After an eight-year wait, Hilary Mantel’s third Cromwell book finally hit bookshelves this week, hailed by critics as a triumphant finale to what Fourth Estate has called an “extraordinary journey” for both publisher and author.
Mantel’s long-time editor Nicholas Pearson (below right) admitted the moment had a touch of melancholy to it for him. The Mirror and the Light marks the culmination of a 15-year project that saw Wolf Hall, initially only meant to be a single book, spiral into a trilogy—with two Booker wins to date, and huge sales. He said: “To speak for myself, it’s been an incredibly happy and satisfying relationship. It’s such a thrill to see a writer who I’ve long admired getting the attention and the readership she’s deserved. It’s made me happy.”
Pearson was sent the opening pages of Wolf Hall back in 2005 and came to realise things would change for an author who had enjoyed great critical success but not racked up large sales until that point. He said: “I think you could feel things beginning to change for her with Beyond Black (Fourth Estate). That certainly took her up a step.
“But I could really feel the change coming once I sent the proofs out for Wolf Hall. I thought that book was incredible when I read it, and then from the reaction in the run-up to publishing that book, from writers and other people who read the proof. I thought, ‘I’m not alone, something’s changed here’. So it proved. What has been remarkable is she has kept it going with her subsequent two books.”
Amid the largely glowing reviews branding The Mirror and the Light a masterpiece, some eyebrows have been raised at the book’s length. Running just short of 900 pages, it’s a huge book in every way. Pearson said the editing process had been “incredibly uncomplicated”, with him mainly leaving Mantel alone to write it. “My role is simply to encourage her and to tell her to crack on,” he said. “There are no great editorial interventions in the Wolf Hall trilogy, I can tell you that.”
He went on: “It was a complicated book for her to write because there’s a lot going on in this story, in the last four years of his [Thomas Cromwell’s] life. There seems to be tremendous excitement over it—you can feel it, it’s tangible. I think the long wait from Bring Up the Bodies has only helped build that, in a certain sort of way. I do feel a slight bit of trepidation because the book is the book of her career, in my view, and I want everything to be right for her.”
All the planks are in place to make it a hit commercially as well as critically. The publicity campaign sees Mantel popping up everywhere from Waterstones Piccadilly this week to BBC Two, where a camera crew tracked her for six months. Meanwhile, bookshops have really got behind the title, with indies selling stacks of hardback pre-orders before the book’s release.
Three weeks before the launch, Waterstones said its pre-orders were already ahead of those for last year’s long-awaited Margaret Atwood title The Testaments (Chatto). Unlike the latter title, where unprecedented security measures were put in place to stop hackers and leaks, measures taken for Mantel have been a little less aggressive. Fourth Estate has experience with security for titles such as former prime minister David Cameron’s memoir last year and, while people who had seen an early copy were asked to sign non-disclosure agreements, there were no “security guards around the printer”, as publishing director David Roth-Ey put (below left) it.
Roth-Ey said: “The plotting of the book is obviously different from the [Margaret] Atwood, so the sense of finding out... we know where the book is going to end. She’s been public about that, so that sense of, ‘will Harry Potter die?’, that intrigue has been sort of stripped out of it. That said, we have taken strong precautions to have NDAs around the text, but nothing on the level of the Atwood. I think the desire for hackers to hack us, it is certainly there and we are aware of it. We’re putting in place all the measures you would expect.”
With Mantel mania set to even eclipse excitement around the Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, Roth-Ey said publishers were always trying to find a balance between creating attention for their books and over-hyping them. But he admitted: “In this case there’s no question that this is the literary event of the year, if not the decade. I think millions of readers have been on this journey with her and I think she’s really bridged literary readers, and she’s infused new life into historical fiction as well. I think she’s got an immense blog reach and there’s a massive amount of anticipation for the book.
“We’ve been waiting a long time, readers have been waiting for a long time, she’s been working on it for a long time, and so I think all of those things come together to just make it an undeniable event.”
Roth-Ey revealed there had been some debate with art director Julian Humphries around what to do for the new book’s cover. An attempt to tie it to the previous two was ditched because the team felt so much time had passed that cover art aesthetics had moved on. He said: “We hummed and hawed. We did lots of things, but we felt it wasn’t working. So Julian went back to his creative well and came back with something really innovative, aesthetically beautiful, but also that weaves in themes from the book. There were some jumping-off points, some ideas that Hilary had flagged up as potential visual signifiers that could be elements of the cover design. Based on her suggestions and his creativity, we came up with the look we have. I think it’s really distinctive, modern and it really moves things along. Rather than just using traditional Tudor iconography, we’re managing to create that linkage and also show it’s a book that’s relevant for today as well.”
On the run
The publisher won’t confirm how many books are out there, aside from saying the print run is in line with the novel’s size. “It’s a big book,” said Roth-Ey. “We expect it to have a big impact, and we’re putting a lot of copies into the market.” But for Roth-Ey, the success of The Mirror and the Light is tribute not only to Mantel’s talent, but the faith and time put into her by his team. He said: “At a time when so many publishers are really looking for that new thing, for that début author, when there’s so much noise and so much money that’s going into trying to get that shiny new thing, it’s just been a spectacular thing for us to have an author like her join us mid-career. She didn’t start out at Fourth Estate and we’ve seen her really flourish here with her writing, and I hope that we’ve given her the space and support to deliver what really is a masterpiece across three books. Really, it’s a delight to see that come to fruition and to get the attention that it deserves.”
He added: “It is a culmination of an extraordinary journey that she takes us on, and that she’s gone on as a writer too. It’s the achievement of a lifetime. For us, who are publishing it, it’s a real privilege to have been involved in bringing this trilogy to the public. It’s been a real honour to be associated with it for everyone, not just within the imprint, but within the company as a whole.”