Hilary Mantel: “The royal family are seen as show business, they are treated trashily”

The historical novelist behind Wolf Hall talks about her controversy with the royals and why sometimes it’s important to live in the past

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Strangely, for a woman who’s about to deliver the prestigious Reith Lectures on Radio 4, Hilary Mantel doesn’t like making public statements. “I find it very painful to be constantly called on to comment,” says the two-time Booker Prize-winning author of Wolf Hall, its sequel Bring Up the Bodies and 16 other acclaimed books, including 2014’s provocatively titled The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. “I like complexity, not yes or no answers. But I find my actual opinions don’t count for much compared to the opinions people foist on me.”

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By which Mantel means the time she called Kate Middleton a “plastic princess”, words widely interpreted as an attack on the young royal. “It was not an attack on Kate Middleton, but the way she is treated,” she says of the comment, made during a 2013 lecture. “I said, ‘Don’t do to this young woman what you’ve done to Diana.’ But it has become worse; the process has intensified since she became a mother. The royal family are seen as show business, they are treated trashily.”

Arguably Mantel has done rather well herself from treating the royal family, in this case the Tudors, as a branch of the entertainment industry. Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodieshave together sold more than three million copies in the UK and US. “The process of identifying yourself in your plain little life with these larger-than-life archetypal figures is to my advantage,” she admits. “But what I find irksome today is that great reverence is professed for the Queen herself, but it must be painful for her to see her family treated the way they are by the press. So the idea that the Queen is being exempted from this process of inflicting humiliation is quite false.”

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Mantel is 64 and still speaks in the burr of the Peak District, where she grew up, and it seems she retains a grudge as well. “Now every time I make a public statement, it’s likely to appear in the Daily Mail as a criticism of the Duchess of Cambridge. Everything gets referred back to that. Once you’re a monster in some quarter, you’re never really going to live down your reputation.” This monster’s lair is an apartment in Sunningdale in Berkshire. There is an old PC in the corner with a mouse mat printed with a picture of Mark Rylance playing Thomas Cromwell in the television production of Wolf Hall, which cemented the success of the trilogy. As yet there’s no sign of the concluding novel, The Mirror and the Light.

“I hope to finish next year,” she says. “But I don’t know what point next year. It’s certainly pushing very strongly now to be written.” That sounds distinctly unfinished. “I’m absorbed, but I’m not worried. My eye is very much on the next scene, the next line. It’s not really on the expectations of the world. You have to have a certain confidence in yourself. You don’t know quite how the book’s working; it reveals itself to you, as it reveals itself to the reader.”

How does it do that? “When you are trying to recreate someone’s world in the 16th century, you pretend you’re there and sit and listen. I do a lot of that, putting myself into someone’s milieu and closing my eyes and thinking ‘Now what can I hear in this room?’”

Presumably a decent glass of malmsey helps the alchemy occur. “I don’t drink now. It’s not really a health thing [Mantel has endometriosis], it just gave up on me, began to suit me less as time went by and the notion of a drink in the evening just dropped out of my life. I don’t really have any vices associated with writing, I’m afraid.”

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She writes wherever and whenever she can, often in the car as her husband of 35 years, Gerald McEwen, drives between their home in Devon and the Sunningdale flat, bought so she could be nearer to London – but not in it – and her elderly mother in Suffolk. “She has all her mental capacities,” says Mantel. “She’s 90, the women in my family never die.”

The Reith Lecture is in five parts and will explore the business of historical fiction and how, on the flimsiest evidence, we can create the voices of long dead people like Cromwell, Henry VIII’s common-born adviser and nemesis of Anne Boleyn who becomes, in Mantel’s hands, immensely likeable. Mantel will argue against romanticising the past, or seeing it as a gory, primitive horror show, suggesting that well written fiction doesn’t betray history but enhances it.

She recently criticised other historical novelists for including bibliographies in their books as if they were actual historians. Most people thought she meant the bestselling historical novelist Philippa Gregory. “Absolutely not. The Times decided that I was thinking of her.” Why? “Because we’re both women. They like the idea of women being rivals.”

She is very conscious of the way women in the public eye are judged, especially during an election. “I think it’s a problem for women in public life that the main models for public life and public service are male ones,’ she says. “I think Theresa May has handled the question of her femininity well, she doesn’t strike you as a man in drag, which a lot of female politicians do. However, I think it’s very hard to find if she has any principles at all. She seems entirely subsumed by personal ambition.”

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What really annoyed Mantel was May’s reaction to Jeremy Corbyn’s public response to the Manchester bombing, criticising British foreign policy. Even though Corbyn reminds her of “the people I used to know in student politics back in the 1970s”, he is “a man of principle and he got the response to the bombing right”. May, she says, didn’t. “I think she’s making party political capital out of it and being extremely disingenuous. It’s the implication that Corbyn is blaming Britain for the actions of terrorists, whereas in fact he’s saying our foreign policy doesn’t exist in a vacuum. We do thankfully have some impact on the world. It isn’t a game. This is very different from saying we are to blame.”

Mantel recorded her first Reith Lecture in Manchester on the night of the bombing, though she wasn’t fully tuned in to its effects until she went to the airport in the morning. “The atmosphere was very emotional,” she says. “To be in a big crowd, to feel that emotion transmitting from one person to another. You really did feel if anything went wrong, somebody might just sit down and howl and then everyone would. I can’t speak too highly of the staff because they kept things moving; I did think, ‘That’s Manchester, that is, what people are like.’ A lot of guts, but a lot of gentleness as well.”

Mantel has been warning of the dangers of militant Islam since she lived in Saudi Arabia in the mid-1980s and saw the dislike of the West. “There were people who actually thought democracy was quite wicked and I don’t think that has changed,” she says. “Not just Saudi Arabia, but in militant Islam in general, the way of life and the ideals of the West are more abominated than ever.

“We have lost our sense of history, but Islamic militants talk about the Crusades as a present living insult. Their sense of history is something seething beneath the surface, an active force in present-day affairs. Our sense of history is: it’s a subject, you pass an exam in it. So if there is one justification for the kind of work I do, it’s to try to help people to imagine history not as a thing separate from them, but as a thing they are in.”

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The Reith Lectures are on Tuesday at 9am on Radio 4