Thanks must go to Obiter’s friends at JUSTICE for an evening with favourite author Dame Hilary Mantel on 11 February. Absent readers who like to play a family game Obiter calls ‘senior judiciary and famous QC bingo’ missed something of a treat at Middle Temple Hall.
But the real star at this fundraiser was Mantel herself who, in former lord chief justice Igor Judge’s words, ‘needs probably less introduction than Magna Carta’.
As readers will know, her Wolf Hall novels series centres on the career of lord high chancellor Sir Thomas Cromwell, trusted adviser to Henry VIII (until he wasn’t).
To get in the zone, Mantel owned a keenness for Christopher St Germain’s 1528 law primer Doctor and Student, though she prefers its longer title A Dialogue Between Law and Conscience, ‘which would have been an excellent title for my three books’ she reflected, ‘but I can’t see it shining down on Broadway’.
The frustrating limits of neon lighting as a writing medium has not been the only problem in bringing legal wizard Cromwell to a wider public. ‘Non-lawyers say, “give us a trial!”,’ Mantel noted – she prefers to write ‘around’ trials.
Anyone back on their sofa for that evening’s 9pm Wolf Hall will know that TV producers succeeded where Mantel’s editor failed, putting Thomas More in a courtroom where Richard Rich ‘prowls round the room’ like a modern trial lawyer. ‘I would have preferred him to stay still,’ she confessed.
As readers are no slouch when it comes to history, they will guess that Cromwell himself gets to go on trial in the third, unfinished, book The Mirror and the Lights.
Mantel read an excerpt, of Rich interrogating Cromwell in the privacy of the Tower (we’ll see if producers have this rewritten as the trial). In this scene, asked by Rich about the source of his early wealth, Cromwell answers ‘private practice… and long hours’.
Truly, a character who is made to walk off the page.
The next event in JUSTICE’s ‘Law & Literature’ series is on 30 April, when Ian McEwan will read from his new book The Children’s Act.
Eduardo Reyes is Gazette features editor