Greater Minds: Hilary Mantel on adapting the past

The Reith Lectures are an annual pleasure from the BBC to the world. Every year, a prominent speaker gives a series of lectures on a subject close to their heart, followed by questions from an audience that usually includes some equally prominent names. This year, the speaker was Dame Hilary Mantel, speaking on the relationship between the historical novelist and her subject.


Hilary Mantel in 2010 (Chris Boland [CC / Flickr])

Mantel’s eleven novels add up to an impeccable qualification for speaking on the subject. Her best known books are Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, both of which won the Booker Prize. They are the first two parts of a trilogy covering the life of Thomas Cromwell, hatchet man of King Henry VIII of England. From the audience’s response, there’s no shortage of people who can’t wait for the third novel.

There were five lectures this year rather than the usual four:

Lecture 1: The day is for the living: podcast and transcript.

Lecture 2: The Iron Maiden: podcast and transcript.

Lecture 3: Silence grips the Town: podcast and transcript.

Lecture 4: Can these bones live? podcast and transcript.

Lecture 5: Adaptation: podcast and transcript.

As usual with my Greater Minds podcasts, I’m not going to reprise the content of the lectures themselves – Hilary Mantel does not need me to speak for her – but I’m going to follow the thoughts her lectures sparked in my own mind. For what it’s worth, Wolf Hall was not among my favourite novels and I haven’t read Bring up the Bodies, but I find that


(Gwydion M Williams [CC / Flickr])

Mantel delivered a great deal of food for thought for an occasional writer of historical short stories like me.

From the present to the past

The theme of adaptation runs throughout the lectures, and is the title of the final lecture. A historical novel starts long before the novelist puts the first word of the novel on paper. It often starts centuries before the novelist is even born, with the people who make – or are made or unmade by – the historical events that form the backdrop to the novel. They don’t see themselves as characters in a story any more than we do, though historical novels will undoubtedly be set in the time in which we live and people like us will be co-opted as characters:

We are not separate from history. It’s not an exam we pass. It’s something we are in. (Lecture 4)

A question that Mantel wrestles with throughout the lectures is whether we’d recognise a future historical novelist’s facsimiles of us. If we wouldn’t, neither would a Tudor recognise themselves in Mantel’s own fiction. When looking at history, it’s always tempting to assume a pattern of straightforward cause and effect that at least some people at the time understood. Mantel asks us to think of history in the same light as the


(Matt [CC / Flickr])

political pantomimes we see played out in thirty second snippets and fumbling analysis we see daily on the television news:

It is the multiplication of the evidence of fallible and biased witnesses, combined with incomplete accounts of actions not fully understood by the people who performed them. It’s no more than the best we can do, and often it falls short of that. (Lecture 1)

The professional historian’s job is to evaluate those sources and to try to find some sort of coherent pattern in them. If history is, in Arnold Toynbee’s phrase, ‘just one damned thing after another’, the academic historian at least tries to work out how one damned thing leads to another, if it does at all. Toynbee’s phrase is often quoted as a pearl of wisdom, usually by people who do not realise he was using it to characterise a view he disagreed with. Proof, if any were needed, that the commonly held view of the past is often misleading.

Where the biographer stops, the novelist begins

Mantel’s point is not that the pursuit of historical truth is futile, but that it can only be taken so far. In response to a question by biographer Stanley Wells, she said:


A relic of Tudor times (zoe toseland [CC / Flickr])

I think the biographer stops working, downs tools a lot quicker than the novelist does because he says, like the historian, “I come to this frontier and after that, I cannot know”, and quite properly takes his hands off. (Lecture 5)

The historical record may show what a person did, but it rarely tells us exactly why they did it. Historical records may offer some clues, but won’t be complete enough to definitively complete the sentence that starts, ‘Napoleon invaded Russia because…’, or ‘Winston Churchill and David Lloyd-George introduced state pensions and free visits to doctors because…’, or, more pertinently to Mantel’s signature novels, ‘Thomas Cromwell framed Anne Boleyn because…’.

As we enter uncharted waters, the novelist can take the helm from the historian. Most historical novelists do not work in parallel to historians but follow in their footsteps. When the historians and biographers ‘down tools’ at the edge of the historical record, the novelist takes a few steps into the unknown:

Writers shouldn’t claim they are doing research when they mean they are skimming facts out of pre-existing texts. Unless they are also trained historians, novelists mostly don’t have the skills for original research from primary sources. Typically, we first meet the material


(Jim Surkamp [CC / Flickr])

when it’s been filtered – by historians, biographers. In the early stages, that’s helpful. It helps you see shape, it stops you being distracted by irrelevant detail, and it keys you in to controversies. (Lecture 4)

Great men make constrained characters

Mantel is unusual in that she does use primary sources. Her Cromwell novels are also relatively unusual in that they are told from the perspective of a man whose life is reasonably well documented. Thomas Cromwell lived one of the best documented lives of 16th century England, which must have been a major constraint in adapting his life into fiction. A novel, after all, must tell a satisfying story. For that reason, the great men and women of history, who might make good subjects for biography, tend to make poor viewpoints for a novel.

In CJ Sansom’s Dissolution, Matthew Shardlake is free to gallivant around Henry VII’s England and see the dissolution of the monasteries first hand because being fictional, there is no historical record to tell him what to do or where to be. Thomas Cromwell can stay in London where he belongs, where he’s available for Shardlake to visit if and when the plot demands.

I suspect this is one of the reasons why King Arthur remains a perennially popular subject for fiction: he offers the writer the charisma of the great man without the limitations of a historical record.


Hilary Mantel portrait by Nick Lord (Chris Beckett [CC / Flickr])

To take on a novel from the perspective of a decumented great man is a massive undertaking, which may explain why Mantel’s Cromwell novels are very large and take so long to write.

From the page to the stage

If the process of adaptation begins with the historian and is taken further by the novelist, much of Mantel’s final lecture revolves around what often happens next: the adaptation to stage and screen as has happened with Wolf Hall. The history of literature is littered with spats between novelists and the directors who adapted their work, but Mantel is in no hurry to add another one. She sees the process of adaptation from novel to screen as being a progression of the adaptation from lives that were once lived to lives adapted to the printed page:

Adaptation, done well, is not a secondary process… but an act of creation in itself. Indeed, the work of adaptation is happening every day…an event occurs once: everything else is reiteration, a performance. (Lecture 5)

Different media have different strengths and weaknesses. Mantel states that the ‘big set-piece is better left to the cinema’, while stage performances often require the audience to fill in the gaps with their imagination. At the climax of Shakespeare’s Richard III, she reminds us, the Battle of Bosworth Field is recreated with the few extras who can be fitted on stage to rattle their shields. The audience must conjure a clash of thousands in their imaginations. If they do so, they are rewarded by the vision of the man who had recently cries ‘let us to it pell mell, and if not to heaven, go we hand in hand to hell!’ offering his kingdom for a horse.

The shade of Robert Bolt

Disappointingly, she described the process of adaptation as being linear, from the events to the academic history to the novel to stage and screen. In fact, many periods of history


A performance of Robert Bolt’s ‘A Man for All Seasons’ (Amy Claxton [CC / Flickr])

have many fictional interpretations. If Mantel was interested enough in the reign of Henry VIII to make it the setting for a trilogy, she was presumably interested enough to have read or seen other adaptations. Many of her readers will have been following an interest in the period piqued by the Tudor novels of Philippa Gregory or the TV series, The Tudors. Mantel was not impressed by The Tudors, which ‘offered a strange blend of the ploddingly literal and the violently implausible’.

Throughout the lectures, I found myself unable to ignore one particular elephant in the room, which was that the second half of Wolf Hall read very much as a retelling of Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, especially as Bolt made a modern hero out of Thomas More and glossed over his likely involvement in burning protestants. Bolt was more interested in an exploration of how conscience responds to power than in historical verisimilitude, but I would have been interested to know how Mantel saw the conversation that Wolf Hall looked as though it was having with A Man for All Seasons.

Doing better

One of the questions she was asked referred to a spat between historian Niall Ferguson and novelist Jane Smiley, which I have pontificated about in the past. Ferguson


(Paul Cooper [CC / Flickr])

disparaged historical fiction as leading inevitably to having 21st sensibilities dressed up in Tudor costume. Having spent most of the past three quarters of an hour talking about how to avoid that, Mantel appears to have felt no need to offer a detailed answer, replying with simply, ‘I think we can do a little bit better than that’.

As a reader of historical fiction, I’m the first to appreciate when she and her colleagues do so. As an occasional writer of it, I must take that on board and endeavour to do so.

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Posted in Greater minds, Wednesday Pontification
2 comments on “Greater Minds: Hilary Mantel on adapting the past
  1. Mantel is a fantastic writer. And I so agree with : A historical novel starts long before the novelist puts the first word of the novel on paper.

    I find her work fascinating and have bookmarked her lectures for my commute. Thanks for this engaging and thoughtful commentary on historical fiction.

  2. DJ Cockburn says:

    Thanks for dropping in, Damyanti. I’d be interested to know what you make of the lectures.

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