Illustration: original painting by Louise Weir for the Guardian
The strange and brilliant fiction of Hilary Mantel
Mantel was writing novels for decades before her literary stardom – all of which display her dark wit and stylistic skill. What are her major works beyond the Cromwell bestsellers? As the BBC’s Wolf Hall hits our screens, John Mullan uncovers her career
Saturday 17 January 2015 08.30 GMT
o the novel begins: “When Mrs Axon found out about her daughter’s condition, she was more surprised than sorry; which did not mean that she was not very sorry indeed.” Mysteriously, Evelyn Axon’s daughter Muriel is pregnant, and “Her face wore an expression of daft beatitude.” Something is wrong with Muriel, but before we can work out what a visitor arrives, in dim autumnal light, at the Axons’ house in a suburban avenue of an English town. It is Mrs Sidney, who wishes to contact her dead husband. Evelyn, who is evidently a medium, offers her orange squash and the heat of a two-bar electric fire. Invited to talk about her husband, Mrs Sidney becomes distressed: “the scarlet line of lipstick above her top lip contorted independently of the mouth”. Evelyn contemplates her growing symptoms of distress. “There is, Evelyn reflected, a custom known as Suttee; to judge by their behaviour, many seemed to think its suppression an unhealthy development.”
This is the opening of Hilary Mantel’s first published novel, Every Day Is Mother’s Day. Those who know any of Mantel’s backlist will recognise some of her hallmarks: the mix of banality and weirdness; the pitiless black humour (suttee, of course being the ritual of a widow immolating herself on her husband’s funeral pyre); the sardonic use of language. You cannot think of another writer who would put “daft” and “beatitude” together – the northern colloquialism and that religiously tinged word for being blessed. And then there is the supernatural. Evelyn believes her home to be haunted by malign spirits and the narrative adopts her mad certainties. Whole areas of her house have been abandoned because the spirits have taken them over. They leave semi-literate notes and mysterious tokens – a new can-opener in the middle of a room – as assurances of their malignity. She shares her fearful knowledge only with unheeding Muriel, whom we slowly realise is cannier than anyone knows and has something mischievous to do with the signs of haunting. The representatives of social services who visit the Axons occasionally, and see a truculent pensioner and her helplessly dependent daughter, may write long reports but naturally know nothing about why these women behave as they do.
Now that Mantel is Dame Hilary Mantel, and Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodieshave brought her fame, it is easy to spot the assurance and utter idiosyncrasy of this debut novel. It was not much noticed when it appeared but is now back in print in the slipstream of her two Man Booker wins. After years of relative obscurity, Mantel has box office appeal, confirmed first by the stage version ofWolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies that ran for eight months in Stratford and London before making for Broadway, and now by a TV dramatisation of the two novels that begins on 21 January on BBC2. For many admirers of these later books, the territory of her earlier fiction remains unexplored. Yet Mantel is a novelist who has been honing her narrative skills for more than three decades and whose oeuvre is as rich and strange as that of any living British novelist.
|Damian Lewis and Claire Foy as King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn in BBC2’s Wolf Hall. Photograph: Ed Miller/BBC/Company Productions Ltd|
TV is tapping into the enthusiasm of the common reader. Though there are critical non-believers, Wolf Hall and its sequel have found a huge readership, endorsing the judgment of the Booker judges (I am parti pris, as I was one of those judges in 2009). It is difficult now to think your way back to before the prizes and the acclaim. Wolf Hall was Mantel’s 10th novel, published when she was 57; not one of her previous nine novels had appeared on a Booker shortlist. Each had been a critical success; her stylistic brilliance was a secret to be shared by knowing reviewers and confessed by other novelists. She had fans, but a distinctly select readership. In 2005, when Private Eye lambasted the Booker judges once more, the absence from the shortlist of Beyond Black, the novel that Mantel completed before embarking on Wolf Hall, was given as proof of their obtuseness.
Nothing in Mantel’s career spoke of a writer courting popularity. She followed Every Day Is Mother’s Day with a sequel, Vacant Possession; you didn’t have to have read the first, which existed only to give the author ingredients for her new devilish arrangements. Ten years later, an even more demonic Muriel is released from incarceration in a psychiatric institution to wreak her revenge on several of the characters from the earlier novel, who thought they had escaped but whose follies and vices meant they were still trapped in a Hilary Mantel novel. In a very black comedy of elaborately choreographed coincidences, weakness and self-indulgence are duly punished.
In the years that followed, and in a manner that must have worried publishers and agents, she seemed to want to try something new with each succeeding novel. She would usually take some autobiographical fragment and make out of it a strange fictional world (in her first two novels it was her early experience of social work). Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, published in 1988, was based on her experience of living in Saudi Arabia for four years while her husband, Gerald, worked as a geologist. From the protocols of limited socialising with other wives to the habits of the religious police and the brewing method for Jeddah gin (potatoes and citrus fruit, plus water, sugar and a bit of yeast), you can sense the first-hand knowledge. The appalled attention to detail must be based on personal experience, especially where it relates to the life of women, who are regarded with horror – or rather, not regarded – in Saudi Arabia. A man will not make eye contact with a woman, often will not talk to her. Frances experiences the other side of this veiling when she walks in the street in Jeddah and finds drivers slowing down to call at her in lust and contempt. When a desk clerk at a hotel, who will only acknowledge or speak to her husband, does look at her she sees on his face “for an instant a cruel suppressed avidity, a destructive infantine greed”.
Mantel’s novel makes Jeddah a place of nightmare where Frances experiences something like total erasure. It goes beyond mere sexism into more Kafkaesque territory, as if the state itself were founded on a horror of the female. Viewpoint shifts uneasily. A third-person narrative mostly gives us Frances’s experiences, but occasionally we change to her husband’s point of view and we are also given excerpts from Frances’s halting diary. The novel brilliantly lets the sense of suppressed desperation and anger build up in sinister quietness, but also disturbs by leaving its several mysteries unexplained. Something strange is going on in the supposedly empty flat immediately above Frances and Andrew; someone is hiding there or using it for assignations. A disguised figure with a gun leaves it one day. A packing case is used to remove something – or somebody. A visitor arrives from England and is soon found dead as a result of an unlikely car accident. If we are drawn in by Frances’s curiosity, it is in order to find ourselves defeated, like her. At the end of the novel she is still there, now in a bleak compound between desert and freeway, imprisoned.
Mantel returns to this stifling world, where women are deprived of all power to act, even to move, in the first story in her new collection, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. “Sorry to Disturb” is a brilliantly unsettling vignette, narrated by a British woman living in Saudi Arabia with her husband. She befriends a Pakistani businessman, but then begins to find his attentions unwelcome. His manoeuvres are both comically absurd and somehow threatening (a characteristic Mantel mix). Yet his attachment to her is only the most awkward symptom of some wider oppression. She is trapped by the heat, by the religious timetable obeyed by all, by her own purposelessness. Her psychological torment produces weird effects: sometimes the furniture seems to have moved itself; on one occasion, the heavy doors of her fitted wardrobe have miraculously been removed and rehung by their lower hinges so that they flap “like the wings of some ramshackle flying machine”. The influence of this poltergeist in the narrative is all the more perplexing when one knows that the story was first published as a memoir, under the slightly different title “Someone to Disturb”, in the London Review of Books.
These stories set in Saudi Arabia are heightened examples of Mantel’s continuing attention to what you might call the torments of femininity. This was behind her LRB lecture and article about the objectification of royal women that unexpectedly gave rise to controversy. In February 2013 she was berated in the Sun and the Daily Mail for saying that the Duchess of Cambridge was “designed by a committee and built by craftsmen, with a perfect plastic smile and the spindles of her limbs hand-turned and gloss-varnished”. Comparing her and Princess Diana to royal women of history, Anne Boleyn and Marie Antoinette, she was talking about how a woman is made into a “jointed doll” by the media and the royal PR industry. Kate Middleton, as was, has become a prisoner of a culture’s wishes, Mantel’s metaphor the continuing reduction of women to a few functions: humiliation via idealisation.
For many of the main female characters in her novels, there is no escape from the power exerted over them. Carmel, the university-educated protagonist of An Experiment in Love(1995) thinks that education will do the trick, but is disabused. Swotty girls “forfeited today for the promise of tomorrow, but the promise wasn’t fulfilled; they were reduced to middle-sexes, neuters, without the powers of men or the duties of women”. In her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, she recalls her stepfather’s angry disdain for her academic ambitions and his translation of this into mutterings about a whole sex. “‘They always do this’, or ‘they always that’, he would sneer. I felt as if I were a survival, a relic, a small squat subject race.”
The protagonist of Eight Months on Ghazzah Street courts danger by not behaving enough like some supercilious expat. In particular, Frances is interested in religion, and discomforts the two Muslim wives she gets to know precisely by showing some theological curiosity about their beliefs. But then theology is often alive and well in Mantel’s fiction. She was brought up as a Roman Catholic, formed by her early experience of Catholic doctrine and her later battles of cunning with the nuns of her convent school. In her next novel, Fludd, set in the 1950s, she creates a bizarre village on the edge of some northern moorland where the Roman Catholic church holds a redoubt. Transformed from her memories of Glossop in Derbyshire, where she grew up, it is another of Mantel’s prisons of the spirit. Fetherhoughton is presided over by a Catholic priest, Father Angwin, who seems to have lost his faith in God while keeping to his horrified belief in the devil, and the appalling Mother Perpetua, mother superior of the local convent. Into this benighted world comes the curate Fludd, a spiritual alchemist who can free anyone who will listen – but particularly the rebellious Sister Philomena – with the influence of his beneficent magic. It is the only Mantel novel with a happy ending.
Religion always impinges on Mantel’s fiction, but not because, like those Catholic converts Muriel Spark and Graham Greene whom she has diligently read, she uses it to detect any providential shape to events. Emma, one of the main characters in A Change of Climate, published in 1994, thinks of the Catholic church as a “bauble shop”, even as, in bereavement, she visits a shrine to tap its sympathetic magic. Religion reflects back the needs and fears of its would-be believers and its no-longer-believers. A Change of Climate, which moves back and forth between present and past, Norfolk and Africa, centres on a married couple, Ralph and Anna, who, driven initially by Christian idealism, have dedicated themselves to philanthropic work. Ralph is a “professional Christian”, but the novel tests any Christian faith in human goodness well past breaking point. Not in disdain of religiosity though: it may be that religion is rather good at telling us about human weakness, self-admiration and enslavement to appetite. Mantel’s characters tend to have, as we say, their demons, and the temporal shifts of this novel are devised, in true Mantelian manner, to show us how these good people are haunted by their hardly repressed memories of evil.
A couple of years earlier Mantel had published a huge historical novel, A Place of Greater Safety, that now looks like invaluable groundwork for her Thomas Cromwell books, but at the time seemed out of the path of her other fiction. In fact, she had begun accumulating the material for this compendious, multi-viewpoint fictionalisation of the main events and actors of the French revolution soon after she left university in 1974. She had completed it by the end of the 1970s but did not return to the book until 1991, when she polished it for publication. Like Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies it begins with a descriptive list of the dramatis personae, declaring the same ambition to do justice to a vast sweep of events and real people. Also like the later novels, it focuses on the machinations of men of power and the threat and proximity of violence. Unlike them, A Place of Greater Safety has an omniscient narrator, willing to inform us of facts and motivations wherever necessary. You are so overwhelmed by the exactitude of her research that you almost accept the private lives of the main actors as she minutely imagines them. Yet she has come to know so much about the history that the characters from this distant time seem more familiar, less peculiar, than those who inhabit any of her other novels.
In fact, the work of fiction that adheres most closely to the story of Mantel’s own life takes care to estrange the reader from its central character. An Experiment in Love is her only novel written in the first person. Its narrator, Carmel, has arrived at London University in 1970, just as Mantel did. Her story moves back and forth between her experiences as a socially callow undergraduate and her childhood and adolescence in a northern mill town, where she has a convent education that recalls Mantel’s own. Carmel declares herself irreligious, yet adopts the Catholic lexicon of guilt, confession and restitution as soon as she tries to explain her younger self. You would not have to know anything of the author’s own life to feel that much of this narrative was based on her experiences and that, like Jane Eyre (a heroine whom Carmel has in her mind), we may therefore trust the narrator’s confidences. Yet Mantel is characteristically playing a trick. Very slowly, we realise that there is something wrong with Carmel, that she is practising a regime of self-punishment for which her upbringing has prepared her.
An Experiment in Love also displays that gift for grotesquerie that was amply advertised in Mantel’s debut novel. The protagonist’s childhood companion, Karina, becomes an undergraduate at another part of London University and turns up at her student hostel to live just down the corridor. Karina is a wonderfully maleficent “friend”, her ingenuity bent to revenge the unknowable indignities of her childhood and adolescence. (As in her memoir, Mantel is chilling on the patterns of childhood ill will.) She is a monster from Dickens or Victorian gothic, her malevolence disguised beneath a carefully maintained ordinariness. Only her sardonic putdowns of the other flutteringly feminine students hint at her thoughts. In the last scenes, she becomes a terrifying destroyer, her motiveless malignity vented in a scene that edges into melodrama. Almost every Mantel novel has a killing in it, and this is no exception.
“I take death as serious and proximate, I always have,” Mantel has observed. Who else would call her memoir Giving Up the Ghost, a Christian phrase for dying, robbed by colloquial use of its spiritual meaning? Many of her characters are similarly “possessed by death”. In The Giant, O’Brien, published in 1998, 18th-century anatomist John Hunter relies on death to give him the specimens he craves. He sees the giant who is the novel’s other main character come from Ireland to get money by displaying himself, and he covets his bones for his private museum in Leicester Square. The interleaved stories of Hunter and his Giant tell us of the horror, rather than the wonder, of life. The Giant is a humane and humorous lover of stories, his narrative given in a rueful past tense of fable or fairytale. It is Hunter who is the monster, able to live only among dead things, his narrative given in a hungry present tense. In standard histories Hunter may be an enlightenment hero; in Mantel’s reimagining, he is somebody much stranger, stabbing and infecting himself out of intellectual curiosity, twisted and tormented by his thirst for experimental knowledge. Of course she has done her research, as ever, but in order to produce something more like a fable than a conventional historical novel. The Age of Reason is a time of monsters.
It seems almost as if the relative lack of recognition that would have dispirited many writers allowed Mantel to do her own thing. That thing often involves what we might call “ghosts”. These are not the spectres engendered by a special kind of literary entertainment, best tasted at Christmas, but psychological realities. Giving Up the Ghost often returns to the feeling of being haunted. She recalls, aged seven, having a vision in the back yard of her mother’s house in Derbyshire. It is terrifying. It is a creature, “as high as a child of two”, formless and sickening. She begs it to stay away, but then it is inside her. “Something intangible had come for me, to try its luck: some formless, borderless evil, that came to try to make me despair.” As often, Mantel’s language is shaped by Catholicism: despair is more than an emotion, it is the mortal sin of believing oneself too bad to be worth being saved by God. She still has visions. In an extraordinary piece in the LRB in 2010 she described a nightmarish stay in hospital after major surgery and the visions that her physical suffering produced.
One night in my dreams I meet the devil. He is 32, 34, that sort of age, presentable, with curly hair, and he wears a lambswool V-neck with a T-shirt underneath. We exchange heated words, and he raises a swarm of biting flies; I wake, clawing at my skin.
She makes such visions the stuff of her fiction. Twenty years after Every Day Is Mother’s Day she returned to the idea of the haunted medium in Beyond Black, for some critics still her best book, because it is her strangest. Corpulent Alison makes her living as a psychic (a “sensitive”, as she calls herself), contacting the dead at large meetings in the commuter towns of the south-east. Her performances are cleverly rigged to satisfy the punters. She tells one bereaved woman that her dead granny likes her new kitchen units; another woman’s dead mother tells her to lose a stone. “Can you accept that?” Alison matches her skills of psychological guesswork to the credulity of her audience. Yet she is no charlatan: she truly believes in her contact with the spirit world, “the place beyond black”. “You say they give trivial messages,” she observes to her steely assistant Colette, “but that’s because they’re trivial people. You don’t get a personality transplant when you’re dead.”
“People are right to be afraid of ghosts. If you get people who are bad in life – I mean, cruel people, dangerous people – why do you think they are going to be any better after they’re dead?”
This is not speech, it is narration: we live in Alison’s thoughts. As far as the novel is concerned, she is in contact with the dead. And just as in Homer or Virgil, the dead still cherish the perverse passions and resentments that they knew in life. And they pursue the living, naturally. Mantel’s narratives are always surging forwards, but are always pulled backwards: there is the power of ghosts. As Alison tells Colette, “it’s damage that attracts them”. She knows that she is surrounded by “fiends” from her past. Some mediums get “dignified impassive medicine men, or ancient Persian sages”. She gets a gang of leering louts led by a spirit called Morris, who wears “a bookmaker’s check jacket” and likes to expose himself. There is no getting away from him: “You’re worse off than if you were married,” remarks Colette, who cannot see or hear the spirit world. It is hilarious and nasty. The malign cavortings of the ghosts who haunt Alison allow her childhood and youth to be revealed in horrible glimpses of abuse and humiliation.
An otherwise appreciative review of Beyond Black complained that it was “hard to warm to” Alison and Colette. Just so, and by design. We get into their heads, but will not be allowed to feel with them; not Alison, with her immersion in the spirit world, nor Colette, with her utterly cold perceptiveness. One of the novel’s great lines tells us of its refusal of sympathy. Gavin, the disappointing husband whom Colette has left, comes back to her years later, humbled and adoring: “She looked at him; his head hanging like some dog that’s been out in the rain. She looked at him and her heart was touched: where her heart would be.” Even in An Experiment in Love, with a narrator whose life so closely follows Mantel’s and who readily confides in the reader, she fends off our habits of sympathy. This seems to me a strong and unsettling inclination of her fiction. Several of her earlier novels have multiple viewpoints, but always in order to limit rather than extend our sympathies.
Even in her Cromwell novels, where everything is seen from one person’s point of view, there is a distancing effect. Some have complained about the “He, Thomas Cromwell, … ” clarifications in Bring Up the Bodies (when only “he” was used in Wolf Hall), but they are also a consequence of this distancing, a way of pulling us back from easy involvement. From the first paragraph of Wolf Hall, where, felled by his brutal father, the boy Cromwell lies on the Putney cobbles and studies the stitching on his boot, we see everything from this character’s point of view. He is made our calculating guide. He is Cardinal Wolsey’s protege and then Henry VIII’s fixer, but he is, chiefly, the reader’s emissary, sent on our behalf into a world that would otherwise be unintelligible. He is observant and humorous (but often only in his thoughts) and, above all, unillusioned. He is an entirely novelistic creation. Mantel has been meticulous about her facts and dates, but the decision to make Cromwell our trusted protagonist is entirely a matter of fictional will. Read the brilliant result and you don’t doubt that Mantel could have made Thomas More or Anne Boleyn or even Jane Seymour – “the sickly milk-faced creeper” whom only Cromwell notices – our representative if she had wanted.
Cromwell is gifted with Mantel’s dark wit. In Bring Up the Bodies he is thinking of the defiant camaraderie among the courtiers seated, like himself, on the lower table (beneath the Boleyns and their ilk), and likens them to “those sectaries in Europe who are always expecting the end of the world, but who hope that, after the Earth has been consumed by fire, they will be seated in glory: grilled a little, crisp at the edges and blackened in parts, but still, thanks be to God, alive for eternity, and seated at his right hand”. This is Cromwell’s mind, reaching out satirically for an analogy from contemporary religion that is also debunkingly worldly. Mantel brings it all to life in that historical present tense that has become common in literary fiction but has never been more cunningly deployed. The narration behaves as if outcomes are unknown. One of the best-known chapters in all British history is rendered provisional, as uncertain to the reader as it must have once been to its actors. Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are charged with the sense of danger. It is there in the gripping dialogue, a gift to dramatisers. Who could not relish the exchanges between Cromwell and Boleyn, with their probings and sallies of candour? Everyone knows the peril. “There are no safe places, there are no sealed rooms.” We might seem a long way from the suburban gothic of Mantel’s debut, but listen and you can hear the same skill, the same unnerving ear for human contest. Her dialogues are about power – about threat and struggle: a deluded psychic and her client; a Tudor courtier and his would-be queen. Each of her novels is a new world, freshly imagined in a special language, but in every one the twists of human desire and fear are exactly charted.