People want to find order and beauty in the past, and the heritage industry is devoted to making sure they do. Offering to smooth out the relation between then and now, it only succeeds in holding the past in inverted commas, as between silver sugar tongs. When the grandeur and importance of historical sites is emphasized, the humble tourist who knows his place goes into the gift shop and looks at postcards, representations of the thing he feels unqualified to confront. The ground has been prepared for him and he has been set up to react. “Visitors faint here,” we were told, in the “Haunted Gallery” at Hampton Court.
If you want to think freshly about history you need to resist direction. Even if you avoid the tourist sites you can’t escape nagging. There is so much writing on the streets: walk don’t walk, turn don’t turn. There are symbols and suggestions on every wall, every post: interpretive screens between yourself and your subject. So when, as an author, you try to ground your project through topography, you may need to go against the flow, drag your heels, lurk in doorways like a child detective. Occasionally you feel you have caught the past unawares: in the depth of the Wiltshire countryside in a corner of the house called Wolfhall, or in a London street where the disengagement of strangers, their bustling preoccupation, creates a momentary void.
When I was writing about the 18th century, I trained myself not to see anything that was made after 1794. Once my characters were dead, it was no business of mine what the world looked like. Similarly, when writing the trilogy, I allowed myself to see remnants of the medieval world, but selected out the Elizabethan. This would mean climbing stairs that ended in mid-air, or excluding whole walls and wings: blanking portraits, ungrowing oak trees, diverting watercourses. After a while this becomes second nature. But though you may remodel the architecture and plow up the landscape, you can’t exclude those aspects of the contemporary that you yourself have a hand in generating. Those silk ropes are to keep you out, that partition exists to block your view, the fire extinguisher is placed where you might be able to use it. Past splendor is held intact by paper clips, rich robes need coat hangers, the recording of events requires broken pencils and scuffed filing cabinets.
When, as an author, you try to ground your project through topography, you may need to go against the flow, drag your heels, lurk in doorways like a child detective.
The “Wolf Hall” trilogy is not a panopticon. There is no place you can stand to see all its parts at once. It is more like the memory machine, the “built or constructed mind or soul”, created by the sage Giulio Camillo. Every book comes with an inner landscape that is never realized on the page. Just as you have a million phrases that never make the cut, so you have a head full of images never acknowledged. In a deleted passage from The Mirror & the Light, I imagined how the printed book, rapidly diffusing and multiplying in Cromwell’s day, furnishes the imagination with holy food: “each mark on the page is a chalice”. Each scribbled or printed phrase is like one of those bubbling cauldrons in myth, never exhausted. The image and the word don’t fight each other. Every stroke of the pen releases a thousand pictures inside the writer’s head.
It is obvious to me that no book is ever finished. It is surprising that any paragraph is finished. Quotations, allusions, keep inserting themselves, texts shouting out to other texts. The characters in the trilogy are irrepressible, because they are written on England.
When I began the project, I lived a mile or two from Woking Palace, which is now a ruin, but which for the early Tudors was a favored royal residence. The town’s football team, the Cards, is named after Cardinal Wolsey, and so is one of its shopping arcades. Leaving my house to drive towards Guildford, I would cross the territory of the Westons, the wealthy family of courtiers whose young son Francis was accused of adultery with Anne Boleyn. Chertsey Abbey lay across the heath, Windsor Castle along the river.
The past was written on the landscape, sometimes badly; as the villages around Woking began to sprawl and spread, builders did some light research as they trawled for street names for their new developments. So, en route to the supermarket, I skirted the end of Tudor Way, where mushroom apartment blocks were named for the Howards, the Parrs, the Boleyns and for the cardinal himself — misspelled as “Wolesley”. I myself, before I moved to a Victorian conversion, had my own Tudor new-build. Turning up at the site one evening to check on progress, I had met a lorry with a consignment of plastic beams and large sheets of “herringbone brickwork”, ready to be stuck on to the raw blocks. For a historical novelist, it was a sobering moment.
The characters in the [“Wolf Hall”] trilogy are irrepressible, because they are written on England.
My 2005 novel Beyond Black was set on this very patch of ground. Gouged and scarred, torn up by diggers, the air and ground shuddering, the site concealed certain unwelcome secrets that made it unexpectedly hard for the builders to finish the job and realize a profit. The novel’s main character was a professional psychic, to whom the “underscape” beneath the new streets was always visible, and to whom the dead were a cash proposition. Alison’s ghosts were a crew of malign spooks from Aldershot, the army town a few miles away. They were ex-servicemen, latterly employed as bookmakers, road haulers and dogsbodies in a traveling circus. The ghosts of the Cromwell trilogy would be black-clad clerks with ribboned folios beneath their arms. I am prepared to make space for them, because the characters in the trilogy themselves believed in survival after death, and many of those characters are haunted, though sometimes by their own deeds.
It is a mistake for writers to be too sophisticated. I long ago decided that if someone asks, “Do you believe in ghosts?” there is only one productive answer. If you say “no”, you close off the conversation forever. If you say, “Yes, and …” or “Yes, although …” you are in business.
But if you want to see the dead, you need do no more than look hard at the living. Revenants are perceived, rather than seen or heard. They are a disturbance, sometimes profound and physiological, sometimes just a ripple in the imagination. Every text is haunted, and the author is one of its phantoms, caught up in an endless process of reiteration. She has no sooner created her work, spending years choosing very specific words, than she is required to talk about it in soundbites, using other, lesser words. She is asked why she wrote it, and it’s not enough to claim, “It’s my job.” She has to produce a story about her relationship to that particular material, account for her attraction to it; it’s not enough to say, “I thought it would work.” Commentary begins as a faint nimbus but begins to outshine the text, even when the story is still in progress.
But the heritage ghost, the stoutly British spook, is not a literary conceit, found between the lines or in the white margin. He is solid enough to be monetized, and predictable in location; attached to a castle, abbey or great house, he is as much part of it as creaking wooden chests, or the deer that graze the park.
Ghosts, in fact, are an aspect of property rights. The laws that bound them during their lives are considered to bind them after death. We say a castle has a ghost, but we don’t say a ghost has a castle. The shock of being turned out of their bodies is not enough to make them rebels or malcontents. Dutiful as drudges on a rota, steady as if they carried mops and buckets, they trudge up and down spiral staircases on their nightly or yearly rounds. Fastened to their families of origin, their status is roughly that of stable boy or undergardener. Trapped in simple, picturesque histories, they are victims or villains — never the muddled or the compromised, the bad debtors or petty thieves. We do not know whether they work when there are no visitors. To try too hard to evoke them is to fail.
It is a mistake for writers to be too sophisticated.
One of the most disconcerting sites on our travels for The Wolf Hall Picture Book was a ground-floor room at Canonbury Tower [in London] where it seemed to me that one or more maladroit psychics had been holding seances. I have never been in a room so filled with turmoil and dislocation. It was as if remnants of the dead were strewn around, spare fingers or amputated feet. It spoke to my fear as a novelist, not of failing but of partly succeeding: that instead of recreating a whole person, I would leave my reader with a severed head.
What are the chances of getting the past right — persuading the dead to speak, without telling atrocious lies? To recreate the unphotographed world requires a radical act of imagination. Your subjects see and hear and remember in a way that is of their time and not yours. At the time of the early Tudors, ordinary people seldom saw themselves in mirrors; they may have been haunted by their ancestors, but not by themselves. They saw many fewer pictures than we do. There were still religious images, painted stories on church walls; for the wealthy, who had prayer books, these images were portable. An educated person might well recognize a printed image of Martin Luther, but the fleshly frame of Henry VIII is more familiar to us than to his contemporaries.
And there were aspects of experience that our ancestors did not hold in common. You could not share your memories with others. You couldn’t hold up a picture and say, “That’s where I was born.” Portraits as secular objects were new and for the rich; there was nothing to tell you what your grandfather looked like when he was a boy, nor did you have an image of your childhood self. Time flew, time wasted, time wasted you; you were a feather on the breeze. But you were saved from introspective nostalgia about the family face; or from lamenting the innocent you were, in the days when you wore your food plastered on your face, when your limbs spilled out of their confinement, and the sun shone every day.
In this as in so many respects, our ancestors’ inner world differs so much from ours that it defies reconstruction. So it is lucky that the lost and gone leave us tokens of absence: indented cushions, fossils and cigarette ash, writing on the walls. The novelist Alan Garner, reading graffiti in a waiting room, noticed under the names of two lovers a status update: “not really not now not any more”.
It’s hard to sort out the lost from the never was, and so one of my favorite pictures in The Wolf Hall Picture Book is of the place at Wolfhall where Henry didn’t marry Jane Seymour. The local tradition, the repeated story, leaves its own trace in the air, just as all the representations of a character in history or literature exist in a shadowy superimposition, crossing and meshing in ghostly outline. A story is constantly rewriting itself, undermining itself, taking on unexpected forms. The pictures in the book are an argument against complacency. They observe gaps and losses, what’s patched and imperfectly preserved, and they suggest the provisional nature of what seems settled. I wondered at one stage whether marrying them to text reduces them, by narrowing their meaning. It’s a risk. But perhaps one to take.
The Wolf Hall Picture Book will be available beginning January 10