began to read. One of our readers said she couldn’t remember a more arresting or haunting opening line to a novel than the start of Bring Up the Bodies: “His children are falling from the sky”.

Hilary Mantel discusses 'Bringing Up the Bodies' with James Naughtie.

Cromwell is out with his falcons and they swoop down on their prey, their eyes bright and claws red with blood. Then we’re at court, with Cromwell, the ailing King and his obsessions and inadequacies, and the doomed Queen. We know how it will end, and that makes the story more compelling.

In talking about her characters, Mantel seems to creep into their minds. She reads from her books as if she has been an observer of events, speaks of the fun and the machinations and the horror as if she’s been in the middle of it, and above all whets our appetite for the third volume in the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, which she is writing now.

That book begins with Anne Boleyn’s execution. Her head falls, and Cromwell leaves for breakfast. “I want to pin you to that moment,” Mantel told us in Bookclub. She always does.

 

 

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