These images, taken by Ben and George Miles, vaguely trace the life of Thomas Cromwell, from what are now satellite towns west of London, through the City and the Tower, where he died in 1540. The River Thames is the great artery that feeds these places, as in the 16th century it supported the principal city of England.
The project began around the time Ben was cast as Cromwell in the stage versions of the first two novels, hall of wolves and Bring up the bodies. The goal was always to sneak around a location and get behind the obvious – to see what historic royal palaces left out for garbage collection, or to glimpse a ghost’s mantle tail. moving away from multi-purpose conference rooms or banquet halls. We believe that you do not adapt to the spirit of the place by serious investigation. You just hang out, make yourself available. You show yourself willing.
Sometimes all three of us were present during the making of an image, sometimes one or two, but our response was always divided. Sometimes it’s easier to show than to tell. When I’m asked questions about the writing process, I want to be honest, but sometimes I feel like my answers don’t go home; they sound either complacent or mysterious. It’s hard to articulate what comes before the words – hard to trace that web of neural connections that holds a novel together. I hope that by participating in this project, I can show how the creative process works for me. But the pictures do the text a disservice. They are images that exist in their time and on their own. They speak to the text. They ask questions, as I try to do. When I come across a piece of evidence, even the most egregious fact, I find it helpful to ask, “What is that? And then, “What else could it be?”
The first two books in the trilogy were adapted for the stage by Mike Poulton. Not all of the characters were famous names in the story, and sometimes they talked about incidents long forgotten by most people. In the rehearsal room, I wondered what happens when the names of the dead are spoken aloud, perhaps for the first time in centuries? What particular resonance takes place? In rehearsal, I used to keep two notebooks open. One was for the scene unfolding in front of me. The other was for scenes that unfolded in my imagination – projections into the final act of Cromwell’s story. So some of the incidents and conversations in The mirror & the light stemmed from repetition, but other developments flowed directly from these images. I looked back, as Cromwell does, on his childhood, and saw what I had missed. The camera picks up perception too fast for words, but with a glance – mine – the words begin to flow. Sometimes the writer can extract the essence of an image, and sometimes the image can extract the essence of the text, but the plan is to leave both intact – not to interrupt or overinterpret the image, but to open the inner eye.
There is a paradoxical process at work in writing a novel, and I also think of these images. By craftsmanship, by patience, by long practice and anticipation, you arrange for yourself a series of surprises – you throw effects that you are not aware of creating. In the first two books, I was obstinate like Cromwell, and dealt with facts and figures. In the third, I let my mind wander over what the record was missing. Although the third book required iron control – there was a lot of information to process and retrieve – it also asked me new things: that I surrender control, and dream, and accept the strangeness of my own company. For the writer as for the image maker, the process cannot be precisely managed. Accidents will happen. The movie plays unexpectedly when a camera is opened. The scratches and fog are like the writer’s headache, his loss of confidence, his blurry inner vision. You can’t pretend that these glitches don’t happen. But the “useless” working day is often, in retrospect, the most revealing.
What interests us is the creative friction that occurs when past and present come into contact. George Miles speaks of “the energy created when two unsympathetic things collide: plastic chairs and rood screens, chip shops and wood, the sacred and the profane”. The same is true for a writer. It occupies both the past and the present and is never absent from history. Every mark she leaves on the page shows her fingerprint, behind the text like a watermark.
One of the questions that has intrigued me is how “the past” becomes “history” – at what point does it set like a jelly, in a form that can be consumed by those who are not witnesses, perhaps? not yet alive? And I wonder, as any consumer of history must, about the slippery nature of the evidence, and why the record may fade or be altered: rats, bugs, fire, censorship, inkblots. When you read a document or look at an artifact, you must understand that for whatever it shows, something else may be hidden. Connections may exist that are non-causal, unfolding beneath the surface of events and can be glimpsed rather than grasped.
We are also interested in the fugitive elements that never marked the disc – the passerby as the main character. History is written by winners, but winners also shape geography. Certain characteristics are chosen to be noticed, century after century; it is these characteristics that define success, serve the conquering will. Other places are neglected and abandon history; structures erode or slide away from the eye. Collapsing wooden shacks and workers’ shelters huddle under the walls of palaces and cathedrals. Torn papers drift in the wind. As a novelist approaching the historical record, you try to pick up what is scattered, to relocate the abandoned, to consider what has been neglected. The purpose of these images is the same.
[See also: Hilary Mantel: “I had to be in middle age to imagine what the weight of life does to you”]
It is the central project of historical fiction: a first aid demonstration at the Tower of London where, in the presence of a man who is Tudor above the knee, a workman tries to bring a plastic artifact designed to simulate a human being. Another man crouched down to record the event on camera, a flash in hand. Invisible, offstage, a third person photographs him.
Now, you look at the photo and ask, what is going on here? What does this gesture mean, on the part of the woman in the pale dress whose hair hides her face? Who are the people who turn their backs and walk away, or those in the distance who seem to be climbing their own scaffold? The finger in the background suggests a choice of ways to go from here.
When we create historical fiction, we put the inert past on the table and denigrate it. We know it’s a man-made business. But for now, we feel it’s urgent and we’re doing our best. We feel that this flesh is alive under our hands and we don’t want to end up with anything but a corpse.
“The Wolf Hall Picture Book” by Hilary Mantel, Ben Miles and George Miles is published by 4th Estate
[See also: Hilary Mantel, 1952-2022]