Hilary Mantel’s Art Was Infused With Her Pain

The death of the British novelist is occasion to remember her genius as well as the chronic illness that shaped her work.

Photo of Hilary Mantel
Andrea Artz / laif / Redux

“Once the queen’s head is severed, he walks away. A sharp pang of appetite reminds him that it is time for a second breakfast, or perhaps an early dinner.”

These are the first two sentences of T​he Mirror and ​the Light, the third volume of Hilary Mantel’s ​trilogy about the life of Thomas Cromwell and the last book she published before she died on Thursday at the lamentably young age of 70. With masterly dispatch, she thrusts us into the middle of the action, tells us exactly where we are, and makes us gasp at a conjunction of things that we would never have thought could occupy the same moral universe—that is, decapitation and a second breakfast. But she makes them make sense together. Cutting off heads and a second morning meal are both prerogatives of the powerful in late-medieval England. I could have plucked just about any two lines out of her novels and shown that they do the same amount of work. That’s how efficient this writer was. That’s what we’ve lost.

We are inside the head of Cromwell, street urchin elevated to manager of, well, everything in the land, on behalf of the bloated, childish King Henry VIII. “Lord Cromwell is the government, and the church as well,” someone observes. He is also the satisfier of Henry’s lusts—his procurer, if you like. Cromwell has made a queen for Henry and killed that queen for Henry. Everyone knows how Anne Boleyn ended up. But only readers of the first two novels in the series know that Mantel invented an improbably tender, courteous Cromwell with a capacity for ethical reasoning unimaginable in the royals he moves among. But now blood spurts out of the queen’s neck, we are in the third act of the tragedy, and Mantel has added to the list of Cromwell’s powers the ability to turn his back on horror and think about food, as callow as a king.

How do you animate history like this? Historians can’t do it. Very few historical novelists can do it. In her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, Mantel reveals the mystery of her method: “Eat meat. Drink blood,” she writes. “Rise in the quiet hours of the night and prick your fingertips and use the blood for ink.” You may be tempted to dismiss as hackneyed the notion of draining one’s veins for art, but then you discover that blood was the defining substance, the governing catastrophe, of Mantel’s life.

In her 20s, she developed a case of endometriosis severe enough to make her vomit and have so much pain in her limbs and organs that she couldn’t walk. But it went undiagnosed, and because no one understood what was wrong with her, she entered a psychiatric clinic. She was told not to write. Endometriosis is what used to be called a female complaint. One might call it menstruation run amok. The cells in the lining of the womb that usually bleed out during a period instead grow in other parts of the body—the pelvis, the bladder, the bowel—and bleed there, creating scar tissue and unbearable pain. “Infertility is a distinct possibility,” writes Mantel, and indeed, she would never have children. A hormonal condition associated with endometriosis induces migraines and, in her case, “the migraine aura that made my words come out wrong” and “morbid visions, like visitations, premonitions of dissolution.” Once Mantel received a proper diagnosis, she was put on medication that made her balloon. Thereafter, she recalls, she dwelled  in the shadow land of “fat-lady shops,” unable to shake off the “perception of most of the population, who know that overweight people are lazy, undisciplined slobs.”

What does endometriosis have to do with art? For Mantel, everything. She worked her experience until it became the corporeal substrate of her fiction. Her magnum opus is made of blood and female bodies. Whether a man’s blood is noble or base determines his identity and fate. The behavior of a woman’s reproductive organs may be the difference between life and death. There are many reasons Thomas Cromwell towers above contemporary literature, a demiurgic character on par with Hamlet, but one source of his authority is his uncommon (and admittedly anachronistic) attentiveness to the female condition.

He would appear to be alone among monarchists of his age in being repulsed by a social order that reduces queens—one of whom he loved before Henry swooped in and took her—to  sperm receptacles in the king’s service. It is through his visits to Catherine of Aragon, who never gave birth to a male heir who lived past infancy, that we observe just what it means ​for a queen to fail at her reproductive duties​. Replaced by Anne and confined to a remote castle, Catherine literally rots away from the inside, devoured by what seems to be some sort of abdominal cancer. Though Cromwell destroys Anne Boleyn, first he pities her when her body rejects the only princeling she ever produced and blood from the miscarriage forms a slick trail on the palace floor. Henry just wants to be rid of her.

“When women apes have their wombs removed, and are returned by keepers to the community, their mates sense it, and desert them,” writes Mantel in her memoir. “It is a fact of base biology; there is little kindness in the animal kingdom, and I had been down there with the animals, grunting and bleeding on the porter’s trolley. There would be no daughter.” No. But there would be what Hilary Mantel fashioned from her body instead, which was more than anyone could have asked for.

By Hilary Mantel
By Hilary Mantel

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