John Westmoreland pays tribute to the great historical novelist Hilary Mantel
The passing of Hilary Mantel at the age of 70 has robbed us of a great historical novelist whose books won awards, prizes and stellar reviews galore. She started writing for the London Review of Books in 1987, and by the time she began her epic Wolf Hall Trilogy she had completed nine novels as well as numerous essays and articles.
Hilary Mantel was a writer of conviction. Although not a historian by training, her history-based novels were thoroughly researched and accurately portrayed. The storytelling gift that gripped her readers came from her ability to look at crucial historical moments through the senses of one or more of the participants.
Mantel was to write in later life that the physical and emotional pain she experienced in her twenties, through the misdiagnosis of endometriosis, made her acutely aware of how physical reality impacts on character, judgement and personality. She experienced being patronised by doctors who dismissed her health concerns as a symptom of a writer’s ‘over-ambition’, and this finds an echo in her sympathy for the troubled characters she writes about.
As a young woman Mantel was sympathetic to left ideas, with a Communist Party background, and although her political views are not obvious in her novels, she shows clear sympathy to those suffering oppression and the disadvantages of being low-born. Characters of little political significance are allowed to show their personality. Mantel’s ability to imagine the character of a cook in Tudor England or a Radical in the French Revolution was probably derived from her interactions with people she met working as a social worker before her writing career took off. Her ability to give a voice to the invisible people of history shows the depth of her humanity as well as creative genius.
Reviews of Mantel’s novels have sometimes included criticism citing over complication. The use of dialogue as a conversation without the speakers being clearly identified adds to this for some readers. However, Mantel’s dialogues are where that particular moment in the story needs to be explored. The conversation needs to flow, and the little effort required to work out who is saying what engages the reader.
A Place of Greater Safety (1992) was a triumph for Hilary Mantel’s talents that combined detailed historical knowledge with creative genius. The novel covers the French Revolution through the characters of Danton, Robespierre and Desmoulins. The book weaves fact and fiction together brilliantly. Characters not given much attention by historians, such as Lucille Desmoulins, come to life. For those encouraged to read Mantel this is a good book to start with.
However, Hilary Mantel is best known for her Wolf Hall Trilogy that is centred on one of the Tudor period’s most compelling characters, Thomas Cromwell. The first novel in the Trilogy was Wolf Hall, published in 2009, followed by Bring up the Bodies (2012) and The Mirror and the Light (2020).
In Thomas Cromwell Mantel found the perfect vehicle for her craft. He was a low-born opportunist with the gifts of an education in the school of hard knocks. He fled a violent father to become a soldier, banker, spy and lawyer – a novelist’s dream. Cromwell was a European in many ways, and his connections to developments in trade, Lutheran theology and politics made him the ideal adviser to a king being besieged by modernity, Henry VIII.
Historians debate whether Cromwell’s period as Henry’s enabler and enforcer led to a ‘revolution in Tudor government’. But government in the Tudor period was neither feudal nor modern, it was a bit of both. Henry was the English version of an absolute monarch, but England’s economy was changing rapidly towards shipping, trade and the market and this shifting landscape needed the realpolitik of a Cromwell. Although Mantel is not concerned with the historical debate, her Trilogy is essential reading for anyone trying to understand the contradictions of the Tudor period.
Mantel plays with Cromwell’s character and influence in a way that is both historically accurate and intuitive. Cromwell’s relationship with the king is tense, sometimes playful and at others threatening, and takes the reader into the heart of Tudor government. Cromwell is the brains, the analyst, the leader of a king who craves absolute power, but is constantly checked by reality. Yet the result is that Cromwell is also heavily compromised, at once hero and villain, a man who can twist the law to send the king’s enemies to the block, or secretly help the promotion of radical biblical texts.
One can only imagine the difficulties Cromwell, and for that matter Henry too, faced in those years of the break with Rome, the dissolution of the monasteries and the internecine strife between modernisers and reactionaries. Mantel is brilliant at showing the way Cromwell, as an active moderniser, was both loathed and loved. Modern morality doesn’t get a look in. The characters are allowed to pronounce their own judgements. Cromwell never gets the chance to expound his views at length, but is allowed to cut to the heart of the contradictory world he lives in.
A typical Cromwell observation comes from his assessment of the Duke of Norfolk ‘that reactionary old reprobate’ and how his family, the Howards, were an obstacle to his own modernising efforts. He comments to a friend, ‘The Howards don’t think about the future, not the way we do. They want it to look like the past’. And thus we get a pithy summation of the outlook of the feudal aristocracy in one throw away remark.
The fantastically detailed knowledge that Mantel brings to bear is also gratifying. Cromwell’s character has knowledge of printing, cloth making, ship building, art, cookery, gardening and warfare. Each novel gives an education in Tudor social history. But it is the Machiavellian Cromwell that makes the Trilogy novels so engaging, a real masterpiece.
The death of Hilary Mantel is a great loss, but she has left a wealth of literary accomplishments for us to enjoy. There is a book of short stories that sounds particularly inviting – The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.
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John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.
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