The queen of historical fiction

October 2, 2022

Life and legacy of author Hilary Mantel

The queen of historical fiction


y first brush with Hilary Mantel came during a university module on contemporary British fiction. My instructor had set Beyond Black as a core text, along with Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Ian McEwan’s Atonement; all excellent choices. All the writers had been shortlisted for the 2005 Man Booker Prize. This was 2007 so this almost-contemporary detail was fascinating at the time.

Beyond Black takes its reader behind the scenes of psychic fairs, where the protagonist, Alison, is also haunted by the ghosts of her own past. The narrative takes the reader on a journey through working-class England, its stressful seamy realities rendered in searing, beautiful prose. It was my first foray into Twenty-First-Century fiction and I was mesmerised. The book, I’m half-ashamed to admit, also gave me nightmares – the poignancy of Mantel’s depiction of everyday traumas and some of the realities of being a woman in the sideshow business were too heavy for my late-teen sensibilities.

However, Mantel is a writer hard to give up on. This may have to do partially with her personal story – her struggles with endometriosis, surgeries attempting to cure it, infertility, and her determination to “make [her] life as full as possible” were uplifting biographical tidbits mentioned by articles toasting her literary achievements.

A few short years after my introduction to her work came the Wolf Hall. I was in the middle of the book when it won the Man Booker Prize. “To fix a book in context requires background reading,” writes Mantel in the introduction to her collection of essays, Mantel Pieces: Royal Bodies and Other Writing from the London Review of Book. It would not be wrong to say that the context for Mantel’s work is her own writings.

To appreciate her work, be it historical fiction or contemporary, is not to compare it with other seemingly similar works but her own, only then can we understand why she chooses Cromwell as her protagonist instead of Henry or one of his queens. It is the same instinct to explore the inner life of a less important character that leads her to choose a psychic in Beyond Black – Mantel has explored various ways to define “English-ness” and who is closer to reality than those existing on a lower plane, refusing to gild themselves with artifice?

Mantel’s work slips effortlessly between the real and the spirit worlds, showing Cromwell communing with his ghosts while keeping him firmly rooted to the ground. Her metaphor is not belaboured – she has crafted a story at once profound and able to hold on to its narrative worth. It is rare to read literary fiction that is so dense but fun to read. This may be partly due to the fact that Mantel is interested in the mundane as much as the highbrow.

Photo by the author
Photo by the author

Nobody has looked at royal bodies like Mantel has, through the eyes of some of its most powerful, but at the same time, vulnerable subjects. As she says, “it’s nothing personal; it’s monarchy I’m staring at.

You will read descriptions of food, Cromwell’s thoughts about his dead wife, his past and his engagement with the children in his household. What I found most fascinating was his presentation as a man of England – how it is not just power that impels him forward, but a real concern with matters of state. The humanisation of Henry VIII is similar. She portrays not just a fallible man but also a man admired and apparently adored by a man looking out for his interests.

Mantel’s interest in monarchy is also reflected in her writings for the London Review of Books (LRB), where she frequently reviewed scholarly and academic books on the Tudor era. In one such essay, she writes of a visit of her own to Buckingham Palace and “the scaffolding of reality too nakedly displayed”, an apt metaphor for her own work with the Tudors, for this scaffolding forms the main interest of her books and what conveys the trembling quality of a ground that is always ready to shift beneath people’s feet.

Mantel’s particular interest in the inner lives of her shadowy characters was what set her apart from other contemporaneous historical novelists. Not one to choose the easy path, her novels flesh out characters like Wolsey, Cromwell, More, Margaret Pole and Chapuys, among others, giving us insight into their intentions from scant sources rather than Henry or Anne whose doings have filled tomes. Broad strokes are used for the latter, which paint an interesting and succinct portrait without taking up too much narrative space.

Several essays and reviews published in the LRB illuminate the work that went into those twenty years spent with Cromwell: the breadth of Mantel’s research doubtlessly qualified her to comment on scholarly books published on the lives of people like Charles Brandon, Margaret Pole, Christopher Marlowe, Marie-Antoinette and of course, Robespierre; the television depictions of Philippa Gregory’s novels as well as those of Showtime and HBO; and the pregnancy of Kate Middleton and how the populace still treats royal bodies as if it has a licence to.

Nobody, however, has looked at royal bodies like Mantel has, through the eyes of some of its most powerful, but at the same time, vulnerable subjects. As she says, “it’s nothing personal; it’s monarchy I’m staring at.”

The writer is a civil servant and a writer. Her work has appeared in The News on Sunday, The Friday Times and Libas, amongst others. She is obsessed with non-fiction and runs a popular Instagram account called @maddyslibrary, where she talks about books, colonisation and women’s rights

The queen of historical fiction