November 20, 2023 | The Millions
Hilary Mantel wrote with a novelist’s flair and a historian’s mind. Her fiction overflows with the busy detritus of life: this plate of fruit, that whispered threat, children at play, a plucked string. The accretion of detail in her Wolf Hall trilogy is so overwhelming that the dazzled reader can barely catch a breath, find a pencil, and look for trends. Yet behind the propulsive narrative and luminous prose are themes that would do any scholar proud. Mantel’s critique of the Catholic church, distilled in the sanctimonious person of Sir Thomas More, burns like blue flame. She also closely observed the constraints that societies place on women. In Tudor England, Anne Boleyn interested the author as much as Thomas Cromwell. When Mantel brings the two together, we see a woman in a man’s world colliding with power’s natural avatar; it is like watching Katherine Graham and Lyndon Johnson dance a tango. Yet Anne got her way. For a time.
In contrast to the onrushing pace of her novels, Mantel’s nonfiction is ponderous and analytical. It arrives in long paragraphs rather than saber-quick repartee. Mantel the essayist was eager for ideas, light on her feet, yet sharp as a raptor. A Memoir of My Former Self, published last month, collects her historical essays, personal memoir, and criticism. The Reith Lectures are here, as is the famous provocation “Royal Bodies.” (“Royal persons are both gods and beasts. They are persons but they are supra-personal, carriers of a bloodline: at the most basic, they are breeding stock, collections of organs.”) The common element is writing of subtle wit and penetrating clarity, patiently observed and sparklingly rendered. With some great writers you feel: I could never have put it so well. With Mantel, who died last year at the age of 70, being bested by the writing is a given. First you realize: I had never even thought of that before. I would read her on anything and still can’t believe she’s gone.
The editors of this collection cleverly open with an anti-manifesto. “On the One Hand,” a short piece from The Guardian, reveals Mantel’s ambivalence with the small-beer of journalistic hackwork. She loved reading newspapers and wrote for them frequently as a book critic, film reviewer, and even opinion columnist. Yet she never quite trusted the enterprise and felt that its chief appeals were publicity and money. “If you have stamina and persistence, and your publisher sticks by you,” she writes, “you might, after forty years or so, frame a response to life that’s worth the paper it’s written on.” There is a difference between greasy fish-and-chips newsprint and a resplendent copy of The London Review of Books: not all deadline copy is created equal. Yet the point is well taken. Books endure; periodicals are recycled. The best of Mantel’s journalism here takes on a sheen of permanence by the very act of being bound and shelved.
One of her recurring subjects is our impossible expectations of royal women. From Anne Bolyn to Kate Middleton, Mantel appraises with a relentless eye the way female monarchs dangle above the ravenous mouths of their fickle subjects. In an extraordinary essay on Marie Antoinette from 2007, she takes issue with a historian of the French Revolution who suggested that the doomed consort’s love of fashion was a sort of proto-feminist statement. Mantel views Antoinette as an overmatched swan whose “empty self-regard” drove her every movement. Sympathizing with her is fine, she argues, but we might expect more from a queen: “[T]o reflect the great world only through what you wear is surely an acceptance, an accentuation of a subservient feminine role.” Such a lens invites us “to look at the Revolution as a giant piece of theater, and this year it is a girlie show.” History compresses into eras, not fads—fashion being the most ephemeral fad of all.
The writing life makes an appearance in several essays. (As it does in her novels; at one point in A Place of Greater Safety, a character notes that “there’s nothing in this breathing world so gratifying as an artfully placed semicolon.”) Mantel contrasts the restless, manic state of almost being ready to sit down at the desk with the “post-book mope” after a major project is finished at last. In between, she describes endless tinkering, the fear that wordsmithing substitutes style for thought, and a particular passage that she re-wrote forty times to get right. The most arresting observation is the way the muse might unexpectedly call at any hour with fresh ideas. (To be so lucky!) “There are no hiding places,” she writes; “your book has eyes everywhere.”
One of the hallmarks of Mantel’s writing is her inimitable way of punctuating phrases with fighting words. She is one of the great finishers of sentences, paragraphs, and chapters, often with short, hard, elemental images of vivid power. Princess Diana “was a young woman of scant personal resources who believed she was basking with dolphins when she was foundering among sharks.” When Cromwell thinks of Pope Farnese in The Mirror and the Light, “he wants to cross the seas and mountains and grab him by the throat.” Her advice to writers, from her exquisite 2003 memoir Giving Up the Ghost: “Work out what it is you want to say. Then say it in the most direct and vigorous way you can. Eat meat. Drink blood.” With such raw language, Mantel snaps the reader’s head around and establishes vital stakes. Life is on the line, her prose everywhere exclaims. No playing for pennies.
Throughout the collection, it is striking to see which experiences from Giving Up the Ghost were searing enough to reappear in Mantel’s personal essays. The sudden disappearance of her father from her life at age 11. The trauma of being disbelieved by male doctors and shunted off as hysterical when her symptoms of endometriosis could not be easily sourced. How treatment for that disease rendered her menopausal before age 30 and left her “an unwilling stranger in my own body.” Mantel also describes her four-year sojourn in Saudi Arabia while her husband worked for a mining company. Unable, as a woman, to leave her Jeddah apartment by herself, she huddled in a small room and finished her first novel. In these pieces and others Mantel displays a feminism that is based less on modern notions of identity than the timeless province of the female body: its autonomy, and the uses, and violence, to which it is put by men.
Mantel the historian-novelist had one overarching subject, and it was not the past, the Church, feminism, or power. It was the human condition. Close one of her books and you emerge into the light dazzled yet keen, like an eye doctor’s patient wearing a slightly stronger prescription. Enlivened, you see the world more clearly in all its beauty and pain. Upon learning in Wolf Hall that his protégé Cromwell has tragically lost his wife, Cardinal Wolsey’s hands fly to his heart. He bows his head and prays. In this beautiful passage a mentor becomes a father and faith is made real. Mantel did not invent England, Westminster Abbey, or these two men, who walked the Earth five hundred years ago. But she laid their lives in our hands and put light in their eyes.
And now her own light has gone out. A Memoir of My Former Self is Mantel’s last book, so closing it means hearing her final thoughts. The collection fittingly ends with death, which is the completion of life. Once memory begins to fade, she suggests, art is what allows us to connect us to those who have come before: “Art brings back the dead, but it also makes perpetual mourners of us all.” Mantel understood that her life’s work was to attempt a sort of resurrection and thereby stitch the centuries closer together. Now she has joined Cromwell, More, Henry, and Boleyn in the grave, although her books will live on. Hilary Mantel has become, at last, a ghost.