I have spent much of the last twelve months reading and re-reading Hilary Mantel’s incredible Cromwell trilogy, Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, and The Mirror and the Light. Along with the text on the page, magnificent new readings of all three books by Ben Miles, who played Thomas Cromwell on stage for the Royal Shakespeare Company, have kept me enthralled, entertained, and energised.
Of course, over the past year, like many other people, I have been mostly staying at home due to the Covid-19 pandemic, so immersing myself in these books has been an important coping mechanism. This isn’t to say that they have necessarily been an comfortable read. Running throughout the trilogy is the sweating sickness, and there are many instances of loss, pain and death. And in the 1520s, in the trilogy, Cromwell and his family have themselves to undergo a period of isolation, just as so many people have done in 2020 and into 2021;
Mercy comes in and says, a fever, it could be any fever, we don’t have to admit to the sweat … If we all stayed at home, London would come to a standstill. ‘No’, he says. ‘We must do it. My lord cardinal made these rules and it would not be proper for me to scant them.’Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall: Part Two, Chapter Two, An Occult History of Britain, 1521-1529
There is overwhelming grief contained in all three books, but there is humour too, and warmth, loyalty, and love. There are amazing foods and furnishings, politics and governance, gardens and London streets, the River Thames and the Narrow Sea. And there is fabric. So much fabric. Linen and velvet, satin and brocade, embroidered, quilted, draped, rolled – these books make you want to touch and feel cloth.
One of the things that has helped me through this current extended period of isolation and disruption has been stitching. I recognise how privileged I am to have been able to spend the time this way, and how fortunate I am to know how to sew. As well as keeping me occupied, it has added to my deep pleasure in the Cromwell trilogy. As someone who plies a needle almost every day, I find the act of stitching in the trilogy to be endlessly fascinating – who sews, what they sew, what that sewing represents, what tools are used. I have been obsessed with these references since first reading Wolf Hall in 2009. I remember the first time I read a description of Anne Boleyn looking ‘small and tense as if someone has knitted her and drawn the stitches too tight’, and the pleasure I took from these words. Mantel’s writing about cloth and what can be done with it is, perhaps, particularly pleasurable for those who work with textiles. Back in 2014, I wrote about some of the textile references here and I made a small Cromwell-related quilted piece.
In June 2020 I finished reading The Mirror and the Light for the first time. The visceral shock of the ending stunned me, then haunted my dreams. I re-read Mantel’s Beyond Black, and then restarted Wolf Hall. In August, there was a heatwave and I couldn’t bear to sit under the heavy quilt I was then working on. I wanted something small, unlayered, and cooler to stitch. I started – in a rather unfocused way – to chain stitch the words ‘Mirror’ and ‘Light’, on to strips of white fabric, just to see how it felt.
In a brief period, when lockdown was eased, I made my one and only trip into the City of London of 2020 and took the sewing to the Austin Friars, where Cromwell once owned a house. And then, as a way of processing what I had read I just kept sewing, and it soon became apparent that I had embarked upon an enormous, immersive sewing project. I spent the rest of 2020 stitching the chapter titles from The Mirror and the Light. Then Bring Up the Bodies. Then Wolf Hall. I finished chainstitching all the titles on 29 December 2020.
I’m now engaged in quilting all these words, but that’s another story. Or, as Mantel puts it so beautifully in Wolf Hall: ‘Beneath every history, another history.’