Hilary Mantel’s Characters

A commotion at the door. It is Christophe. He cannot enter in the ordinary way; he treats doors as his foe.

When it became de rigueur a few years back for every book club to sweat over the first two installments of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy and its dense prose about Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII, I had no interest in joining the crowd. (This was mostly due to a general lack of interest in history about which I should probably feel more guilty than I, in fact, do.) But an article in the NYRB excerpting Hilary Mantel’s directions to the actors in the stage adaptation changed my mind.

Her notes are both gorgeously written and keenly observant, in the way only the greatest of writers can be, illuminating not just some new aspect of a specific character but even new knowledge about how to see people, how to know them. “You are more splendid than stout,” she counsels the man who will play Cardinal Wolsey. To the woman who will play Anne Boleyn, “Charm only thinly disguises your will to win.” To Thomas Cromwell: “You have learned from every situation you have been in.”

Into human beings she never knew, Mantel breathes life–headstrong, recognizable, and yes modern life. Such intensely personal insights about human nature abound in the books, too. The quotation above refers to a minor character from Bring Up the Bodies (the second book in the trilogy), but can’t you just see him? Throwing open doors as if every entrance is a battle he’s winning?

Another favorite of mine from Bring Up the Bodies is this brutally efficient, yet glancingly empathetic, summary of two other major characters’ spiritual failings:

Troubled men both, he thinks, Wriothesley and Riche, and alike in some ways, sidling around the peripheries of their own souls, tapping at the walls: oh, what is that hollow sound?

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