When I heard the distressing news that Hilary Mantel had died, I went back and listened to an interview I’d done with her in 2020, upon the publication of The Mirror & the Light, the final novel in her celebrated Thomas Cromwell trilogy. There was the voice I remembered: light and amused, the r’s bending slightly into w’s, still bouncing with the Derbyshire accent of her childhood.
As always, there was a stickpin inside that lovely cloth, the steel that held it together. I asked her about the parallels between Cromwell, stretching his doomed hand toward Europe, and the current pack of mediocrities turning their backs on the continent. Brexit, she said with a sigh, reflected “the all-consuming nostalgia that lies over these little islands like a thick fog.”
If you asked why Mantel was my favourite contemporary writer, this is the quality I’d point to. She was light and dark, hilarity and horror, a pack of razor blades hidden inside a cloud of clotted cream. One minute you’d be dazzled by the prose, stuck dumb by the insights into human character, and the next you were on the floor laughing. “You know,” says one of the characters in her 2005 novel Beyond Black, “I really think when men talk it’s worse than when they don’t.”
In her astonishing memoir Giving Up the Ghost, she writes about undergoing surgery for the endometriosis that racked her body for her entire adult life: “I was waiting for the surgeons, coming tomorrow to cut me up; it was the last thing they would do, before going home to their families to carve the Christmas fowl.”
In 2012, I went to interview Mantel in the coastal Devon town where she lived, improbably named Budleigh Salterton. It was the kind of place where the vicar does not realize that arsenic has been placed in his tea at the village fete. A perfect place, then, for the mistress of acerbic horror, the improbable literary love child of Mary Shelley and Evelyn Waugh.
Mantel had an extraordinary face dominated by huge blue eyes that were at once mischievous and measuring. It was as if she were trying to discern whether you might share her jokes. She was just about to release Bring Up the Bodies, the second novel in the Cromwell trilogy, which, after a lifetime of publishing well-received non-blockbusters, would bring her fame, wealth and two Booker Prizes. She sat in her sun-drenched flat and raised an eyebrow: “It just goes to show, you can’t go wrong with Henry VIII.”
This, of course, was a monumental under-selling of her achievement, a particularly British bit of self-deprecation. Not that she underestimated either her mission or her ability to execute it. As she said in the 2017 Reith lecture for the BBC, “My concern as a writer is with memory, personal and collective: with the restless dead asserting their claims.”
She had already revivified history in two previous novels, shocking the fictional to life as effectively as Mary Shelley had two centuries earlier. In The Giant, O’Brien (1998), she generously inhabited the skin of the 18th-century Irish giant Charles O’Brien. Her majestic reimagining of the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety, was the first book she wrote but the fifth published. No publisher wanted a twentysomething English girl’s lengthy take on something so serious.
Mantel was used to such condescension, which she recorded and spat out later in acid-drenched vignettes: The psychiatrist, overlooking her very real endometriosis, who diagnosed her with “over-ambition” and told her to go work in a dress shop; the other psychiatrist who told her to stop writing because it was upsetting her nerves.
How fortunate we are that she didn’t stop, and that one day she heard a voice in her head say, “So now get up.” Attuned to the past, brilliant at channelling literary ghosts, Mantel listened to the voice and realized she was seeing through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s consigliere, “the second man in England.” The voice and the story arrived at once, she said, “like a gift.” But you have to know what to do with a gift once it’s handed to you.
And Mantel did. It’s hard to overstate the significance of the trilogy that began with Wolf Hall in 2009. They are books written in a peculiar tense, the historical present, about people who are familiar from history class but wildly distant from us in their morality, their cosmology, their faith. Yet they are as real as our own imperfect selves: “Do you think I am saved?” Cromwell asks in The Mirror & the Light. “I am covered in lamp black and my hands smell of coin, and when I see myself in a glass I see grime – I suppose that is the beginning of wisdom?”
At one point, Cromwell is visited by the ghost of his persecuted mentor, Cardinal Wolsey. All of Mantel’s books are concerned with hauntings, in one way or another: the spirit of Princess Diana telling a psychic to “bog off” in Beyond Black, the various ghosts who inhabit her memoir (her stepfather, the children she will never have, the stories she will never write). It is as if she had a particular sensitive antenna for things the rest of us couldn’t see. We are profoundly lucky that she passed through this world, and shared her vision with us.
The Globe and Mail reviews Hilary Mantel
The Mirror and the Light is the superb conclusion to Hilary Mantel’s trilogy of novels about Thomas Cromwell
The Globe interviews Hilary Mantel
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