Hilary Mantel is an English novelist, short story writer, and critic. Her novel, Wolf Hall, won the Man Booker Prize in 2009.

How to Play ‘Wolf Hall’

 Remigius van Leemput's 1667 copy of Hans Holbein's

Anne Boleyn: From the moment you enter public consciousness, you carry the projections of everyone who is afraid of sex or ashamed of it. You will never be loved by the English people, who want a proper, royal Queen like Katherine, and who don’t like change of any sort. Does that matter? Not really.

Bring Up the Bodies: An Inquisition

King Henry VIII of England; sixteenth-century portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger
In this passage from Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, George Boleyn, the brother of Anne Boleyn, has been arrested. Henry VIII has turned against his sister, the queen. George here meets with Thomas Cromwell, the king’s chief minister. Francis Bryan is a leading courtier, caught between allegiances: he is …

Bring Up the Bodies

Portrait of Henry VIII from The Psalter of Henry VIII, circa 1540
“I wish you had been here this morning,” Lady Rochford says with relish. “It was something to witness. The king and Anne in the great window together, so everybody in the courtyard below could see them. The king has heard about the quarrel she had with Norris yesterday. Well, the whole of England has heard of it. You could see the king was beside himself, his face was crimson. And she holding up the little princess to him, as if to say, ‘Husband, how can you doubt this is your daughter?’”

The Magic of Keith Thomas

‘The Concert in an Egg’; painting after Hieronymus Bosch, circa 1561
There never was a merry world since the fairies left off dancing and the parson left conjuring. —John Selden (1584–1654) The English historian Keith Thomas has revealed modes of thought and ways of life deeply strange to us, and he illustrates them with precise evidence. In his Religion and the …

Dreams & Duels of England

William Hogarth: The Denunciation; or, A Woman Swearing a Child to a Grave Citizen, 1729. In The Ends of Life, Keith Thomas writes of this painting, ‘Masculine honour was vulnerable to malicious paternity suits. [Here] a pregnant girl is being coached by her lover into swearing before a magistrate that a respectable elderly citizen (apparently a Dissenting clergyman) is the father of her child.’
We live in a society basted in self- regard, our moralists tell us; fat and dozy on the lion’s share of the world’s resources, polluting the seas and burning fossil fuels, we gaze in loving torpor at our own reflection, and the gnat-bite of recession barely disturbs our narcissistic trance.

The War Against Women

A prostitute in the Calle Cuauhtemoctzin, Mexico City, 1934
There was once a woman who never smiled. Her name was Bao Si and she was a concubine to a king of the Zhou dynasty, which flourished in China after 1000 BCE. The king wanted so much to see her smile that he scoured the kingdom for entertainers and performing …

Cromwell & Wolsey: From ‘Wolf Hall’

Thomas Cromwell was born in Putney, just outside London, around 1485. His father was a brewer and blacksmith. Details of his education are unknown. Aged about fifteen, Cromwell ran away from home, and seems to have joined the French army, fighting as a mercenary in Italy. Lost to sight for …

From ‘Wolf Hall’

Thomas Cromwell was born in Putney, outside London, around 1485. Little is known of his family, but his father, a brewer and blacksmith, had court convictions for drunkenness and assault. Wolf Hall, my new novel from which this excerpt is taken,[^*] imagines for Cromwell a hungry, anxious, and desolate childhood.

The Shadow Line

Some writers begin by lulling their readers, some by shocking them. J.M. Coetzee begins by starting an argument. The narrator of Diary of a Bad Year, of whom we as yet know nothing, is speaking of the nature of the state. Hobbes is the first name to occur. Why are …

The Fate of a Demon

Early in Mischa Berlinski’s gripping and entertaining first novel there is a piece of postmodern skittishness which points to a truth that novelists shy away from: their trade embarrasses them. When you first start making things up, you expect that someone is going to tell you to stop. Perhaps you …

Insight Without Anger

There is a time, before we can read, when our lives are an open book. Before we are unleashed on our neighborhood we learn about privacy; we learn that some things—usually facts about money—are to be kept within the family. Then, long before we are emotionally mature, we learn about …

The Perils of Antoinette

She arrived naked; on an island in the Rhine, on May 7, 1770, in a pavilion especially built for the purpose, the Austrian princess Antonia was stripped of her clothes under the cold and curious gaze of a party of aristocrats. She was fourteen years old, and she cried while …

Revelations for the West

We want to know who’s taking us on this ambitious voyage through India and Pakistan, through Kashmir, Afghanistan, Nepal, and Tibet, and in his opening chapter, “Learning to Read,” Pankaj Mishra offers us a self-portrait. We are back in the 1980s; a young scholar sits in a library in Benares, …

The Right to Life

The trial of Dobie Williams lasted one week, from selection of jury to guilty verdict to death sentence. Dobie was a Louisiana man, poor and black and with an IQ of sixty-five. He was convicted of the murder of a forty-three- year-old white woman who was stabbed to death in …

Voices in the Dark

In May 1863, Eliza M. visited Cape Town, traveling by steamship from the South African port of East London. She was a young girl, Xhosa-speaking, mission-educated, and her first glimpse of city life came as Cape Town was celebrating a royal wedding in faraway England. The ocean had disconcerted her: …

The Hour Before Dawn

We are in the pause before war, days of deceptive calm. The Greek ships, en route for Troy, are trapped in the harbor at Aulis by an unseasonable, inexplicable wind. Calchas is a diviner, at present in favor with King Agamemnon, the Greek commander in chief. As the futile hours …

Strange News

When Norman Rush went to Botswana in 1978 he arrived in a country largely uncolonized by the writing imagination. As the Bechuanaland Protectorate, the country existed in the yellowed journals of missionaries, their pages crisped by the dry heat. Post-independence, it had one novelist, Bessie Head, a refugee from South …

Naipaul’s Book of the World

There are places on earth where, at certain moments in the cycle of day and night, the two are indistinguishable. It is impossible to know, without other referents, whether you are looking at dawn or dusk. And there are places at the margins of cities, or at the edges of …

Getting Through

This is a novel about a private and particular world, which the reader enters as an eavesdropper. The writing is so calm that it seems the text is listening to itself. Its accent is a dying fall and its only tricks are tricks of the light. It is set in …

A Past Recaptured

In Oliver Sacks’s book An Anthropologist on Mars, there is an essay on the artist’s memory. He remarks that it is the discontinuities in life that fuel reminiscence and, through reminiscence, myth and art: One may be born with the potential for a prodigious memory, but one is not born …

Before the Deluge

Writers aspire to lead useful lives; not useful to the community of course, but to themselves. Exotic or outcast origins are useful, and so is a talent for catastrophe, self-induced if need be. There is nothing so sad one can’t capitalize on it; the general rule for a writer’s life …

The Devil’s Playground

On April 19 of this year, in South Africa, thirty-nine drug companies jointly withdrew from a lawsuit aimed at protecting their patents. The suit had been brought by the pharmaceutical giants in response to a law passed in 1997, which allowed the South African health ministry to buy copies of …

The Monster We Know

In the heat of April, a new homeland forms about Bonny, a boy of seven or so: “Outside, birds cried continuously, sharp, clear, obstinate cries. Shadows of windows and façades had settled everywhere on parapets and bannisters.” On the balcony of his grandparents’ flat, the potted plants are half sunlit, …

Staring at the Medusa’s Head

When Serenity was three years old, his mother went shopping and never came back. For a long time he used to walk up to tall women who visited his Ugandan village, and say to them, “Welcome home.” He met often with baffled kindness, but finally with an experience of rejection …

Conservative Rebel

“Telling the truth is really a very difficult job indeed,” wrote Rebecca West. If, as she did, you live into your ninetieth year, your truth-telling is an enterprise likely to leave a trail of wounded in its wake. Born into the nineteenth century, she focused on the urgent concerns of …

Figures in a Landscape

When writers of fiction go out to peddle their wares to the public, one of the favorite audience questions is “How long did this book take to write?” It is a question which makes sense to readers, obviously, and to journalists, who like to sift authors into categories like “late …

A Legacy

As leaves turn and the English air grows crisp, authors wither and decline; even those who haven’t a novel entered for the Booker Prize feel quite ill when its season comes around. It’s expectations and effects devastate UK publishing each fall. Rumors of judges’ feuds and unofficial long-lists seep like …