Mantel Takes Up Betrayal, Beheadings In 'Bodies'

This interview was originally broadcast on Nov. 26, 2012.

This year, Hilary Mantel made history when she won a Man Booker Prize for her novel Bring Up the Bodies, which is out now in paperback. She had previously been awarded the prize — England's highest literary honor — for her 2009 novel, Wolf Hall, and is now the first woman to receive the award twice.

Wolf Hall was the first in Mantel's historical fiction trilogy about Tudor England. It ended with the beheading of Lord Chancellor Thomas More, King Henry VIII's counselor, after he opposed the king's decision to break away from the Roman Catholic Church. Among the king's reasons for breaking away from the church was his desire to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry Anne Boleyn.

In Bring Up the Bodies, Mantel traces the downfall and beheading of Boleyn, as seen through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, an influential minister in King Henry's court. Mantel tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that she was interested in dramatizing Cromwell because, despite being the king's right-hand man, he is marginal and sometimes even missing in fictional reimaginings of Henry VIII's reign.

In reality, Mantel says Cromwell was the "minister of everything": "He is powerful for almost 10 years, so he's the man who knows how everything works. But strangely, because he has been left out of the popular narrative, when you look through Cromwell's eyes, this material which seems so very familiar to us becomes unfamiliar."

According to Mantel, one of the attractions of writing a novel about Tudor England is that she didn't have to exaggerate the role of women. Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn were superbly educated, strong-minded women who were actors in the political process. "The title of Queen of England could bring a lot of unofficial power with it," she says.

The last volume in the trilogy will end with Cromwell's execution.


Interview Highlights

On the different forms of execution

"Beheading, believe it or not, was a privilege reserved usually for the aristocracy, for gentlemen and gentlewomen. Now, I don't want you to get the idea that these were weekly events in Henry's England; it's because beheadings were rare that they made such a terrible impact on the imagination of the close circle around Henry; his ministers, the aristocracy. Ordinary people who might be convicted of theft or a crime of violence were hanged. I think there were two deaths that were more feared. One was to be hanged, drawn and quartered, which was the penalty for high treason. And the people in the book, when they were given a sentence of beheading — the men who were convicted with Anne Boleyn would have regarded that as a mercy rather than the terribly painful, long, drawn-out death of being hanged, drawn and quartered. The other thing, if a woman was convicted of treason, is she could be burned."

On the translation of the Bible from Latin to English in 1538

"Thomas Cromwell actually gets Henry's blessing for the English Bible to be placed in every parish church — this is for the first time. There had been English Bibles a few years before, but they were not licensed by the king; their status was unofficial. But Cromwell actually managed to get, eventually, Henry's commitment to the scriptures in English, and the decree was that anyone who could read could come up and read that Bible. So it's a great turning point because it's giving what people thought of as the word of God to the people in their own language. ... You don't have to ask the priest what it means. If you can read, you can read it in your own language, and if you can't read, someone else can read it out to you. It puts the responsibility for your salvation in your hands; your relationship with God changes. You don't have to go through an intermediary, as it were; you've got a direct line."

On writing historical fiction

"I make up as little as possible. I spend a great deal of time on research, on finding all the available accounts of a scene or incident, finding out all the background details and the biographies of the people involved there, and I try to run up all the accounts side by side to see where the contradictions are, and to look where things have gone missing. And it's really in the gaps, the erasures, that I think the novelist can best go to work, because inevitably in history, in any period, we know a lot about what happened, but we may be far hazier on why it happened. And there's always the question: Why did it happen the way it did? Where was the turning point? Every scene I go into, I'm looking for these contradictions, antagonisms, turning points, and I'm trying to find out the dramatic structure of history, if you like."

On the connection Mantel has to history

"Since I was a very small child, I've had a kind of reverence for the past, and I felt a very intimate connection with it. When I began, it was just being enthralled by the lives of the members of my family who really didn't seem to make any difference in day-to-day talk whether people were alive or dead. I'm one of these children who grew up at the knee of my grandmother and her elder sister, listening to very old people talk about their memories. And as I say, in their conversation, everything was as if it happened yesterday. And the dead were discussed along with the living, and the difference didn't really seem to matter. And I suppose this seeped into my viewpoint. Instead of thinking there was a wall between the living and the dead, I thought there was a very thin veil. It was almost as if they'd just gone into the next room."

On having endometriosis

"Endometriosis is a condition in which the special cells that line the womb — they are the endometrium — they should be in your womb, but in endometriosis these special cells are found in other parts of the body, typically through the pelvis, but they can be anywhere in the body. And the problem there is, they bleed each month, just as the lining of the womb does, then they scar over, and depending on how much space there is around the scar tissue, you can have terrific pain, disability. It's a disease that throws up a variety of symptoms, including nausea. It's not easy to diagnose because depending where the endometrial deposits are, the symptoms can be quite different. It's an unrecognized problem among teenage girls, and it's something that every young woman who has painful menstruation should be aware of ... it's a condition that is curable if it's caught early. If not, if it's allowed to run on, it can cause infertility, and it can really mess up your life.

"I suffered from it, I think since I was 11 years old. It wasn't diagnosed; I kept getting sent away and told that it was all in my mind. When I was 27, the whole thing came to a crisis, and I had surgery, big surgery. I lost my fertility. I didn't have any children; I don't know whether I would have been able to have children. Unfortunately, that surgery didn't cure the condition. It came back, and I lived with it for the next 20 years. It's now died back, it's quiescent, but it's done a lot of damage to my body."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Beheadings figure prominently in a series of historical novels about the reign of King Henry VIII in 16th-century England, written by our guest, Hilary Mantel. The first in the series is the bestseller "Wolf Hall," which ends with the beheading of his counselor, Lord Chancellor Thomas More. More earned his ghastly fate by opposing Henry's decision to break from the Roman Catholic Church so he could divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry Anne Boleyn.

It didn't work out so well for Boleyn. Her beheading provides the ending to Mantel's bestselling sequel "Bring Up the Bodies," which is now out in paperback. Both books are told from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, Henry's chief minister. Mantel's third volume will end with Cromwell's execution.

"Wolf Hall" and "Bring Up the Bodies" each won Britain's most prestigious literary aware, the Man Booker Prize. "Wolf Hall" also won America's National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. Mantel lives in England; she spoke to Terry last November.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Hilary Mantel, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on your second Man Booker Prize. It's quite an accomplishment.

HILARY MANTEL: Thank you.

GROSS: So I've love to start from a reading - with a reading from the new book, "Bring Up the Bodies," and this is toward the very end of the book, when Anne Boleyn is getting executed. And there are many executions in your books.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: The first book ends with an execution, and so does the second. So before you read this passage, I'd like you to just explain what's happening and who is speaking in the passage that you're going to read.

MANTEL: Well, we first of all have Thomas Cromwell, who is Henry's chief minister and the organizer of the plot to bring down Anne Boleyn. We are almost at the last moment now. Henry has sent for the executioner from Calais to behead his wife with a sword rather than the customary axe in the hope it will give her a quicker death.

So we have Cromwell, we have the French executioner, and we have Christophe(ph), a young ruffian who is a servant to Cromwell.

(Reading) The weapon is heavy, needing a two-handed grip. It's almost four foot in length, two inches broad, round at the tip, a double edge. One practices like this, the executioner says. He whirls like a dancer on the spot, his arms held high, his fists together as if he were gripping the sword. Every day one must handle the weapon if only to go through the motions. One may be called at any time.

(Reading) We do not kill so many in Calais, but one goes to other towns. It is a good trade, Christophe says. He wants to handle the sword, but he, Cromwell, does not want to let go of it yet. The man says: They tell me I may speak French to her, and she will understand me. Yes, do so, Cromwell says.

(Reading) But she will kneel. She must be informed of this. There is no block, as you see. She must kneel upright and not move. If she is steady, it will be done in a moment; if not, she will be cut to pieces. He hands back the weapon. I can answer for her. The executioner says: Between one beat of the heart and the next, it is done. She knows nothing. She is in eternity. They walk away.

(Reading) Christophe says: Master, that man has said to me tell the women that she should wrap her skirts about her feet when she kneels in case she falls bad and shows off to the world what so many fine gentlemen have already seen. He does not reprove the boy for his coarseness. He is crude but correct.

(Reading) When the moment comes, it will prove, the women do it anyway. They must have discussed it among themselves.

GROSS: Thank you for reading that, and that's Hilary Mantel reading from the end - not the very end but near the end - of her latest novel "Bring Up the Bodies," which won the Man Booker Award, Britain's highest literary prize.

You know, it's such a - you just kind of shiver hearing that passage, and it just made me think, you know, about executions, like it makes the guillotine seem very humane by comparison, you know, where you're describing that if she moves, if Anne Boleyn moves while the sword's coming down that, you know, she'll be cut to pieces, it won't be a swift death.

MANTEL: Yes, they were asking her to do something very difficult, which was to remain absolutely still in the knowledge of what was coming. But the executioner was a man who obviously knew his trade, and what he did was to approach Anne from an angle that she wasn't expecting. She was blindfolded, and she couldn't hear him because he was wearing soft slippers. And it happened before she knew.

And she did remain kneeling upright. Usually, executions were with the axe, and the sufferer put their head on the block, but Henry thought that this was a more skillful, humane way of doing it. It's strange that he should have such a scruple at the last moment.

GROSS: This is very thoughtful, if you're executing your wife, to do it so humanely.

MANTEL: Yes, it seems strange to us, doesn't it, but for a while they - the people at the Tower of London didn't know whether Anne was to be beheaded or burned. And, you know, typical bureaucrats, they're sending frantic notes saying: What kind of scaffold have we to build? After all, it's not every day that one executes a queen of England.

GROSS: So I'm not sure if this is something you've thought about before or not, but I know that you wrote, I think it was your very first book, about the French Revolution, and now you've written about Henry VIII, and there are several beheadings in these books. So excuse me for asking this, but if you had to be beheaded centuries ago, would you have preferred the guillotine, or the axe or sword customarily used in England?

MANTEL: Well, it's a strange question.

GROSS: I thought so.

(LAUGHTER)

MANTEL: But no, I'm quite prepared to answer that, I think. The guillotine never failed, you know, whereas the headsman occasionally, as in fact in the case of the execution of Thomas Cromwell himself, was either not expert enough or maybe having a bad day, and the whole thing could take a long time. At least the guillotine was over in seconds. However, you know, I am hoping this fate will not befall me.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: No, I suspect it won't. And Cromwell will be executed in the final book in your trilogy, which you're writing now.

MANTEL: Yes, 1540. The final book covers his rise and rise. He has a long way to go yet. And then his sudden fall in the execution in the summer of 1540.

GROSS: I'm sorry for dwelling so much on executions, but historically, it's so interesting in your book. I mean, there were other forms of execution. What were some of those forms, and which was considered the worst, the most horrible of all deaths?

MANTEL: Well, beheading, believe it or not, was a privilege reserved usually for the aristocracy, for gentlemen and gentlewomen. Now, I don't want you to get the idea that these were weekly events in Henry's England. It's because beheadings were rare that they made such a terrible impact on the imagination of the close circle around Henry: his ministers, the aristocracy.

Ordinary people who might be convicted of theft or a crime of violence were hanged. I think there were two deaths that were more feared. One was to be hanged, drawn and quartered, which was the penalty for high treason.

And the people in the book, when they were given a sentence of beheading, the men who were convicted with Anne Boleyn would have regarded that as a mercy rather than the terribly painful and long-drawn-out death of being hanged, drawn and quartered. The other thing, if a woman was convicted of treason, is she could be burned.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Hilary Mantel, the author of the bestselling novels "Wolf Hall" and "Bring Up the Bodies," which both won the prestigious Man Booker Prize, England's highest literary award. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: So if you're just joining us, my guest is Hilary Mantel, who has won Britain's highest literary honors for two of her books, "Wolf Hall" and "Bring Up the Bodies," which center around Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII, his wives and his executions of his wives when they didn't bear him sons. And the third and final volume of her trilogy is on the way.

You know, I was thinking if anyone ever needs an antidote to princess fantasies, they might want to read your books.

(LAUGHTER)

MANTEL: Yes.

GROSS: Women who were chosen as queen, that sounds really great, right, but if they don't give birth to a male heir for Henry VIII, bam, they're executed.

MANTEL: Well no, I don't think it's as simple as that, in all fairness.

GROSS: Oh, OK.

MANTEL: He didn't execute Anne - he didn't execute his first wife for failing to give birth to a male heir, he divorced her. He didn't execute Anne for that reason, but Anne had become a political liability, a diplomatic liability. And Henry did believe, rightly or wrongly, that there was a plot against him, a plot to kill him, and that Anne was implicated.

It sounds unlikely, it sounds farfetched, but the court was - I won't say happy, but they were able to along with it. It wouldn't be - let's be fair even to Henry. There was no crime of failing to bear the king a son. There was a crime of treason. Anne was convicted of treason.

GROSS: Of all the historical stories that you could tell in historical fiction, why did you choose the stories of Cromwell, Henry VIII, and Henry VIII's wives?

MANTEL: The three books really are about Cromwell. They center on him; they're seen through his eyes. What Cromwell doesn't know, by and large, the reader doesn't know, that is at least when you're within the framework of the narrative - obviously you bring your historical knowledge to it - but Cromwell is the primary figure here.

And this is a great untold story, or at least it wasn't told until now, is all the fiction and all the drama we have about Henry VIII's reign and the figure of Cromwell is somehow marginal or missing, and yet he was central. And historians know that, but it just hadn't percolated through to fictionalized narratives.

He's the minister of everything. He's Henry's right hand. And he's powerful for almost 10 years. So he's the man who knows how everything works. But strangely because he has been left out of the popular narrative, when you look through Cromwell's eyes, this material, which seems so very familiar to us, become unfamiliar. You have a different angle.

But everything in the book, Anne, Queen Catherine, Henry, they're all seen from Cromwell's point of view. So this is not a neutral portrayal. It's not an overview. It's very angled.

GROSS: Now there are certain, like, inherent problems with historic fiction, which is, like, for the reader, unless you really know your history, you never know if what you're reading is - the novel is taking liberty or, you know, the best interpretation of history that we have. So, you know, that line between fact and fiction is often blurred in historic fiction. What guides you about that line between fact and fiction when you're writing?

MANTEL: It's quite simple, really: I make up as little as possible. I spend a great deal of time on research, on finding all the available accounts of a scene or incident, finding out all the background details and the biographies of the people involved there, and I try to run up all the accounts, side by side, to see where the contradictions are and to look where things have gone missing.

And it's really in the gaps, in the erasures, that I think the novelist can best go to work because inevitably in history, in any period, we know a lot about what happened, but we may be far hazier on why it happened. And there's always the question why did it happen the way it did, where was the turning point.

GROSS: So Henry VIII breaks off from the Roman Catholic Church, starts the Church of England. Parliaments makes Henry the head of the church, but Cromwell's really running the church. So outside, you know, Henry breaks away from the Roman Catholic Church in order to divorce his wife. Outside of changing, you know, the rule about divorce, are there other changes that Henry and Cromwell make in the Church of England?

MANTEL: Well, I think Henry's divorce is really is only one part of it, if you think of the enormous advantages that the break from Rome brought to England because it meant basically for Henry that he could lay his hands on the church's assets. So it wasn't simply a question of getting rid of his first wife. It was a question, as he saw it, of taking ownership of what really should be his anyway.

You see, what you had in England before the Reformation was essentially two jurisdictions running side by side. The English jurisdiction and the Roman jurisdiction know this is a time of the formation of a nation. Cromwell certainly is intent on an independent England, a country that runs their own affairs and runs them in the English language, by and large - not in Latin - and has the Bible in English. That was his great crusade.

The law on divorce didn't change. There was actually no such thing as a divorce, there was only an annulment, a declaration that a marriage had never been lawful in the first place. This is what Henry thought. We call it the divorce. We would use the words interchangeably but when he wanted be get rid of Catherine and marry again, he sought from Rome a declaration that that marriage been invalid at the outset.

So 20 years were wiped away. Now when Rome wouldn't give him that annulment, then there was a big rethink and it was the precipitating cause but not the sole cause of the break with Rome. Henry then had his new Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, and the decision had been taken back from Rome to England. So Henry was granted his divorce, his annulment, unto the new English jurisdiction.

GROSS: So is the Bible translated from Latin into English during the period of Henry VIII and in part as a result of Henry VIII?

MANTEL: Yes, it is. And this a great turning point. In 1538 - a time which will be covered in my third book - Cromwell actually gets Henry's blessing for the English Bible to be placed in every parish church - this is for the first time. There had been English Bibles a few years before, but they were not licensed by the king; their status was unofficial.

But Cromwell actually managed to get, eventually, Henry's commitment to the scriptures in English, and the decree was that anyone who could read could come up and read that Bible. So it's a great turning point because it's giving what people thought of as the word of God to the people in their own language.

GROSS: And without having to go through a priest. You could...

MANTEL: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: It was accessible to you directly.

MANTEL: You don't have to ask the priest what it means. If you can read, you can read it in your own language, and if you can't read, someone else can read it out to you. Plus, it puts the responsibility for your salvation in your hands; your relationship with God changes. You don't have to go through an intermediary, as it were; you've got a direct line.

DAVIES: Hilary Mantel will be the back in the second half of the show. Her second book about the reign of King Henry VIII, "Bring Up the Bodies," is now out in paperback. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. We're listening to Terry's interview recorded in November with Hilary Mantel, author of the bestselling historical novels "Wolf Hall" and "Bring Up the Bodies." Both books are set in 16th Century England during the reign of King Henry VIII. "Bring Up the Bodies" is now out in paperback.

GROSS: So I just want to ask you a little bit about your health. I know you've had a debilitating condition for a few decades now, endometriosis and, which has been a pretty systemic problem for you. Would you just explain a little bit what the condition is?

MANTEL: Yes. Endometriosis is a condition in which the special cells that line the womb - they are the endometrium - they should be in your womb. But in endometriosis, these special cells are found in other parts of the body, typically through the pelvis, but they can be anywhere in the body. And the problem there is, they bleed each month, just as the lining of the womb does, then they scar over, you can have terrific pain, disability. It's not easy to diagnose because depending where the endometrial deposits are, the symptoms can be quite different. It's an unrecognized problem among teenage girls, and it's something that every young woman who has painful menstruation should be aware of because it's a condition that is curable if it's caught early. If not, if it's allowed to run on, it can cause infertility, and it can really, really mess up your life.

I had surgery, big surgery. I lost my fertility. I didn't have any children; I don't know whether I would have been able to have children. Unfortunately, that surgery didn't cure the condition. It came back, and I lived with it for the next 20 years. It's now died back, it's quiescent, but it's done a lot of damage to my body in the meanwhile.

GROSS: So correct me if I'm wrong here, but because of the steroids that you are on to help with your condition...

MANTEL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...and I think because of a thyroid condition as well, your weight just about doubled.

MANTEL: Yeah.

GROSS: And you ended up with a completely different body...

MANTEL: That's right. Yes.

GROSS: ...than the one you used to have. How did that change the sense of who you are?

MANTEL: Well, I live my life as a skinny little thing and that's the body type in my family. And, you know, I thought I'd get old but I never thought I'd get fat. And I was given a particular drug - and I'm going back 20 years now - where my weight just went crazy and I had to, my size changed every week and I ended up, as you say, doubling my body weight and a lot of that gain took place over very short period of about nine months, so I didn't recognize myself and I still have trouble. When I see myself in dreams now I'm a fat woman, but for the first 20 years, I should say, I saw myself as I used to be and then I'd wake up and I'd think, who is this? What is all this flesh?

GROSS: So I'm thinking there was a period of a few years when you lived in Saudi Arabia.

MANTEL: Yes.

GROSS: Your husband is a geologist and he was working there. And, of course, there were so many restrictions on your life. You couldn't drive. You could barely leave your house unless you were escorted by her husband or another man. And I'm thinking you probably already had gained the weight so you were in a new body in a country that basically granted you no rights. That must have been such a really strange and alienating period for you.

MANTEL: Yes, it was. And I went to out Saudi Arabia when I was still taking this drug and part way through the strange weight gain. And as you say, out there you dress in drapery rather than clothes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MANTEL: So perhaps if it was going to happen that was the best time for it to happen. But I take your point, it is very strange. I lived in a block of four flats. My neighbors were, they were not all Saudis, but they were Muslims. Upstairs from me was a young Saudi couple. The wife was about 19, she had a baby. We saw each other most days, we'd have coffee and a chat, and she was a student at the women's university and I'd help her with her work but, of course, I was never introduced to her husband, and if we happened to pass in the common hallway, then his reaction was to look straight through me and at the wall as if I was invisible for all my newly gained flesh. And by doing this he was showing his respect for me. Now, you have to work hard to get your head around that, that making someone invisible is a form of respect.

I wasn't wearing a black veil but he was dropping one over me. Then you go to the shops, you go, let's say, into the drugstore. You'd ask for a package of aspirin and the man wouldn't talk to you. And he'd look over your shoulder. And your husband would say, can she have a package of aspirin, please? And he's say yes, sir.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Was it hard after getting back to England from your years in Saudi Arabia to be an empowered person again?

MANTEL: Well, you know, I used to come back every summer, so my life turned into two parts - a woman who ran her own life in Britain and a woman who in Saudi Arabia simply didn't have a life to run. And sometimes when I was in Saudi Arabia I used to take out the evidence of my other life. I used to read the stubs on my checkbook thinking, yes, there was a time when I could pay for my own aspirin or whatever.

And I think it would have been very difficult to live there the year around without relief. But it was while we were living in Saudi Arabia that my first book was accepted. And so I needed to be back the following summer for quite a while to steer that through the publication process. Then we returned to England just at the point where my second book was about to come out.

GROSS: So here you were in a very, like, religious country - a religion that doesn't grant many rights to women. You had left your religion by the time you were 12. You basically gave up the church at that age.

MANTEL: Yes.

GROSS: Why?

MANTEL: I no longer had faith. I lost my belief in a deity. Not just in Catholicism but in the whole thing.

GROSS: Did you miss that presence?

MANTEL: No. I don't think I missed it, not at that time in my life. Other things came in to fill the gap.

GROSS: And you still feel the same way that...

MANTEL: No, I don't feel the same way now. I now - I envy people who have faith and I think it's possible I may regain it, although I would not go back to the Catholic Church.

GROSS: Where would you go, do you think?

MANTEL: To the Church of England, as founded by Henry VIII.

GROSS: Really?

(LAUGHTER)

MANTEL: Well, it's a very broad church.

GROSS: Don't you almost feel like you created it? Do you know what I mean? Because, like, in writing all these books, like, these figures are, like, in some way your creation. It is part fiction. So don't you - yeah.

MANTEL: I think that it's true in the sense that I have come to have great admiration for men like Thomas Cranmer who were among the founders of the Church of England and there is a certain amount of personal inspiration there.

GROSS: Well, Hilary Mantel, congratulations on your books and the Man Booker Prizes and thank you so very much for talking with us.

MANTEL: Thank you very much.

GROSS: Hilary Mantel, speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in November. Mantel's historical novel about the reign King Henry VIII, "Bring Up the Bodies," is now out in paperback.

DAVIES: Coming up, "The Daily Show" Senior British Correspondent, John Oliver.

This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.