This is not appropriate. She was only 70. Yes, her health was fragile, but that was no reason to reckon with her death. And yet it happened. Hilary Mantel passed away. “She was still busy with so much, starting with a new novel,” says her Dutch publisher Nelleke Geel of publisher Signatuur. “It’s a bloodletting loss to literature.”
Mantel is the author of Wolf Hall. From twelve novels and two collections of short stories. From the inimitable ‘memoir’ give up the ghost. In it, she summons her family, where her father is ‘put away’ when she was ten. Years later, that father briefly reappeared in her short story ‘Terminus’, as a figure sitting on a train opposite hers. They look at each other and then the trains move in their own direction. When she had written the story, she heard that her father had died in those days. With Mantel, the supernatural was a given.
Mantel has been a phenomenon since millions of readers worldwide discovered her with Wolf Hall, for which she was awarded the 2009 Booker Prize. Her literary fame was perpetuated with the sequel Bring Up the Bodies (2012, The Book of Henry), which again won her the Booker Prize. The end of the trilogy The mirror & the light, (2020), was ‘only’ nominated for that award. In these three novels, Mantel digs out the startling history of Thomas Cromwell, right-hand man to British King Henry VIII in the England of rebellious nobility and religious strife. They are not easy novels, and Mantel is not a coquettish author. She never was, and yet her books are addictive. She describes complex political relationships with the technique of the thriller, while in passing she evokes with well-aimed observations what life looked and felt, both for the poor and for the upper class, and everyone was in constant danger. The very first novel she wrote was also a historical novel: A Place of Greater Safety (A Safer Place), about the French Revolution. A compelling book for which she has already developed her strength: molding historical figures into people who have long been petrified to their dates plus some mythical anecdotes. No publisher wanted it, it was not published until later, in 1992.
In Mantel’s work, novel and reality flow into each other
She made her debut in 1985 with the social psychological thriller Every Day is Mother’s Day. The sequel, Vacant Possession, appeared a year later. Full of precise observations, Mantel 100 carats satanically traps every character in self-overestimation, self-pity, self-deception. With the exception of a young woman who has been trampled to the point of madness. I say no more than: this is fantastic to read, while you softly shout: no, no, don’t! And then the characters do it anyway.
Reluctance to Thatcher
From those early novels, Mantel’s distaste for Margaret Thatcher’s United Kingdom can be heard. In 2014, her personal aversion to Thatcher’s meager morals, her arrogance and her harshness culminated in the novella The Murder of Margaret Thatcher, which indeed revolves around an attack on Thatcher. It’s a great story, so strong that Mantel was attacked as if she had actually threatened Thatcher, who had been dead for a year by then. They even called for a police investigation. Mantel was not intimidated, on the contrary, she enjoyed it and reiterated once again that she had considered Thatcher a disaster for the country.
Her Thatcher story was set up the way she set up her historical novels from the start. She starts from a historical detail (Thatcher had to go to hospital for a minor surgery), does thorough research and deduces from everything she can bring up what can happen. She already developed this method for her first novel, about the French Revolution. “Give me one detail and I’ll tell the story,” she said in an interview with this newspaper. She was accused of being scientifically irresponsible. Her answer was: “I write fiction, I can take that space.”
Also read this interview with Hilary Mantel from 2015: ‘I prefer historical characters to fictional ones’
So she determines on the basis of inventory lists that a dress was stiff with pearls and realizes: the woman who was wearing it had an enormous weight to carry. What does that mean? She thinks that Henry VIII is sickly fat and limp, how his intended bride Anna of Cleves sees this wretched lump of flesh for the first time – and for a moment has no control over her face. What Henry sees. She can’t prove those glances back and forth. She can make them plausible and then they explain much of what follows – the fiction writer helps the historiography.
Romance and reality flow into each other. It is this space that Mantel appropriated with her genius writing as an argument. Cromwell was a cruel man, but remember what kind of man he was, remember he had daughters. Look at the strange portrait that Holbein painted of him, what do you see there? Conversely, the more detailed the question was in an interview, the more she liked it. And she always knew everything, right down to why Anne Boleyn’s lap dog was named Perkoys. Perkoys is an English corruption of the French ‘Pourquoi?’. That dog was one of those animals with those raised ears and a chronically surprised look. Hence. She said it with a smile. And imitated the dog.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of September 24, 2022