Hilary Mantel and the Living Past

The late historical novelist, who brought Tudor England to life, is a victim of distortions

The life of Hilary Mantel, who died September 22 at the age of 70, will be remembered by the world as a story of unlikely victories. Professional writers often have a tough job, but few face greater challenges than Mantel, who was diagnosed with a rare skin condition, endometriosis, at the age of twenty-seven and has had to have part of her innards removed, but defied a doctor’s orders that she give write for good.

Coat eloquently written about the depression and excruciating pain that accompanies an illness as misunderstood and stigmatized as the one she lived with. Amazingly, she continued to produce sprawling historical novels that sold millions of copies worldwide, as well as collections of short fiction. Writing isn’t easy even in the best of all worlds, but Mantel was so dedicated that she exceeded expectations by margins that defy belief. Compared to some authors, Mantel was a late bloomer, doing most of her work in her fifties, which suggests not that she lacked focus and discipline, but that reaching artistic maturity, in this field as in others, takes time.

Since his death, readers, critics and publishing personalities have praised his work. Typical are the comments of his agent, Bill Hamilton, which the New York Times quotes in his obituary stating, “She had so many great novels ahead of her. It’s just a huge loss for literature.

Novels she has 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 researching her Cromwell tales and the myriad diplomatic intrigues of the time, Mantel delved so deeply into the era that she managed to achieve a Tolstoy-like scope, even though she is separated from its subject by a chasm of time much larger than Tolstoy. was his.

The art of history

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

Having set himself the task of writing a novel that is just as audacious, as an artistic proposition, as the work that defined Mantel’s career, Phillips has no illusions about the stakes of this type of fiction.

In a discussion with Book and Film Globe, Phillips quoted Henry James’ famous comment poking fun at the techniques of those who set out to write fiction with any semblance of verisimilitude about past eras: “You can multiply the little facts that can be obtained from pictures and documents, relics and engravings, as much as you want – 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 backwards by an incredible feat – and even then it’s all smoke and gas.

Simply put, those who attempt this type of writing extrapolate and retroactively apply assumptions and thought patterns from the present to deep epochs in the past that they are ill-equipped to begin to imagine, or so James believed. To his credit, Hilary Mantel proved him wrong, though a vivid imagination completed his massive research for 2009’s Wolf Hall and its sequels.

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

Mantel’s work is rightly seen as the product of a process of living vision that organically associates with his research.

“His imagination was equal to his knowledge of research, which was equal to his craft and his language, and I never thought, ‘He’s a modern writer who simplifies upside down, projects modernity, or in no way removed from the Tudor court,” Phillips said.

partisan poison


Mantel’s own past proved a rich area to tap into for material for short stories. This most personal writer saw the antagonistic relationship of politics to art and life. In a subtle, non-hectoral way, she mapped the psychology of bigotry 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 story of the Learn to Speak series, recounts his experience growing up in and around Manchester, where families have resettled from Ireland and are still caught in the mentality that has fueled the unrest. One of her neighbors, a boy named Philip, is stuck in a tribal mindset, if not an arrested state of development, and throws rocks at the narrator almost every time he sees her. As an adult, she is curious about the children she knew at the time and comes to learn about (spoiler!) Philip’s drastically shortened life.

Making a fertilizer bomb of the kind widely used by terrorists in Ulster, he blew himself to pieces. As the narrator says, “An irrelevant thought crept into my mind, that Ireland had finally defeated him.” What is the modus operandi reminds us of how some people, whether they live in a house in an industrial town or a university campus, never get over tribal impulses and hostility towards others, or in this case, that you can get people out of Ireland but can’t get 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 agent posing as a plumber sets up 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 guessing his goals, agrees with the plot and even tells him a way to slip away from it. apartment when the job is done. done without getting shot by security personnel.

The story may have shocked readers and critics, but Mantel wanted us to see the amoral extremes to which political fervor leads. His IRA assassin perceives the Prime Minister’s aloof form rather than the way Graham Greene’s villain in The Third Man, Harry Lime, who sold poisonous penicillin on the black market, sees the little dots recede at the away as he sits atop Vienna’s Ferris wheel. He doesn’t care if one of them stops suddenly. They are not real or human enough to matter.

Mantel also shed some light, quite subtly, on some of the more goofy dogma promoting etiquette around speech and pronouns these days. In the story “Curved Is the Line of Beauty”, she recalls taking a trip with her parents to Birmingham, where they would meet a family friend named Jacob, originally from Africa. The protagonist is given strict instructions never to use the word “black” in any context now that other terms are considered common. The chastened little girl ends up terrified of even writing on black metal or fire-blackened ruins, and must find substitute characters for some of the letters she wants to write.

Misuse of history

A few commentators, like Nasrine Malik in The Guardian, barely let time pass after Mantel’s death before trying to weave his work and ideas into a narrative in which the aristocrats, like Queen Elizabeth II, whom Britain still mourns, are the villains. Before even trying to place Mantel’s work in a contemporary context, one could at least try to understand Mantel and her fictional concerns in depth, let alone the age she wrote about.

Writing just four days after Mantel’s death, Malik argues that Mantel’s work was about the blindness and softness of those who mindlessly worship royalty. Watch the mourning still ongoing after the Queen’s passing. Others are quick to use this cult for nefarious social ends, like preserving, you guessed it, power and privilege.

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

“Mantel’s main job was to reveal the legacy of overpowered and irresponsible monarchs, as well as courtiers and cardinals who serve their whims, whether sexual or political,” she continues.

At this point, you might be expecting a comparison between Henry VIII and Donald Trump. Malik’s analysis of Mantel’s fiction lacks any nuance. The work is precisely not on the servility of the courtiers and advisers of the king. Rather, Mantel captured a time when Thomas Cromwell was able to maneuver himself into positions of influence because the monarchy tended toward ever-greater acceptance and participation in the deliberations and decisions of an increasingly sophisticated and representative. The monarchy may have held sway over the Church, but in other crucial respects the age of Henry VIII was a time when parliament took flight, in a way incompatible with the tyranny of an “overpowering” king who could repress any rival to his authority as soon as it presented itself and whose whims all others had to obey.

Historian GR Elton, in his 1955 book England under the Tudors, anticipated the misinformed Malik mistake in her Guardian article. Elton writes: “It is generally said that Henry, and especially Cromwell, planned to erect a despotism in the state to match the despotism of royal supremacy in the Church. This they did not do; indeed, based on the past, on constitutional propriety and on the law, they could not. . . . It must be remembered that the king was and is as much a part of parliament as the communes.

Even in the days of Henry VIII the law applied, and his example was Cromwell, who was not a dictator but was part of something Malik cannot or will not imagine: an accountable elite. Cromwell and parliament gained increasing democratic influence over domestic and foreign affairs, a reality that Hilary Mantel captures in Wolf Hall.

About Herbert L. Leonard

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