Man Booker winner takes Folio book as inspiration

Hilary Mantel cites Thomas Wolsey: his Life and Death

The Booker Prize judge Michael Prodger has drawn our attention to an article by Hilary Mantel in The Guardian in which she discusses her inspiration for her winning novel Wolf Hall. She was already planning a 'Tudor novel', possibly based on Thomas Cromwell, the minister so often reviled in history books. Yet when she bought a copy of a Folio book, George Cavendish's Thomas Wolsey: his Life and Death, Mantel felt that the cardinal seemed to speak to her directly from the page. Cardinal Wolsey became her key to understanding Cromwell, and also a character who wanted to muscle his way into every scene.

Hilary Mantel has written of her appreciation for Cavendish and her reliance on him: "his beady eye for detail, his intimacy, his eye for emotional truth and his rolling, robust phrases. He functioned as a textbook for me: Learn to Talk Tudor. I reread him till the rhythm of his prose was natural to me."

Some of those details are delightfully intimate: Wolsey had such powers of concentration, Cavendish tells us, that he worked 12 hours at a stretch and "never rose once to piss, nor yet to eat any meat"; others are poignant, he remembers Cromwell praying and weeping at the Cardinal's disgrace. As Hilary Mantel points out, she's hardly the first author to find inspiration in Cavendish's memoir. Shakespeare also plundered the book for Henry VIII, and perhaps more. Was it Cavendish's description of an ambitious courtier as 'hungry and lean' that inspired the famous phrase in Julius Caesar?

This is a thrilling example of why The Folio Society values these first-hand, eyewitness memoirs from history. Later historians may be able to bring a more objective view, but no-one can give us the flavour, the colour, the scent of history like those who lived through it and recorded what they knew. Sadly, Cardinal Wolsey: his Life and Death is currently out of print; however, we are very moved that Hilary Mantel's work of genius found its 'Tudor textbook' in the 'faded grey cover' of a Folio Society edition.

last modified: Mon, Sep 12th 2011Bookmark and Share
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