Hilary Mantel and the Living Past

The late historical novelist, who brought Tudor England alive, falls victim to distortions

The world will remember the life of Hilary Mantel, who died on September 22 at age 70, as a story of improbable victories. Professional writers often have it tough, but few face bigger challenges than Mantel, who received a diagnosis of a rare skin disease, endometriosis, at age twenty-seven and had to have some of her insides removed, yet defied a doctor’s orders that she give up writing for good.

Mantel wrote eloquently about the depression and excruciating pain that come with a condition as poorly understood and subject to stigma as the one she lived with. What is amazing is that she went on to produce sprawling historical novels that sold millions of copies around the globe, as well as collections of short fiction. Writing is not easy even in the best of worlds, but Mantel was so devoted that she beat expectations by margins that defy belief. Compared to some authors, Mantel was a late bloomer, doing a bulk of her work in her fifties, which suggests not that she lacked focus and discipline but that reaching artistic maturity, in this as in other media, takes time.

Since her passing, readers, critics, and figures in publishing have bestowed lavish praise on her work. Typical are the comments of her agent, Bill Hamilton, whom the New York Times quotes in its obituary stating, “She had so many great novels ahead of her. It’s just an enormous loss to literature.”

The novels she completed include Wolf Hall, a nearly 700-page opus about Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to King Henry VIII, and its sequels Bring Up the Bodies and The Mirror & The Light. In the course of research for her tales of Cromwell and the myriad diplomatic intrigues of the age, Mantel delved so deeply into the epoch that she managed to achieve Tolstoy-like scope even though separated from her subject by a vastly greater gulf of time than Tolstoy was from his.


The Art of History

Giving the lie to doctors who said she could not write, Mantel turned out novels and stories that upended received opinions about what historical fiction can do. That’s the view of Arthur Phillips, the prolific author and five-time Jeopardy! champion, whose own most recent book, The King at the Edge of the World, is a spy thriller, of sorts, set in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

Having taken on the task of penning a novel every bit as daring, as an artistic proposition, as the work that came to define Mantel’s career, Phillips has no illusions about the challenges of this type of fiction.

In a discussion with Book and Film Globe, Phillips quoted Henry James’s famous comment deriding the techniques of those who set out to write fiction with a pretense to verisimilitude about past ages: “You may multiply the little facts that can be got from pictures & documents, relics & prints, as much as you like—the real thing is almost impossible to do. . . . You have to think with your modern apparatus a man, a woman—or rather fifty—whose own thinking was intensely-otherwise conditioned, you have to simplify back by an amazing tour de force—& even then it’s all humbug.”

Put simply, those who try this kind of writing are extrapolating and retroactively applying assumptions and ways of thought of the present to times deep in the past that they are ill-equipped to begin to imagine, or so James was convinced. To her credit, Hilary Mantel proved him wrong, though vivid imagination complemented her massive research for 2009’s Wolf Hall and its sequels.

“I don’t buy James’s argument in its fundamental premises, but taking Hilary Mantel in the specific case, she just defies James top to bottom. She did more than multiply little facts: she knew them all, and then made us believe in ones she made up. And she used her modern apparatus, conditioned by her own life and time, and created an interior life for him(she did it so well that she rarely even had to use the words ‘Thomas’ or ‘Cromwell’), an interior life that leaves no trace of humbug,” Phillips told Book and Film Globe.

Mantel’s work is properly considered as a product of a process of vivid envisioning that joins organically with her research.

“Her imagination was equal to her research knowledge, which was equal to her craft and language, and I was never left thinking, ‘This is a modern writer who is simplifying backward, projecting modernity, or in any way distant from the Tudor court,” Phillips said.

Partisan Poison


Mantel’s own past proved a rich area to mine for material for short stories. This most personal of writers saw the antagonistic relationship of politics to art and life. In a subtle, non-hectoring way, she mapped out the psychology of sectarianism and narcissism that drives so many partisan battles in our supposedly enlightened and progressive age as much as those of centuries past.

“King Billy Is a Gentleman,” the opening tale of the collection Learning to Talk, is about her experience growing up in Manchester and environs, where families resettled from Ireland and still caught up in the mentality that fueled the Troubles were common. One of her neighbors, a boy named Philip, is stuck in a tribal mindset, not to say a state of arrested development, and throws rocks at the narrator nearly every time he sees her. As an adult, she is curious about the kids she knew back then and comes to learn (spoiler!) about Philip’s drastically abbreviated life.

Making a fertilizer bomb of the kind widely used by terrorists in Ulster, he blew himself to smithereens. As the narrator says, “An irrelevant thought slid into my mind, that Ireland had undone him at last.” What the modus operandi reminds us of is how some people, whether they inhabit a home in an industrial town or a college campus, never outgrow tribal impulses and hostility to others, or in this case, that you can take people out of Ireland but cannot take Ireland out of them.

The fanaticism that sprouts in the soil of ideology is the subject of Mantel’s most controversial story, “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher,” in which an IRA operative posing as a plumber installs himself in an apartment overlooking a street where the prime minister is soon to appear. The narrator is complicit because she lets the man in, and, after seeing what he has hidden in his bag and divining his aims, goes along with the plot and even points out to him a way to slip out of the flat when the job is done without getting shot by security staff.

The story may have shocked readers and critics, but Mantel wanted us to see the amoral extremes to which political fervor leads. Her IRA assassin perceives the distant form of the prime minister rather the way that Graham Greene’s villain in The Third Man, Harry Lime, who has been selling poisoned penicillin on the black market, views the little dots moving way off in the distance as he sits high up on Vienna’s Ferris wheel. He cares little if one of them suddenly stops moving. They’re not real or human enough to matter.

Mantel also made light, quite subtly, of some of the zanier dogmas that promote an etiquette around speech and pronouns in our day. In the story “Curved Is the Line of Beauty,” she recalls going on a trip with her parents to Birmingham, where they will meet a friend of the family named Jacob who hails from Africa. The protagonist receives strict instructions never to use the word “black” in any context now that other terms are considered current. The chastened little girl ends up terrified of even writing about black metal or ruins blackened by fire, and must find substitute characters for certain of the letters she wants to write.

Misusing History

A few commentators, like Nasrine Malik in The Guardian, barely let any time go by at all after Mantel’s passing before trying to shoehorn her work and ideas into a narrative in which aristocrats, like Queen Elizabeth II, whose passing Britain still mourns, are the baddies. Before even attempting to place Mantel’s work in a contemporary context, one might at least try to understand Mantel and her fictional concerns in proper depth, not to mention the age she wrote about.

Writing just four days after Mantel’s passing, Malik argues that Mantel’s work was about the blindness and supineness of those who unthinkingly venerate royalty. Just look at the mourning still going on over the passing of the Queen. Others are quick to use this worship for their nefarious social purposes, like the preservation of, you guessed it, power and privilege.

“The late Hilary Mantel knew better than most how the appropriation of deference to sanctified individuals and religious structures helps to maintain the power of elites,” Malik writes.

“Mantel’s main body of work was occupied with revealing the legacy of over-empowered and unaccountable monarchs, and the courtiers and cardinals who serve their whims, be they sexual or political,” she continues.

At this point you may be waiting for a comparison of Henry VIII with Donald Trump. Malik’s analysis of Mantel’s fiction lacks all nuance. The work is precisely not about the servility of courtiers and advisers to the king. Rather, Mantel captured a time where Thomas Cromwell was able to maneuver himself into positions of influence because the monarchy tended toward ever greater acceptance of and participation in the deliberations and decisions of an increasingly sophisticated, and representative, legislative process. The monarchy may have had influence over the church, but in other crucial respects, the time of Henry VIII was an age when parliament came into its own, in a way incompatible with the tyranny of an “over-empowered” king who could quell any rival to his authority as soon as it arose and whose whims all others had to obey.

Historian G.R. Elton, in his 1955 work England Under the Tudors, anticipated the error that the ill-informed Malik makes in her Guardian piece. Elton writes, “It is generally said that Henry, and especially Cromwell, planned to erect a despotism in the state to match the despotism of the royal supremacy in the Church. This they did not do; indeed, basing themselves on the past, on constitutional propriety, and on the law, they could not do it. . . . It must be remembered that the king was and is as much a part of parliament as are the commons.”

Even in the age of Henry VIII, the law applied, and its exemplar was Cromwell, who was not a dictator but part of something Malik cannot or will not envision: an accountable elite. Cromwell and parliament gained increasing democratic sway over domestic and foreign affairs, a reality Hilary Mantel captures in Wolf Hall.

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

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