“We are living in a great era of saint-making. Under John Paul II an industrial revolution has taken over the Vatican, an age of mass production. Saints are fast tracked to the top and there are beatifications by the bucketload. It seems a shame to have all the virtues required for beatification, but not to get your full name in the Catholic Almanac Online.” So said Dame Hilary Mantel in 2004 on the subject of sanctity and beatification. Could she have imagined, some 18 years later, that her death at the age of 70 would occasion the same literary saint-making in her name? I think not. For it seems that Mantel wasn’t interested in lives that could be held up as exemplary but precisely in the ones that couldn’t: Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII, her own, even.
Anti-saint, Hilary Mantel managed to achieve—through divine intervention or otherwise—that rarest of things: a long and glittering literary career. Winner of the Man Booker prize not once but twice (the only author ever to do so), Mantel originally turned her eye to contemporary fiction, publishing a series of novels that explored the seamy underside of British contemporary life: social workers in Northern towns, the industrial province, delusional tea ladies in cramped terraced houses. Her first novel, Every Day is Mother’s Day sets its sights on social worker Isabel Field dealing with a disturbing case, while its sequel Vacant Possession swivels ten years into the future to explore the repercussions of a mental health committal from the perspective of the same social worker’s patient. In this peculiar fictional hinterland, the past is everywhere contested, its demented stakeholders continually asking: how do you get the past right or wrong and, more importantly, to whom does it belong?
In death we may come to say that the Tudor period belonged to Mantel. For it wasn’t until she set her sights on the Tudors that fame really came calling for her. With the publication in 2009 of Wolf Hall, followed by the other two books in the trilogy Bring Up the Bodies and the Mirror and The Light (2020), Mantel achieved a degree of fame which most practitioners of the genre—Philippa Gregory or C.J. Sansom—have failed to emulate. As a female novelist and outsider to the London literary establishment, entering the crowded arena of historical fiction was never going to be easy. So how did she do it? By bringing her novelistic eye to the material, creating as Marguerite Yourcenar had done before her in 1951 with Memoirs of Hadrian, a psychological interiority into the past. To read Wolf Hall is to enter, fatally, into the lives of characters in such a way that feels contemporary and anachronistic all at once. Did Cromwell really weep at the death of his wife and children, how can we be sure? Perhaps what we should really be asking is why we care so much.
Naturally, such liberties angered the History with a capital H establishment, whose chief agitator was none other than the now-disgraced Professor David Starkey. Wolf Hall, he said in 2015, was a “deliberate perversion of fact”, a “magnificent, wonderful fiction.” Mantel, unperturbed, responded that Starkey “may have been outraged by her sales”. But Starkey was not alone. It is here, in the border control between fact and fiction, that Mantel was long accused of coming up short. Draw a line between history and historical fiction, her critics clamoured. To which Mantel replied: “It’s just a version, it can be questioned. It’s like a painting with the brushstrokes in…You wouldn’t mistake it for the living person.”
In her 2003 memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, Mantel revealed her own history, one that she subjected to the same artistic questioning. Growing up “female, northern and poor” in a Catholic household, she became entranced by ghosts. The ghost of her father certainly, who was supplanted by her mother’s lodger and, latterly, the phantom of her fertility upon diagnosis of endometriosis and the eventual removal of her womb and ovaries. In the spate of obituaries to Mantel since her death, it is her preoccupation with phantoms that has struck the loudest chord: the ghosts from history that stalked her fiction, the ghosts of her Irish Catholic ancestors and, poignantly, the ghosts of her unborn children. Re-reading Wolf Hall as I did in the light of her memoir you come to see how closely the two are connected, how undertaking the memory project of one’s own life informs the way we see public histories. And what is history, Mantel asks, but the fortunate memories that made it onto the page: “I think it’s a real lesson to anyone concerned with history—how very hard it is to get the simplest things preserved.”
Mantel’s canonization by the British literary establishment is now well underway. Hours after her death her publishers, agents and critics all released statements proclaiming her brilliance and the enduring nature of her literary legacy. All deserved and true. But I can’t help thinking of what Mantel, always so suspicious of the establishment’s party lines, would make of these genuflections before her. I suspect she would find it ludicrous, that she would gesture in the way that only she knew how, to the puppetry of literary sainthood and its discontents much as she did with the privilege of monarchs. I shall think of her reading her obituaries thus, a ghost among us.
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