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On Hilary Mantel's limitless curiosity and tremendous range

Across a nearly four-decade-long career, the novelist Hilary Mantel's body of work covered a wide array of genres and tonalities

As a teenager, Hilary Mantel wanted to be a historian. (REUTERS)

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Hilary Mantel, one of those rare writers of top-shelf literary fiction whose books also sold in the millions, died last week following a stroke. Mantel’s trilogy of novels about Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power in King Henry VIII’s court—Wolf Hall (2009), Bring Up The Bodies (2012) and The Mirror & The Light (2020)— earned her two Booker Prizes, worldwide acclaim and a legion of fans.

As a teenager, Mantel wanted to be a historian. By her early 20s, though, she felt like she had missed that academic train. Yet, if you haven’t read beyond Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy, it would be easy to think of her primarily as a writer of historical fiction.

In truth, Mantel possessed tremendous range and limitless curiosity as a writer. Her novels through the 1980s-90s are disparate, stand-alone achievements across a wide range of genres and tonalities. Her first two novels, Every Day Is Mother’s Day (1985) and Vacant Possession (1986)—now called the “Axon Family” books—were darkly funny contemporary (set in the 1980s) stories featuring the same set of characters, most notably a medium called Evelyn Axon and her mentally ill daughter Muriel, whom we discover has become pregnant following a string of weekly visits to a daycare centre. These two books showed signs of what would become one of Mantel’s writerly signatures—while she could be very generous with her characters, her default mode was a somewhat cruel streak of humour, an equal-opportunity malevolence that could make the reader laugh even during scenes of high-stakes drama.

The Tudor trilogy of books by Hilary Mantel
The Tudor trilogy of books by Hilary Mantel

Mantel’s next novel, Eight Months On Ghazzah Street (1988), was set in Saudi Arabia, inspired by the four years Mantel lived there in the mid-1980s. A classic East vs West story of cultural clashes, this somewhat sombre, meditative book was especially attentive to the ways Saudi women were subjugated (and where her own positionality as an educated white woman fell in all of this).

This was followed by a short comic novel that’s among my favourite books of the era—Fludd (1989), set in 1956, among the fictional villagers of Fetherhoughton in England’s northern moorlands. This small community consists of simple folk, unpretentious in the extreme (“… so thoroughly against pretension that they also discriminated against ambition, even against literacy”) and heavily influenced by the book’s version of the Roman Catholic church, fronted by Father Angwin. The lives of Angwin and the villagers are thrown into disarray by the arrival of Fludd, a curate (assistant to the parish priest) who appears to have a Devil-like fondness for mischief and a gift for knowing the fears and insecurities of strangers.

The novel’s central joke is that for all the upheaval Fludd causes, he actually ends up helping Angwin at the personal, and even spiritual, levels. The book is asking a mischievous question: Father, what if the Devil were actually good for you? Mantel is in top comic form throughout, her cruellest barbs reserved for men of the cloth as she renders the rest of the villagers with an air of benevolent humour.

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Sample the way she describes the cadences of the Fetherhoughton tongue, for instance. “The speech of the Fetherhoughtonians is not easy to reproduce. The endeavour is false and futile. One misses the solemnity, the archaic formality of the Fetherhoughtonian dialect. It was a mode of speech, Father Angwin believed, that had come adrift from the language around it. Some current had caught them unawares, and washed the Fetherhoughtonians far from the navigable reaches of plain English; and there they drifted and bobbed on waters of their own, up the creek without a paddle.”

Through the 1990s and early 2000s (i.e. just before Wolf Hall), Mantel wrote five novels: Of these, the French Revolution novel A Place Of Greater Safety (1992) is often cited as the precursor to the Cromwell trilogy, especially for the effortless way in which it dissects the mechanics of power. For me, though, The Giant, O’Brien (1998) was the most potent foreshadowing of Mantel’s mastery over historical fiction. She took two real-life characters—a 7ft, 7-inch Irish man called Charles Byrne (the “O’Brien” from the title) and the 18th century Scottish surgeon, medical pioneer John Hunter—who was also the teacher of Edward Jenner, the inventor of the smallpox vaccine—and created an exquisitely crafted study in contrast.

The front cover of The Giant, O' Brien by Hilary Mantel.
The front cover of The Giant, O' Brien by Hilary Mantel.

Byrne is a wide-eyed dreamer who sees love, beauty and wonder in the world around him (even as he realises he’s headed for an early grave) while Hunter is rational and calculated to the point of being cold. There’s something cruel and dispassionate about his single-minded pursuit of science; as Mantel shows us, there’s a fair bit of narcissism and even sadism there as well (the field of medicine offers him power over his fellow man).

This same attentiveness to the workings of power—and what power so often does to the soul—would, of course, be wielded to devastating effect in the Cromwell trilogy, which ended in 2020 with The Mirror & The Light, the last novel Mantel published. The novel is ample proof that Mantel’s powers remained undimmed till the end—there are gorgeous, wise passages liberally strewn across the book. Like the one where Mantel examines England’s difficult relationship with denial and historiography.

“You can write on England, but what was written before keeps showing through, inscribed on the rocks and carried on floodwater, surfacing from deep cold wells. It’s not just the saints and martyrs who claim the country, it’s those who came before them: the dwarves dug into ditches, the sprites who sing in the breeze, the demons bricked into culverts and buried under bridges; the bones under your floor. You cannot tax them or count them. (…) They bubble out of the ground, wear away the shoreline, sow weeds among the crops and erode the workings of mines.”

Mantel was ultimately a writer’s writer, excelling at different styles and genres. She was known to be very kind to younger writers who would sometimes want too much of her time. The British writer Katie Ward (author of the novel Girl Reading) has spoken about this aspect of Mantel’s life (“Over the years, she’s dedicated a great deal of time to supporting new writers,” she said, according to The Guardian, in 2013). Her thoughts on the cultural lodestones of her time were every bit as sharp as her fiction; she famously eviscerated Christopher Andersen’s Madonna biography in a London Review Of Books review that ended up being more insightful than the book itself (“most intelligent Catholic girls go through a phase in which they would rather be like Mother than like mother”).

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This is as good a time as any, then, to remember Mantel’s own words about the novelist’s craft (during the first of her BBC Reith Lectures broadcast in 2017), almost like a manifesto in miniature for writers of historical fiction.

“The novelist knows her place. She works away at the point where what is enacted meets what is dreamed, where politics meets psychology, where private and public meet. (…) I move through the domestic space and emerge into the buzzing economic space of the mill yard—the market place, the gossip shop, the street and the parliament house.” These lines also work as a succinct introduction to the workings of the contemporary novel, at the technical and experiential levels. They speak to her command of the craft and her thoughtful, self-aware outlook towards the practice.

There will never be another quite like her.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer

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