By Jamie Ryder
History is considered an opportunity to look into the past, to appreciate what came before so it can inform our future. We’re given a glimpse of the human condition through studying the lives of historical figures. The spark of determination has burned through the ages, allowing us to become who we are today. Historical authors enjoy writing ideas down from the past. History is a playground for some writers, and for others it’s a duty to remember what’s been lost.
One writer in particular decided to take on the duty and she is none other than Dame Hilary Mantel. She brought history to life during the ‘Evening With Hilary Mantel’ event hosted at Manchester Metropolitan University. The event was presented by Dr Eileen Pollard and Dr Ginette Carpenter from the Department of English as part of the Humanities in Public Festival.
Mantel is the author of several novels, including the highly acclaimed Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies that depict the rise of Thomas Cromwell. She won the Booker Prize in 2009 and 2012 for both novels, making her the first woman to receive the award twice.
The event began with Dr Sharon Handley, the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, Languages and Social Science, welcoming everyone. After Mantel was introduced she said she was going to read a short story from The Assassination Of Margaret Thatcher collection called ‘How Shall I Know You?’ She explained that she came up with the story by inventing a fictional writer. Mantel admitted that “If you are going to invent an alter ego, it would be a bad idea to invent one who was doing better than you, professionally: you might develop envy towards your own creation, and try to kill her’” because they’ll be doing better than the writer themselves.
The story was about an ailing writer who travelled to East London to give a lecture to a literary society. As Mantel read aloud, it evoked a melancholic atmosphere that was uplifted with humour. She spoke about how as a writer the question is always “how good am I” and that translated into her prose. After the opening section, Dr Eileen Pollard asked Mantel several questions. She was curious to know about whether Mantel saw an imaginative space between the writer and reader. Mantel said that historical fiction writers look for the connection between “myth, folk meaning and the historical record” in order to fill the imaginative space.
The discussion moved to her opinion on the theatre and TV adaptions of Wolf Hall. Mantel said that she watched the theatre adaption in London while working on the third novel in the Cromwell trilogy called The Mirror And The Light. She “accidentally started a new career as a playwright” by becoming fascinated with how a novel translates onto the stage. She said that theatre anchored people to the present and as a historical fiction writer her characters “are living their lives forward.”
It was similar to what she saw on stage from actor Ben Miles who played Cromwell in the theatre production. He lived the part in the moment and Mantel became inspired to work on a book that deals with the “business of historical fiction and historical drama.” Pollard asked about the effect of fame and Mantel mentioned an incident with her neighbours before she was well known. They turned to each other and said “she’s the writer” and it made her feel like a “fish in an aquarium.”
The audience were soon invited to ask questions and one woman asked if Mantel felt protective of Cromwell. She admitted that she felt she “needed to protect him from posterity” as some historians have written about him unjustly. Another question revolved around whether her collaborative work influenced the writing of The Mirror And The Light. Mantel said that her books are about “locking characters down for conflict” and that whether on stage or off, they’re written in the moment.
After the Q&A session, Mantel read another short story called ‘The School Of English’. The story was set in Notting Hill and involved two characters called Marcella and Mr Maddox. Mantel found inspiration for the story by boarding a late night train and seeing the London Evening Standard strewn about the carriages. She said there’s “something sordid and melancholy about papers that have been read by other people.”
The event ended with a massive round of applause and promise of a book signing. Mantel proved why she’d earned a reputation of one of the greatest living writers today. She is concerned with “listening to suppressed voices” and bringing them to life on the page, or in her own words “raising the dead.”
History and the people who came before us shouldn’t be taken for granted. It’s writers like Mantel who continue to show the spark of human determination. The evening was both an appreciation of the past and a reminder of the future being in our hands.