Hilary Mantel saw things that others could not
“So get up now.”
Ashe wrote those words, Hilary Mantel lay on the great stones of Putney from the 16th century. Her father’s buck was in her face; through blood, she saw that her stitches were to be untied. Her hair was lying in her own spit. But she had also arrived exactly where she needed to be, in the place she had been aiming for for 30 years. She was behind the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister, the man whose bully-like appearance had fascinated her since school days. Now she could write the great book that had been stirring in her.
The first part was called “Wolf Hall”. The books that followed were “Bring Up the Groups” and “The Mirror and the Light”. Together, they covered nearly 2,000 pages and sold in the millions. The first and second won the Booker prize. From a unique, well-studied but little-bought author, she entered the literary blind as a celebrity, with an eye of permanent delight and wonder.
Cromwell was the most sensitive of the many ghosts that haunted her. They had surrounded her since childhood, the creatures that others could not see, or they said did not exist. The feeling of frustration hiding in a crowded fern. Flicker on the stairs, shape against the curtains. The informal, informal air movement sent her running in trauma, at seven, from the family garden. Ghosts that hung next to jackets, or lay like curls of striped wallpaper on the floors of abandoned houses.
It was the seer’s left eye, the naked one. With this she looked at other people, “turning their clothes back on the bolt and pricing them by the yard”. On her daily visits to convent school, she did “the” weather, pushing it until she had a perfect paragraph. Through that eye, the world was bleak and strange. The sunlight lay “pale as the flesh of a lemon”. The air was “clotted, jaundiced”. Her dreams continued like “the inside of a leaf-top in a copse”. The river looked back, “with its gray locks”. The nuns were also gray, as if they were kept under stones.
The truth was her countryman, and she was often hypocritical. To find it was like “sifting through a landfill”. But words could draw things directly. Reading her favorite books, “Jane Eyre” and “Kidnapped”, she was not so much absorbed in the story as she thought, “How is this done?” Restless, she explored the power of words: the deadly chorus of “marzipan”, the force of the “thief” hammer. She kept in reserve, for a good moment, “horror” and “persiflage”. Their strange magic never waned.
especially she was obsessed with children who would never be born: the children expected of all women or wanted by most men, especially kings; those who lost their behavior, and the child she thought she and her husband Gerald would soon have, after their young marriage. She was to be named Catherine. The unborn man had a way of expressing himself. But instead of Catherine, there came books, half-formed fetal creatures brought into being by the lost and dead. They lived not only in it but in stacks of notebooks and diaries; even after Cromwell’s trilogy she could still go to her cupboard, she said, and pull out half a dozen books.
She also wrote herself to be. Catrìona was never born because her ghost mother was sick almost all the time. “Little Miss Neverwell”, one doctor told her. There were migraines in the measles, an unexplained fever; then, as a young woman, chronic pain and disability. She finally recognized that this was true endometriosis caused by cells leaving, scarring. Her insides were reorganized with hands pushing into the dark cavities of her body, a body that was no longer hers but a “made thing”. She was thin and weak; now, with steroids, she turned into something hard, set, grotesque for herself. Although she hoped to become an advocate, it was not possible to work unless she was alone, under control. That meant writing books for a living.
Little by little, therefore, they appeared. Eighteen years passed between her first research on the French revolution and the publication of “A Place of Greater Safety”, her great revolutionary novel. Few wanted such a thing. She made her way into the cultural center by writing contemporary novels instead, but she regretted it a little. Literary fashions and London sets left her cold; she was always a stranger in that world. She went on to uncover the truth in her careful, disturbing way, putting her darkest discoveries in “Beyond Black”, the story of a psychiatrist in the suburbs of London dealing with the dead
But the call of history was stronger. She needed facts to guide her, no matter how inconvenient or uncertain. Around these facts, she could flexibly bend the fiction; but the truth was not selective. She didn’t want to make things up. If she did not know how Cromwell would have dried a new document, by shaking sand, she could not proceed. She depended on this man, who was real, even if he was dead. For years she lived in her thoughts, delving every day slowly into them, until already in the evening she found herself working artistically, like a lover. She wrote her death, in several versions, when she had not yet finished “Wolf Hall”: choosing the bloodiest account of its end, three strokes of the axe, so that she could follow her senses to the last one. The time to write that scene was called when she suddenly started crying at the checkout in Sainsbury’s: premonition.
Cromwell did it. It was a late bloomer but a glorious one, its triangular form moving through literary festivals, then stage and screen, in blue and silver and big black capes lined with silk. She became queen of Budleigh Salterton in Devon, where she had always wanted to live. The fame was joyful, because she worked so hard, against such circumstances, to earn it. Like Cromwell from the Putney smithy, the odd working-class kid from north Glossop did well, despite the hardships and beatings that came his way. That was all the spur a man of his great desire needed: the fine, ghostly command, “Now rise.” ■