Near the beginning of Hilary Mantel’s Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (1988), the novel’s main character, a young English woman who has just arrived in Saudi Arabia, pauses as she joins her husband in the living room of their company-furnished apartment for the first time. She can’t decide where to sit; although the room is filled with chairs, none are placed so that two people can sit facing each other and talk. As she hesitates, wondering if dragging a seat into a better angle would seem “unreasonably portentous,” this detail expands threateningly, and behind the arrangement of furniture appears the outline of a broader social arrangement prohibiting equal conversation between spouses.
Mantel’s novels take shape through the gradual accumulation of these moments of dissonance, moving outward from uncomfortable and unpleasant details to suggest larger patterns of menace and disorder. Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, partly drawn from Mantel’s experience during the Saudi oil boom of the early ’80s, begins with a precise description of the new construction fueled by the country’s rapid increase in wealth: “On every vacant lot in time appears the jumble of brownish brick, the metal spines of scaffolding, the sheets of plate glass; then last of all the marble, the most popular facing material, held on to the plain walls behind it with some sort of adhesive.” Inside these buildings, the hallways and staircases are also coated with marble, of the irregular flesh-colored shade “flecked with black and a fatty cream, revoltingly edible, like some kind of Polish sausage” popular among government officials of particularly corrupt regimes.
Lured to the Persian Gulf by the quick profits promised by advisory consulting roles on government projects, Mantel’s English expatriates spend their allotted time haggling over gold-plated jewelry, brewing wine illegally in their bathtubs, and holding elaborate dinner parties with other English people whom they hate. After they drink too much, the men become casually racist and the women sneak into the kitchen to eat second and third helpings of dessert. Their faults can be neatly sorted into biblical categories of gluttony, lust, and vanity. Learning of her husband’s new salary, Frances, the main character is “cleanly stabbed by avarice, like a peach with a silver knife.” Mantel expands her condemnation of her characters into a condemnation of the city itself: “When the Jeddah earthquake comes—and it will come—all-seeing Allah will observe that the buildings are held together with glue; and he will peel the city apart like an onion.”
To move from small details to this kind of distant, omniscient perspective, Mantel uses language that is both precise and compressed. Instead of resting on the middle distance, her sentences shift directly between events of different orders of magnitude. Her fifth novel, A Change of Climate (1994), begins, “One day when Kit was ten years old, a visitor cut her wrists in the kitchen. She was just beginning on this cold, difficult form of death when Kit came in to get a glass of milk.” Each line begins and ends with a neutral phrase—Kit’s age, her glass of milk, the kitchen, the bland “she was just beginning”—but the alternation between these mundane observations and the violent act at their center emphasizes the distance between them.
Especially in Mantel’s early novels, this distinctness of expression constantly spills over into her figures of speech. One woman’s legs “[move] like scissors down the street”; another is permeated by other peoples’ words “like needles picking up the skin.” The frequency with which these violent movements of cutting, stabbing, and slicing are repeated reinforces the idea of Mantel’s language as a sharp, sterile blade. This violence is most overt in her first novel, an 800-page account of the French Revolution from the point of view of the Jacobins, which Mantel wrote while she was 23 and working in the women’s clothing section of a large department store.
When she couldn’t sell this manuscript—it was eventually published in 1992 as A Place of Greater Safety—Mantel began writing much shorter books that contained an even greater intensity of tone. Every Day Is Mother’s Day (1985), the first novel she published, is set, like many of Mantel’s early books, in a small town in northern England. Its romantic leads, Isabel, a junior social worker, and Colin, a high school history teacher, meet in a night workshop called “Writing for Fun and Profit.” When the instructor tells them “there’s a book in each of us,” Isabel responds dourly, “I should like mine to be Mansfield Park.” Colin, unhappily married with several children, thinks, “I belong to the generation of Angry Young Men, although I was never angry until it was too late, oh, very late, and even now I am only mildly irritated.” Since they both hate everyone else in their writing workshop, they fall in love. Their affair is miserable almost before it begins: they spend most of it deciding whether to meet for warm gin and flat beer at a series of pubs “smelling of damp fake-furs and warming plastic” or to sit in their unheated car in the middle of a field. Eventually, the car shows signs of sinking into the mud, and they start driving to a highway service area instead. “This is ridiculous,” Colin says. “Nowhere to go. Like kids. Kids do this.”
This note of unfocused, almost bemused aggression is struck by many of Mantel’s early narrators; it is as if they are irritated by so many things they have given up trying to distinguish between real and illusory sources of discomfort. Although they have subsided into nonthreatening social roles—teacher, housewife, ineffectual parish priest—they have vague, sweeping ambitions that lead to occasional quixotic attempts at self-improvement: night classes, daily journal entries, political meetings. But mostly their ambitions express themselves in negative form, through an uncompromising hatred of everything that seems false, pointless, and painful in their lives. The more this list is considered, the more it expands, magnifying small signals into conspiracies and inconveniences into traps.
Increased perception, for these characters, seems to lead mostly to disgust with the world. Mantel dwells on this point at length in An Experiment in Love (1995), a campus novel set in the early 1970s, and the closest thing she has written to a bildungsroman. Its heroine, Carmel, is a scholarship student from a decaying mill town in northern England. She is educated, like Mantel herself, first at a convent school and then a selective London university. An aspiring revolutionary, Carmel joins the student socialist party, but is disappointed to find it dominated entirely by “men with bad teeth from obscure post-graduate specialties” who lecture on points of order, while “in Paris, the ashes of the évènements were hardly cool.” In London, the only apparent revolution is the sudden and decisive rout of the miniskirt in favor of belted trenches and maxi skirts—an aesthetic of the “poised, mysterious and difficult” where women apply lipstick in public and 26 is a more valued age than 16. Carmel, who can’t afford a new wardrobe, is caught barelegged on the wrong side of history.
Like the cloistered nuns who share her name, Carmel moves further within herself as the novel progresses, as if into a walled medieval garden, but she is far from finding an inner principle of order or calm. Instead, she is increasingly unable to control her own thoughts. Stray facts, painful memories, and disjointed lines of verse circulate in her head like debris from a wreck. Even something as small as another girl stirring instant coffee causes Carmel to silently recite T.S. Eliot’s famous line about measuring out life with coffee spoons, before almost instantly chastising herself as too obvious.
At the same time, she cuts her hair into a shingle bob, dyes it a lurid shade of red, and begins to knit a sweater that will locate her definitively as “poised, mysterious and difficult.” It is russet-brown, a reddish shade that clashes with Carmel’s new hair, and has a cowl neck; even the appliqué flowers, beads, and embroidery she adds cannot hide its resemblance to a monk’s habit. When completed, she wears her creation with a borrowed dark-green belt, “crushing and severe,” that compresses her ribcage into an almost triangular shape; by this point she is eating very little. Carmel intends the harsh material, restrictive shape, and sharp contrasts of this form to reflect her contempt for appearances, but they also reflect, unintentionally, her inner confusion and distress.
An Experiment in Love is partly an examination of Mantel’s own style, and the influences that have shaped her sentences. The structure of book consciously echoes The Girls Of Slender Means, Muriel Spark’s short novel about the residents of a women’s dormitory in the 1940s, but Carmel’s red hair, memento mori, and caustic intelligence seem to have more to do with Spark herself than with her characters. Similarly, the lines of poetry that run compulsively through Carmel’s mind suggest both the disembodied verses that interrupt Spark’s book and an episode from the writer’s own life, when, in 1955, overworked, starving, and dependent on the stimulant Dexedrine, Spark became convinced that T.S. Eliot was sending her coded messages in his writing, and suffered a nervous breakdown.
This experience, which led to Spark’s recovery in a Carmelite convent and her conversion to the Roman Catholic Church, was also the basis for her first novel, The Comforters; she changed the visual hallucinations she had experienced into an unseen narrative voice that hounded her heroine and made her feel like a character in a novel. In a way, it seems only fair for Mantel to make Spark a character in her own novel, and, by placing these two sides of Spark’s life alongside each other, to suggest both the external form that Mantel has adopted and the private costs that have gone into creating this distant and sterile language.
An Experiment In Love’s main character also suffers a self-inflicted collapse but she recovers, at least partially. Carmel, who wanted to be the first female prime minister, ends the novel as a suburban housewife watching her more successful classmate on television. She seems to have found a kind of emotional balance, but a private one, unsanctioned by the world.
By Wolf Hall, the first in her series of historical novels about Henry VIII’s minister Thomas Cromwell, Mantel’s prose has modulated into a new key. Her writing is still built on the careful accumulation of indirect observations, but the connective tissue of her sentences seems looser, and the sharp lines of her early novels have been replaced by a lavish, almost Elizabethan, vocabulary.
Here are some of the words in Mantel’s Cromwell novels: Guiles, argent, couchant. Estoc. Exsanguinates. Fuckeur. There is hunting; there is jousting. There are sconces, velvet cushions, jellies in the shape of castles, and stuffed piglets. There are songs that can only be described as bawdy. Some descriptions—of the English winter, of court pageants—echo Orlando’s scenes on the frozen Thames. Although the language is not archaic, it is often luxurious: someone’s glance “slides…like silk upon a stone”; hawks fall from the sky “gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze.”
Although they are Mantel’s most expansive books, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are also her most tightly organized. Their pacing mimics that of an action novel: running through them are sentences with only two words, paragraphs with only two sentences, chapters with only two paragraphs. Imagery is repeated with small variations to set a different tone for each of her main characters: Anne Boleyn dresses in shades of gold and deep red, as if some internal fire made her dangerous to touch; she is taut and focused, her face reduced to its harsh angles, her teeth sharp and white. Her rival Jane Seymour is “a plain young woman with a silvery pallor” and a plump, discreetly dimpled face, who wears grays and pearls, and, after her marriage to Henry, a prim antique headdress.
Minor characters—Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies both have more than a hundred, laid out before each book in comprehensive charts and dramatis personae—are defined by one or two piercing details. The superficially imposing but extremely superstitious Duke of Norfolk “rattles a little as he moves, for his clothes conceal relics: in tiny jeweled cases he has shavings of skin and snippets of hair, and set into medallions he wears splinters of martyrs’ bones.” The much younger wife to an elderly diplomat “wears tawny silk, coral bracelets with gold hearts, and an expression of vigilant dissatisfaction, bordering on the peevish.”
These observations are all filtered through the eyes of Mantel’s main character. When the future Archbishop of Canterbury, describing his past, pauses for a beat too long on the horse, bow, and hawk that his father gave him when he was a child, Cromwell notices quickly: “Dead, he thinks, the father long dead; still looking for his hand in the dark.” As the priest describes his schooling (harsh) and his duty to God (absolute), the successive authorities of his father, his education, and his religion delicately reinforce one another to suggest a comprehensive picture of his character.
Mantel, who rarely boasts of her characters’ abilities, returns to Cromwell’s organizational excellence several times. She compares him to Simonides (“who invented the art of memory”), to a prototypical information-storing device under construction in Paris (“a memory machine”), and to an illustrated medieval breviary. While working as a hired soldier in Italy, Cromwell learned a “memory system,” a trick of joining events to mnemonic images: “Some of these images are flat, and you can walk on them. Some are clothed in skin and walk around a room. . . . He keeps them, in strict order, in the gallery of his mind’s eye.” The closest he comes to panic in Wolf Hall is while he watches his teenage son sort his papers:
What is Gregory doing? He is putting the documents into a stack. On what principle is he doing it? He can’t read them, they’re the wrong way up. He’s not filing them by subject. Is he filing them by date? For God’s sake, what is he doing?
Later, once his son is gone, Cromwell returns to his office and files this stack of papers correctly. There is a historical basis for this characterization; the bulk of the English archives for the decade of Cromwell’s influence are composed of his extensive papers, which were seized by the state when he was arrested for treason in 1540.
The eight years of Cromwell’s influence, from 1532 to 1540, coincided with Henry VIII’s divorce from his first wife and marriage to Anne Boleyn, the creation of the Church of England, the execution of Thomas More, the execution of Anne Boleyn, Henry’s marriage to Jane Seymour, the printing of the first English bible, Jane Seymour’s death in childbirth, and Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves. Mantel looks at these familiar events and finds neither romantic drama nor historical spectacle, but human effort and ingenuity. Behind Henry’s divorces she sees the thousands of hours of careful justification necessary to prove that Henry’s marriage to Katherine was invalid, that Anne Boleyn herself had not engaged in a previous, secret marriage, that the Roman Church had no authority over Henry’s decision; then, later, to reverse the decision and prove that Henry’s marriage to Anne had been invalid all along.
In telling the story of Henry VIII from this perspective, Mantel is inviting in several different groups of readers. Cromwell is the subject of at least two distinct conversations: one going on between historians and one between novelists, filmmakers, and the screenwriters of BBC costume dramas. Among the former group, there is a general agreement that administrative framework Cromwell put in place played a role in the creation of the modern English state. Geoffrey Elton, the historian who first advanced this theory claimed that Cromwell was “éminence grise of about 98 per cent” of the English commonwealth and the architect of the welfare state. Opposing views argue against the degree of Cromwell’s influence but do not challenge this essential premise. Even the recent biography Thomas Cromwell: The Rise and Fall of Henry VIII’s Most Notorious Minister (2007) by popular historian Robert Hutchinson argued that Cromwell’s notoriety rested precisely in the centralized government processes he instituted, which Hutchinson saw as responsible for turning Tudor England into “what we would now recognize as a totalitarian, Stalinist state.”
To fiction, however, Cromwell—whose movements are not well documented until he appeared in public view as a man in his late thirties—is a curious blank space. With the partial exception of Ford Madox Ford’s The Fifth Queen, Cromwell represents, at best, the cold and ambitious organ of impersonal authority responsible for putting Thomas More, Anne Boleyn and hundreds of Henry’s other opponents to trial; at worst, he is the actively malevolent “agent of Satan” portrayed in Robert Bolt’s 1960 play A Man For All Seasons.
Bridging the gap that separates these views, Mantel moves fluently between the two different sides of Cromwell’s character. Her protagonist embodies the idea, which Mantel seems to share, that the only way to face the manifold trauma her books describe in such detail is through sustained and deliberate action. Writing on Robespierre in the London Review of Books, Mantel calls this principle vertu: the English word “virtue” is insufficient she thinks, as it sounds “pallid and Catholic.” Vertu, on the contrary, is neither self-righteousness nor individual sanctity, but “an active force that puts the public good before private interest.”
Following Elton, Mantel finds Cromwell’s most important achievements in his efforts to give order and shape to the turbulent events taking place around him. As he writes Anne Boleyn’s indictment, Cromwell imagines that his role in history is to sort out the “entanglement of thighs and tongues” between Henry and Anne, “to take that mass of heaving flesh and smooth it on to white paper: as the body after the climax lies back on white linen.” She seems less convinced by the charges laid against Cromwell by opposing views. Asked in an interview about the morality of Cromwell’s execution of Anne Boleyn, she replied, “Oh no, she’d got to go.” But Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies both try to show the ways that Cromwell’s public actions are formed by the events of his own life and the narratives that he has created to explain his actions to himself. The books’ most powerful moments are the ones that try to capture the two faces of these events—the public exterior and the private interior—side by side.
Bring Up the Bodies ends with Anne Boleyn’s execution. Cromwell, who is orchestrating the scene, is in command of every detail: a scaffold is set up in an old tournament field and sprinkled with sawdust; two hundred reservists are called up to lead a procession of London dignitaries; a special executioner, with a sword instead of an axe, is ordered from Calais. When Anne kneels, her attendants wrap her skirts around her feet, so that her body, when it falls, won’t be exposed. The one oversight—there is no coffin—is quickly corrected by emptying out a chest of arrows.
Mantel describes the execution itself in two sentences: “There is a groan, one single sound from the whole crowd. Then a silence, and into that silence, a sharp sigh or a sound like a whistle through a keyhole: the body exsanguinates, and its flat little presence becomes a puddle of gore.” By the next line, she has moved on, and Cromwell is already listing the noblemen who refused to kneel and the ceremonial banners that need to be carried to the church.
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