“The Pale Actor”: Hilary Mantel, The Mirror and the Light


He closes his eyes. What does God see? Cromwell in the fifty-fourth year of his age, in all his weight and gravitas, his bulk wrapped in wool and fur? Or a mere flicker, an illusion, a spark beneath a shoe, a spit in the ocean, a feather in a desert, a wisp, a phantom, a needle in a haystack? If Henry is the mirror, he is the pale actor who sheds no lustre of his own, but spins in a reflected light. If the light moves he is gone.

As I made my way through The Mirror and the Light, I found I was nearly as preoccupied with two questions about the novel’s form as I was with its detailed and sometimes mesmerizing chronicle of Cromwell’s last four years: why is the novel so long, and how would it end?*

My question about its length is a genuine one, not (or not exactly) a complaint or criticism. The novel is very long. I think possibly, if there is any way to measure such a thing, it is too long, by which I mean longer than it needed to be–but obviously it is exactly as long as Hilary Mantel thought it should be, and there’s a part of me that finishes that sentence by saying “and she should know.” She’s too smart and too artful a novelist to have left in anything that didn’t serve her purpose as she understood it, and she’s the kind of writer (meticulous, deliberate) who has earned my trust. That, arguably, shifts the burden to me: if the novel seemed too long to me, what was I missing?

henryviiiMy question is not well-posed, perhaps. After all, it’s never actually length that’s the problem when a book seems too long, is it? It’s our experience of that length. Many of my favorite books are as long as or longer than The Mirror and the Light (its pages are not even that densely packed) and sometimes a book with relatively few pages or words can seem slack or be tedious to wade through. My question is really more about what Mantel includes than about how much. Compared to Bring Up the BodiesThe Mirror and the Light felt loosely woven: its nearly 900 pages do at once too much and too little. For around 300 pages in the middle of it, I shifted into what I think of as “maintenance” reading: scanning, rather than scrupulously studying, each page, so as to maintain momentum without (I hope) missing anything significant, slowing down when the action or the prose seemed to intensify. There is a lot happening throughout The Mirror and the Light, but much of this action is on a small scale, like individual threads fraying or breaking on a vast tapestry. Cumulatively, every little bit matters because it contributes to the large-scale catastrophe that is Cromwell’s eventual and inevitable fall, but that big pattern (the final phase of the remarkable rise that began in Wolf Hall and accelerated in Bring Up the Bodies) is what’s important, not the minutiae.

mirror-light-2Why, then, does Mantel include so much of it? Or (to set aside the tired and unhelpful question of authorial intent) what is the effect of her decision to include every little thing–to reject the taut intensity that made both earlier books in her trilogy feel so much shorter, go by so much faster, in favor of this more expansive process? One answer that occurred to me as I neared the novel’s conclusion is that our immersion in the daily nitty-gritty of Cromwell’s life at the peak of his power–the constant demands that he do something, fix something, say something; the endless petty but also perilous contests for political dominance with his rivals and enemies; the fraught delicacy of his dances with Henry’s needy vanity–made his death feel shockingly sudden, even though his eventual fate has always been the one absolute certainty of Mantel’s story. Right to the very moment that he finds himself surrounded, arrested, and imprisoned–the moment that he knows too well is the beginning of the end of his life–Cromwell is in the midst of the complicated business of living. While the dramatic irony that is an inevitable feature of historical fiction always hovers over the novel’s action, the steady hum of everything that’s happening in the moment made me less aware of it, papering over the gap between my knowledge of what’s coming and Cromwell’s ignorance. This effect really heightened the emotional power of the last 200 pages, when his efforts prove (as we knew they would) insufficient to save him.

wolf hall coverAnother way I came to think about the novel’s length: The Mirror and the Life is very much a novel about middle age, a time of life in which (as I am learning) present experiences share mental and emotional space with intense memories of the past and a heightened awareness of the finite future. One reason The Mirror and the Light is longer than Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies is that it contains (or Cromwell’s consciousness contains) both of them within it. In this final novel Cromwell is not just living through his present but constantly recalling his past, reaffirming his history and identity, puzzling out continuities and discontinuities between the boy he once was and the man he now is–and at the same time he is anticipating what will come next, always with a sense of being surrounded by the ghosts of his past actions and (not incidentally) his past victims. Also, like many middle-aged people he has reached a professional plateau: The Mirror and the Light is about a man at the height of his career but with no options for lateral movement and no possibility of a graceful retirement. All he can do is hang on and try to enjoy the rewards his many years of hard work have brought him, while others eye his accomplishments, underestimate the price he paid for them, and dream of succeeding him. There’s less intrinsic drama in maintaining power than there is in either winning or losing it–hence the feeling, at times, that both Cromwell and the novel are spinning their wheels and getting nowhere. When the likely next step is disgrace and death, though, just staying in place has its own particular kind of dramatic tension, and again, this set-up made the ending all the more

Bring-up-the-BodiesThinking about the novel’s length in these ways reminded me of George Eliot’s comment about Middlemarch: “I don’t see how the sort of thing I want to do could have been done briefly.” It is hard to tell a story that captures the whole scope of life–or, in Mantel’s case, of a particular life–without somehow reflecting that inclusive ambition in your formal choices. Still, my attention and interest did sometimes flag during the frequent scenes of Cromwell and his (few) friends and (numerous) rivals and enemies plotting and nattering and jockeying for position. In contrast, I was riveted by many sections that actually contributed comparatively little to the plot but showcase Mantel’s marvelous writing. Her long sentences are intricately shaped and ornately detailed but always completely controlled:

He used to think that the plums in this country weren’t good enough, and so he has reformed them, grafting scion to rootstock. Now his houses have plums ripening from July to late October, fruits the size of a walnut or a baby’s heart, plums mottled and streaked, stippled and flecked, marbled and rayed, their skins lemon to mustard, russel to scarlet, azure to black, some smooth and some furred like little animals with lilac or white or ash; round amber fruits dotted with the grey of his livery, thin-skinned fruits like crimson eggs in a silver net, their flesh firm or melting, honeyed or vinous; his favoured kind the perdrigon, the palest having a yellow skin dotted white, sprinkled red where the sun touches it, its perfumed flesh ripe in late August; then the perdrigon violet and its black sister, favouring east-facing walls, yielding September fruits solid in the hand, their flesh yellow-green and rich, separating easily from the stone. You can preserve them whole to last all winter, eat them as dessert, or just sit looking at them in an idle moment: globes of gold in a pewter bowl, black fruit like shadows, spheres of cardinal red.

Some readers might love the political maneuvering and find a long paragraph on plums extraneous, digressive–but I’ll take the plums every time: it’s like a still-life painting in prose, resonant with feeling but under perfect control. Here’s another characteristic example:


Don’t look back, he had told the king: yet he too is guilty of retrospection as the light fades, in that hour in winter or summer before they bring in the candles, when earth and sky melt, when the fluttering heart of the bird on the bough calms and slows, and the night-walking animals stir and stretch and rouse, and the eyes of cats shine in the dark, when colour bleeds from sleeve and gown into the darkening air; when the page grows dim and letter forms elide and slip into other conformations, so that as the page is turned the old story slides from sight and a strange and slippery confluence of ink begins to flow. You look back into your past and say, is this story mine; this land? Is that flitting figure min, that shape easing itself through alleys, evader of the curfew, fugitive from the day? Is this my life, or my neighbour’s conflated with mine, or a life I have dreamed and prayed for; is this my essence, twisting into a taper’s flame, or have I slipped the limits of myself–slipped into eternity, like honey from a spoon? Have I dreamt myself, undone myself, have I forgotten too well; must I apply to Bishop Stephen, who will tell me how transgression follows me, assures me that my sins seek me out; even as I slide into sleep, my past pads after me, paws on the flagstones, pit-pat: water in a basin of alabaster, cool in the heat of the Florentine afternoon.

For me, passages like these (and the novel is full of them) more than made up for the parts that failed to hold or reward my attention to the same extent, even though, or maybe because, they do little to propel the novel’s plot.


The plot of The Mirror and the Light is important, of course. Its most significant and decisive event is Cromwell’s negotiation of Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves: Henry’s disappointment in her, his fourth bride, was Cromwell’s ruin. This is a story I know well from other treatments, especially Margaret Campbell Barnes’s in her lovely 1946 novel My Lady of Clevesso I was curious to see how Mantel told it. Like Barnes, she highlights the very plausible point that if either partner in this ill-fated marriage was entitled to disappointment or worse, it was Anne, trundled across Europe to marry a diseased and aging king known for ruthlessly discarding wives he didn’t want. Mantel’s Cromwell does his best to befriend Anne and coach her to please her irascible husband, but Henry’s antipathy (sparked by their unfortunate first encounter at which Henry, in disguise, took her by surprise as she traveled towards London) was worsened by his fascination with pretty young Catherine Howard. One reason I actually would have been happy for The Mirror and the Light to have gone on even longer is that I would have loved to see what Mantel did with Catherine: her Anne Boleyn is the best I ever met in any novel, and her doomed cousin’s fate is at least as grimly fascinating. (They are treated as a pair in Jean Plaidy’s 1949 Murder Most Royal, one of the most-read in my battered childhood collection of Plaidy’s novels.) We don’t get to know Anne of Cleves as intimately as we did Anne Boleyn: Mantel allows her some dignity, but she remains (as she was historically) a fortunate bit player in the larger drama.

catherine-howardWe can’t get close to Catherine, or follow her story to its bloody end, for a very simple reason: chronology. Cromwell’s execution preceded hers, though by barely 18 months. This returns me to the second of my questions about the novel’s form: how would it end? This is obviously not a question about plot; my interest was in the novel’s narration. One of the most discussed aspects of Mantel’s trilogy has been her use of a particularly close form of limited omniscient narration: it is in third-person but as if perched on Cromwell’s shoulder, barely acknowledging that it is not in fact first-person narration, never using the license Austen (to give one example of someone who also loves close third person) sometimes uses in her novels to change point of view once in a while to show us the story’s focalizing character from the outside, or to introduce a bit of information she’s not privy to. (I’m thinking of the rare but vital glimpses we get of Wentworth’s point of view in Persuasion, for example.)

Given her obvious interest in perception, consciousness, memory, and identity, and her obvious desire to bring us as close as she could to the mind whose outward manifestations she’s chronicling, why didn’t Mantel use first-person narration? She set herself the challenge, after all, of making a pretty unsympathetic historical figure–one who made many others his victims–into a character who is engrossing enough for us to care how he lives and dies, and first-person narration is a well-established trick for creating intimacy–sometimes sincerely, sometimes to exploit it to ironic effect (as in Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day). The obvious answer is that then The Mirror and the Light would have had to be a ghost story. It is very much a novel about ghosts, and towards the end Cromwell feels their presence as vividly as that of any of his living companions, but it matters that they are dead while he is not, not yet. The novel, and its central subject, are profoundly interested in what happens when you cross over that line, both as a personal question (“He thinks of his daughters Anne and Grace; perhaps he will meet them as women grown?”) and as a religious one. Following Cromwell across the threshold would force answers to these questions and move us into territory that is beyond even Mantel’s exhaustive research. She’s not beyond imagining those answers (see, for example, Beyond Black), but I didn’t find her approach to them very convincing and I’m glad she let our awareness seep away with Cromwell’s, “going out on crimson with the tide of his inner sea.” She ends it as she should, with the very last of what “he”– long our eyes and ears, our whole consciousness caught up in his hands–can see, and hear, and feel.

npg-cromwellThe Mirror and the Light starts in the immediate bloody aftermath of Anne Boleyn’s execution, making Cromwell’s own, less refined ending (“they don’t write words on the head of the axe”) a neat formal symmetry. The trilogy as a whole achieves something similar, beginning with Cromwell beaten to the ground by his father Walter, “pulled downstream on a deep black tide,” and ending with Walter’s voice still challenging him to “get up.” Even at the very last, the force of personality Mantel has created for Cromwell is so strong I almost expected that he would, like the case he recalls even as he mounts the scaffold: the Earl of Arundel “was axed down on this spot and his corpse leapt upright to say a Pater Noster. All headsmen … talk of it as a fact.” He doesn’t, of course, and at the last moment Mantel’s third-person narration proves its value as well as its logic, because he slips away and we are left behind. It is hard to mourn a man like Cromwell, but she has made it impossible not to miss him now that he’s gone.

* A postscript to this post: I realize I never really got around to discussing the basic features of the novel–stuff like its plot and characters and religion and politics–with much specificity, but it has been reviewed widely, so if those things are of more interest to you than these ramblings, it’s easy to find someone talking about them. That’s one reason I decided to address these particular aspects of the novel (which for better or for worse are the ones I was thinking most about as I read it and after I finished it) rather than doing more of a standard review post. In case I haven’t quite made this clear, I think it’s a really good novel, even though I ended up skimming some portions of it–not as good as the first two in the trilogy, where I was never tempted to skim, but still better than most novels. If I had to choose, I’d probably pick Bring Up the Bodies as the best of the three. You?

Chilling, Twisted, Forensic: Hilary Mantel, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher

mantel coverThe adjectives in my post’s title all come from the nearly four pages of blurbs at the front of my paperback edition of The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher and Other Stories. Looking them over after finishing the book, I was struck by how consistent the clips are, and how accurate: “exhilarating if dark,” “brilliantly chilling,” “artfully controlled savagery,” “brutally dissecting,” “brusque and brutal,” “cruelty is made manifest,” “dark and judgmental,” “harsh and comic,” “satisfyingly chilling.” I agree that these are just the qualities of the stories in this collection. I’m just not as sure as either these reviewers or the publicity team at Harper Perennial seem to be that these are signs of its greatness — that they are, or should be, unqualified selling points.

I did admire the stories, which I found consistently interesting and intelligent, but I would have liked them much better if they showed some signs of warmth, humanity, or tenderness. Instead, they struck me as cold and sometimes mean, unforgiving. They reminded me of some of Ian McEwan’s fiction, or of Edward St. Aubyn, in the precision and taut control of the prose, but I’m starting to get tired of writing that deliberately avoids expressiveness or emotion: flat affect is not the only way to show you are serious, and (as I have argued about both St. Aubyn and, in my arrogance, Flaubert) grim horror is not the only truth to tell about the world.

constantine coverI found myself thinking, as I worked through the volume, about why I enjoyed the stories in Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles and David Constantine’s In Another Country so much more. Johnson’s stories are as, or even more, grim than Mantel’s; they are also riskier, as well as more varied in tone and style, and so perhaps less consistently excellent in their execution. However much they are about horror, cruelty, or alienation, though, they seemed to me to also be about how fiction, or how we, can overcome them. In contrast, there’s something voyeuristic about Mantel’s glimpses of loneliness, pain, or cruelty: her stories give me the sense that she’s fascinated by these manifestations of our worse natures, but not moved by them to compassion or redress. Her stories also offer no epiphanies: just meticulous observation without revelation. This is a perfectly legitimate approach to fiction, of course: it’s just, cumulatively, chilling. Constantine sounds more like Mantel than Johnson does, at least at first read, but his stories are shot through with another quality hers lack: beauty — not necessarily as an aesthetic quality, though there is more of that in his writing than in The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher too, but, again, as a feeling, a hope, a light you can sense around even the darkest moments in his stories.

Looking over the effusive blurbs again, I’m reminded of the critical enthusiasm for Elena Ferrante, with all her “anger” and “searing honesty.” It seems as if there are a lot of readers who are particularly impressed by writers (women writers especially?) who are both unsentimental and unmerciful. I can be impressed by fiction this ruthless, but I can’t be moved. For me, that puts a cap on the praise I can offer it.

“Steps to Literature”: Hilary Mantel, Giving Up the Ghost


Sometimes, at dawn or at dusk, I pick out from the gloom — I think I do — a certain figure, traversing those rutted fields in a hushed and pearly light, picking a way among the treacherous rivulets and the concealed ditches. It is a figure shrouded in a cloak, bearing certain bulky objects wrapped in oilcloth, irregular in shape: not heavy but awkward to carry. This figure is me; these shapes, hidden in their wrappings, are books that, God willing, I am going to write. But when was God ever willing? And what is this dim country, what is this tenuous path I lose so often — where am I trying to get to, when the light is so uncertain? Steps to literature, I think; I have tottered one or two.

I was engrossed in Giving Up the Ghost from beginning to end, but I was also disappointed with it almost as consistently. Why? Because I thought it would be a different kind of book, and I had a hard time reconciling the book it was with the book I wanted it to be — namely, a memoir about a writer’s life.

I know what you’re thinking: But it is a memoir about a writer’s life, isn’t it? Yes, of course it is. But it says so little — almost nothing! — about Mantel’s life as a writer, even less about her actual books. I find her such a distinctively intellectual writer: even when I don’t quite like or get her novels, I enjoy the thinking that I can feel has gone into them, and I don’t mind that the result can be a certain coldness of affect (the same happens in Ian McEwan, I think, because the mental precision tidies away some of the messiness of emotion). So I was really curious to hear from her about what it’s like to be that kind of writer, to get some reflections on what she wants from fiction, why she has written the particular books she has, what she thinks of them … I wanted to read her memoir because of her books, after all. So I was disappointed that she hardly mentions them at all. “I started to write a book. I wrote and wrote it. Time passed. I moved to another country, another continent. Still I wrote it and wrote it.” That’s A Place of Greater Safety, I know, because in the one further paragraph we get about it, she describes her research:

I sat behind the insect mesh of my veranda frowning over my card index, documenting the fall of the French monarchy, the rise of the Committee of Public Safety. I had pressed the juice of meaning from every scrap of paper I had brought with me, every note on every source. The book was finished now.

About 20 pages later, we get this:

I went home, to the dark, enclosed rooms of our city apartment. I cut my dose by a third. Bald, odd-shaped, deaf but not defeated, I sat down and wrote another book.

That’s all we get there. And then about 20 pages later, again, “I sat in my stifling upstairs room, coaxing out of my computer the novel concealed somewhere in its operating system.” These are “steps towards literature,” sure, but what kind of steps, to what kind of literature? Why doesn’t she even name the books?

wolf-hallClearly Mantel did not consider Giving Up the Ghost the place to talk about her books — at least, not directly. Perhaps the most revealing thing she says about being a writer is a passing remark about Jane Eyre: “I remember the first time I read Jane Eyre: probably every woman writer does, because you recognize, when you have hardly begun it, that you are reading a story about yourself.” But again, she just moves on, so it’s not just her books she’s not talking about, it’s her whole experience of being a writer, a woman writer, a person writing, a person thinking about books, which — though we know they are integral to her life — seem oddly peripheral in her life story.

Giving Up the Ghost is not a book about the life of the mind. There’s nothing in it that helps me understand how, much less why, this particular woman wrote A Place of Greater Safety, much less how she would come to be the author of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the BodiesGiving Up the Ghost is not a kunstlerroman, then, as far as I can tell; it offers no clear insight into Mantel the artist. (It also does not tell an uplifting story of becoming a writer as a way of transcending the social and physical hardships she recounts so vividly — this is not an Oprah-friendly “rising above it” book.) Maybe Mantel believes her novels should speak for themselves; maybe she’s deliberately frustrating attempts to connect the writer and her work, (not entirely unreasonable for a woman writer).

It’s not a book about the life of the mind — but it is very much a book about the life of the body, or her body, and that’s one of the reasons I found it compelling as well as frustrating. From her waif-like young body to her adult body so dramatically reshaped by the drugs with which she treats her illness and pain, Mantel is ruthlessly specific about what it is like physically to be her, to be in her space, to interact with the world through her flesh. “I never was a size 16,” she notes;

I shot past it effortlessly. Soon there was nothing in the secondhand shop to fit me; bigger women don’t discard fashions so lightly. The assistants — and hadn’t I been their best customer all summer? — began to give me the smirk, half commiserating and half condescending, that would soon become the usual expression of shop girls when I went to get clad. My skin turned gray, shading to slate blue as the autumn came on. My legs swelled and ached. Fluid puffed up my eyelids. Some mornings my head looked like a soccer ball. I was glad when my husband’s job took us to Saudi Arabia, where women wear drapery rather than clothes, and where no one knew me, so that no one could stop me in the street to say how well I looked; where, in fact, I was more or less prohibited from going out on the street at all. I could stay indoors, under artificial light, waxing like some strange fungus.

“We can be made foreign to ourselves,” she observes, “suddenly, by illness, accident, misadventure, or hormonal caprice.” These extreme side effects, though, only exacerbate an alienation she seems always to have lived with: there’s something slightly disconnected about her self and her body from the beginning, as if she never entirely recognizes herself (one of the more interesting aspects of her childhood is her discomfort with her gender, her belief that at some point she will turn into a boy, then her disappointment as she realizes that she’s stuck being a girl, even though she never can see the point of dolls or tea sets). Her memoir is literally visceral: it’s the story of her guts gone awry.

But maybe that means it is in fact a book about the life of the mind, since endometriosis is a disease in which cells from the lining of the uterus make their way to other parts of the body, including, she tells us, “the heart, the head.” One of Mantel’s symptoms is “the prodromal aura of migraine headaches,” which brings on “invisible presences and the echoes of strangers’ voices . . . morbid visions, like visitations, premonitions of dissolution.” These are mental but also physical phenomena; this is, we could say, the irrational life of her mind — the mind that sees “the ghost of my stepfather coming down” the staircase and other things that “aren’t there.” Isn’t seeing things that aren’t there precisely what a novelist does?

Giving Up the Ghost tells us very little overtly about Mantel the novelist. But it shares many of its preoccupations with her novels, including ghosts, or just the uncanny, such as the mysterious apparition that haunts her life with shame as if she’s committed a sin (“I should not have been looking“) for which she must somehow answer. It’s also, and this is endlessly evident in its language, by Mantel the novelist: it’s smart, strange, surprising, sideways, grim, tactile (“waxing like some strange fungus” indeed). Maybe that’s the point at which the two books (the one I wanted, the one she wrote) actually converge: Giving Up the Ghost isn’t a memoir about being a writer, but it’s very much the memoir of a writer, one whose cerebral life is self-consciously embodied. I wondered, as I reached the end of the book, why I wasn’t at least as curious about her physicality as I am about her intellect, why it kept seeming to me that she was focusing on the wrong thing. My mistake.

Broken Heart of Darkness: Hilary Mantel, A Change of Climate

mantelclimateA Change of Climate is an odd book. I didn’t love it, perhaps because I didn’t know quite what to make of it. It reminded me a lot of Joanna Trollope’s earlier novels — the “aga saga” ones, like A Village Affairor Marrying the Mistress. It has a small cast of intertwined characters, all more or less eccentric, all more or less needy or damaged or just muddling along. The plot is essentially a family drama, its focus on the ebb and flow of people’s feelings (love, resentment, antagonism, yearning). But the resemblance is only superficial: though Trollope’s novels are not necessarily comfortable or reassuring, Mantel’s is built around a core of trauma so devastating that Ralph and Anna, the main characters, barely name it. The particular event takes place long before the novel’s present and far from its present location. Mantel explains it (naturally) better than I ever could:

…they’ve buried their experience, which they can do because it is something that happened in Africa, a place which, to their friends in England, is in any case the realms of the inexplicable. Africa becomes a metaphor for what we do not explore; in the novel it’s no longer a solid place that one can travel to, but somewhere consigned to the subconscious.

It’s a tricky game, turning the cliché of how Africa has so often been imagined (as the Other, as the heart of darkness) against itself like that. For a while, reading the novel, I thought Mantel had, unwittingly, fallen into the trap — but even her characters are self-conscious about it. When they get home, that’s one reason they try not to talk about their experience: “if we tell them what we think has happened, we will pander to their filthy prejudices, we will seem to traduce a whole nation: savages, they will say.”

Perhaps one lesson might be that they ought not to have gone, taking their naïve will to do good, their pragmatic but inevitably ignorant and intrusive mission to help, to a country they cannot understand or belong to. Perhaps they should just have stayed home. But to see their suffering simply as a punishment for colonial presumption would be reductive. They do help, for one thing. And one of the layers of the novel is an inquiry into the value of doing good. The catastrophe comes upon them because they opened the door to it: “I decided to do a good action, and by it my life has been split open and destroyed.” Is it really better not to do what you think is good, though? “In choosing evil,” thinks Ralph, puzzling over the meaning and the implications of free will,

we collude with the principle of decay, we become mere vehicles of chaos, we become subject to the laws of a universe which tends back towards dissolution, the universe the devil owns. In choosing to do good we show we have free will, that we are God-designed creatures who stand against all such laws.

So I will be good, Ralph thought. That is all I have to do.

Yet in doing so, he lets in evil — or, as he comes to think, “malign chance.” The result is a horror, and then a hollow at the center of their moral and emotional lives. What do you do, after that? How do you live? Ralph and Anna raise a family and continue doing good, opening the door to every “sad case” that comes their way, but there’s no foundation for the new life they build, and so it is much more fragile, its misadventures more frightening, than either the village setting or the specific plot would lead you to expect. But to what end? What does it all mean? In the interview notes with Mantel at the end, she talks about A Place of Greater Safety, which was her first completed novel but wasn’t published until after she had had some success writing “contemporary novels.” She says that when it was published she saw it as a way of letting her readers know “I was something else as well: an accumulator and sifter and sorter of facts, dates and research.” I did love A Place of Greater Safety; maybe my problem is that I first came to Mantel through what she calls the “other side to my writing personality.” I enjoy well-dramatized facts, dates and research; for me, the elliptical quality of this novel was tantalizing but also somewhat disorienting.

Guilty as Charged: Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies

Bring-up-the-BodiesThere’s a feeling of power in reserve, a power that drives right through the bone, like the shiver you sense in the shaft of an axe when you take it into your hand. You can strike, or you can not strike, and if you choose to hold back the blow, you can still feel inside you the resonance of the omitted thing. (Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall)

“Did Anne,” Cromwell wonders towards the end of Bring Up the Bodies, “understand what was coming?” Even as the confessions are gathered that condemn her–even as her own uncle carries the warrant for her arrest, she goes “blindly through her last morning, doing what she always used to do.” What should she be doing, though? What could she be doing that would make any difference? We know, after all, how the story ends–but the fleeting poignancy is that she can’t be sure, can’t even altogether understand how she has lost the game she played with such brilliance. “Ready to go?” asks her uncle Norfolk; “I do not know how to be ready,” she replies.

It’s telling that Anne’s defeat manifests itself as disorientation: in the intricately plotted and plotting world Mantel has created across the first two books of her Cromwell trilogy, awareness is everything. Cromwell relies for his own power on his literal network of informants as well as on the relentless acuity of his inward eye, arranging and rearranging players and pieces in his mind until he is as sure of success in his political life as he is in the game of chess he portentously plays with Edward Seymour, brother of meek Jane, object of King Henry’s latest obsession. “A world where Anne can be queen is a world where Cromwell can be Cromwell,” it occurs to him in Wolf Hall. In Bring Up the Bodies he must discover how Cromwell can survive as Cromwell in a world where Queen Anne must be replaced. Anne’s rise enabled his, but her fall must not bring him down, and so with clinical precision he rearranges his alliances and once again commits himself to getting Henry what he wants. That this time his duty to his king coincides with his own longstanding grudges–against those who destroyed and then mocked his fallen mentor, Cardinal Wolsey–makes his job just that much sweeter.

Cromwell’s cold vengefulness, originating as it does in his love for Wolsey, paradoxically humanizes him: though instrumental in the suffering and death of many men (and one woman) whose guilt is at most ambiguous, nonetheless he is hardly a monstrous figure. Yet who could read his interviews with these victims of Henry’s caprice and not recoil? Wily, sophistical, manipulative, relentless, he twists both their words and their silences into the shapes that serve his single-minded purpose. “Did you think the king would die, so you could marry Anne?” he demands of Henry Norris. “Or did you expect her to dishonour her marriage vows during the king’s life, and become your concubine? It is one or the other.” “If I say either,” protests Norris, “you will damn me. You will damn me if I say nothing at all, taking my silence for agreement.” That is, exactly, Cromwell’s method. “And what do you think of brother George?” Cromwell asks him:

“You may have been surprised to encounter rivalry from that quarter. I hope you were surprised. Though the morals of you gentlemen astonish me.”

“You do not trap me that way. Any man you name, I will say nothing against him and nothing for him. I have no opinion on George Boleyn.”

“What, no opinion on incest? If you take it so quietly and without objection, I am forced to conjecture there may be truth in it.”

“And if I were to say, I think there might be guilt in that case, you would say to me, ‘Why, Norris! Incest! How can you believe such an abomination? Is it a ploy to lead me away from your own guilt?'”

He looks at Norris with admiration. “Not for nothing have you known me twenty years, Harry.”

What takes Norris longer to realize is that though he will die for his alleged guilt with the queen, his death settles a different debt, “a fat extract from the book of grief”: he and the other accused men once “turned the cardinal into a beast” in a play for the court, depicting him as “a howling animal, grovelling on the boards and scrabbling with his paws.” In the audience was Cromwell, “leaning against the panelling, silent, wrapped in a robe of mourning black.” “Would Norris understand it if he spelt it out?” wonders Cromwell;

He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged.

On its own terms, it’s a faultless logic–perhaps even a faultless justice. Anne must go; adultery and treason will be the charges; the charges must be proven, so the men must be found guilty; once they are found guilty, Anne’s guilt too is concluded; they die, she dies, and the king is free to marry Jane Seymour and beget a son for England. The men must be found guilty of adultery and treason whatever the facts of their relations with the queen, but as they are at any rate guilty of something else, their deaths are deserved and no moral harm is done.


If that reasoning makes you squirm, then you are onto what I suspect is Mantel’s game, which seems to be to test the limits of our sympathy (our complicity, even) with a protagonist driven increasingly by calculation and self-interest, one who, despite having strong loyalties and family affections himself, is all but unmoved by the human desperation his machinations engender. The Cromwell of Bring Up the Bodies is colder and more sinister than his counterpart in Wolf Hall — or perhaps the difference is that the earlier Cromwell is an underdog, on the rise, always a compelling dynamic, whereas in Bring Up the Bodies, though he is still disdained by the court for his lowly origins, now he is Master Secretary, seemingly both omniscient and omnipotent, and holding on to power is never as attractive as winning it. Mantel plays her hand deftly, though: Cromwell himself recoils just enough from his own cruelties to keep him on the right side of unforgivable. Interrogating young Francis Weston, child of privilege (“never a moment’s doubt about his place in the world, never a moment’s anxiety”) Cromwell sees “the boy’s head sink into his hands”– “Perhaps the facts will come out now?” And then, inexplicably, he excuses himself and leaves the room. Is it the truth he fears? Why, if it will legitimize the accusations, the sentences, the deaths that are already inevitable? To save Weston, perhaps, from denouncing his friends and then living — dying — with that betrayal? To preserve Weston’s innocence, such as it is, in a world where innocence seems impossible?

Or perhaps he just needed air. Let us say you are in a chamber, the windows sealed, you are conscious of the proximity of other bodies, of the declining light. In the room you put cases, you play games, you move your personnel around each other: notional bodies, hard as ivory, black as ebony, pushed on their paths across the squares. Then you say, I can’t endure this any more, I must breathe: you burst out of the room and into a wild garden where the guilty are hanging from trees, no longer ivory, no longer ebony, but flesh; and their wild lamenting tongues proclaim their guilt as they die. In this matter, cause has been preceded by effect. What you dreamed has enacted itself. You reach for a blade but the blood is already shed. The lambs have butchered and eaten themselves. They have brought knives to the table, carved themselves, and picked their own bones clean.

The horror is manageable as long as the unreality predominates. His lawyer’s skills entrap his victims and the credit is his for maneuvering them into position; they, on the other hand, believe that if they just tell the truth somehow they can restore themselves to life. Norris “seems to think that with eloquence, with sincerity, with frankness, he can change what is happening,” but already, to Cromwell’s eyes, he is “the dying man.”

Of Anne, especially, Cromwell prefers not to know too much, not to come too close. “You know, I created you,” she says to him when he comes with the others to take her to the Tower. He shows no particular malevolence towards her; in fact, he repents having brought the Constable of the Tower, William Kingston, along on this errand, as “his office, and his appearance have struck terror into the hearts of the strongest men.” She is more his antagonist than his enemy–though again there is satisfaction for Cromwell in seeing one who brought Wolsey down brought down in her turn. When he thinks she is about to speak to him sincerely, confessionally, he is momentarily touched with both compassion and unease:

She is on her feet, detaining him, timidly touching his arm; as if it is not her release she wants, so much as his good opinion. “You do not believe these stories against me? I know in your heart you do not, Cremuel?”

It is a long moment. He feels himself on the edge of something unwelcome: superfluous knowledge, useless information. He turns, hesitates, and reaches out, tentative . . .

But then she raises her hands and clasps them at her breast, in the gesture Lady Rochford had showed him. Ah, Queen Esther, he thinks. She is not innocent; she can only mimic innocence. His hand drops to his side. He turns away.

He is relieved — not that she is guilty, for he has nothing more certain than his own belief that “she would commit any sin or crime” to tell against her — but she does not intrude upon him any inconvenient truth. All he ever wants is “the truth little by little and only those parts of it we can use.” Anne’s protestations of innocence, especially if truthful, would not be useful at all for Cromwell’s purposes, or the king’s.

And what about Mantel’s purposes? “The evidence is complex and sometimes contradictory,” she says in her author’s note about the “circumstances surrounding the fall of Anne Boleyn”; “the sources are often dubious, tainted, and after-the-fact.” So there’s one reason to leave the case against her unresolved: we can’t, historically, be sure. Besides, what is sure is the necessity of the judgment against her: it was shockingly irrelevant whether the accused men were in fact her lovers, whether she did in fact commit incest with her brother. Her trial was never really about that, and so from that perspective Mantel is right to keep our attention on the process, the political and, we might say, genealogical forces arrayed against her. This focus, in turn, keeps our attention on Cromwell, on his successes and failures, and on the moral equivocations of his ultimately triumphant plot against her, given both the difficulty and the irrelevance of making the actual case. “Was she guilty or not?” is the question Thackeray refuses to answer about Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair, and as a result our judgment is deflected from her to those around her, as well as to ourselves. A guilty Anne is a weak opponent; an innocent Anne is a martyr. Mantel’s Anne, instead, is neither guilty nor innocent but defeated:

He believes he understands Anne, as Wriothesley does not. When she said the queen’s lodgings were too good for her, she did not mean to admit her guilt, but to say this truth: I am not worthy, and I am not worthy because I have failed. One thing she has set out to do, this side of salvation: get Henry and keep him. She has lost him to Jane Seymour, and no court of law will judge her more harshly than she judges herself. . . . She knows adultery is a sin and treason a crime, but to be on the losing side is a greater fault than these. . . .

He says, “Anne is dead to herself. We shall have no trouble with her now.”

wolf-hallUnlike Anne, we knew all along that this was how the game would end: though most of the multitudinous details Mantel provides will probably be unfamiliar to all but the Tudor connoisseur, Anne’s execution cannot surprise any reader. Mantel knows this perfectly well and even plays with it — the very title of Wolf Hall foreshadows Anne’s failure even as the novel details her success. Historical fiction can hardly be built around suspense. Bring Up the Bodies is gripping nonetheless because, knowing what will happen, we still wonder how and why events unfolded as they did, and because also Mantel is brilliant at the other aspects of the novelist’s craft: characterization above all (Cromwell, of course, and Anne, but also Henry, who is miraculously liberated from the burden of clichés and caricatures that have accreted around his bullish figure over five centuries) and setting, too, all of the elements contributing to our understanding of the world she has created, which is permeated with implications that reach well beyond plot:

These days are perfect. The clear untroubled light picks out each berry shimmering in a hedge. Each leaf of a tree, the sun behind it, hangs like a gold pear. Riding westward in high summer, we have dipped into sylvan chases and crested the downs, emerging into that high country where, even across two counties, you can sense the shifting presence of the sea. In this part of England our forefathers the giants left their earthworks, their barrows and standing stones. We still have, every Englishman and woman, some drops of giant blood in our veins. In those ancient times, in a country undespoiled by sheep of plough, they hunted the wild boar and the elk. The forest stretched ahead for days. Sometimes antique weapons are unearthed: axes that, wielded with double fist, could cut down horse and rider. Think of the great limbs of those dead men, stirring under the soil. War was their nature, and war is always keen to come again. It’s not just the past you think of, as you ride these fields. It’s what’s latent in the soil, what’s breeding; it’s the days to come, the wars unfought, the injuries and deaths that, like seeds, the soil of England is keeping warm.

Through the vehicle of Cromwell’s own peculiar, wide-ranging, far-seeing consciousness, Mantel transports us away from the particular towards the near mythic. Her prose oscillates between the immediate and the imminent, and thus, though we follow the individual stories intently, we can’t forget their small size, the small part her men and women play in the story that began long before them and will go on long after. “One day I will be gone,” reflects Cromwell at the end of this volume, “and as this world goes it may not be long”:

I will leave behind me a great mountain of paper, and those who come after me . . . will sift through what remains and remark, here is an old deed, an old draft, an old letter from Thomas Cromwell’s time: they will turn the page over, and write on me.

“Either my enemies will do for me or my friends,” he thinks wryly, and the final volume of Mantel’s trilogy will presumably tell the story of how this comes to pass. It will be interesting to see if, as Cromwell finally plays a losing hand, Mantel is tempted to sentimentalize him, or at least to be more decisive about his guilt or innocence than she is about Anne’s. She has established the basis for his defense: if he is cruel (and how easily Anne’s French-inflected version of his name, “Cremuel,” slurs into that word when you’re reading), if he is cunning and self-interested, he is also loyal and even loving. She shows him, not as an inherently evil man, but as a man who has sought to shape his destiny in an unforgiving environment and has adapted in order to survive. “The world corrupts me,” Cromwell says to Thomas More in Wolf Hall;

Or perhaps it’s just the weather. It pulls me down and makes me think like you, that one should shrink inside, down and down to a little point of light, preserving one’s solitary soul like a flame under glass. . . . I truly believe I should be a better man if the weather were better. I should be a better man if I lived in a commonwealth where the sun shone and the citizens were rich and free.

Is that where we should rest our case, then, on the flickering light of his best self? Or does this exculpatory statement sound a little too pat from the man who stands over the fallen body of the king and “seems to body out and fill all the space,” staring down his enemies and seemingly calling Henry back from the dead? Though the argument of the novels might be that Cromwell is no more (and no less) than an exemplary man of his age, the form of the novels, which keeps us up close beside him at all times, insists on the force of the individual character. So do we blame him for his conduct or not? So far, I think we are left hovering between excuses and accusations. Perhaps here too, as with Anne, judgment is beside the point, but if we reserve judgment in the case of a man like Cromwell (at least as Mantel has shown him to us) I also think that we have to feel within ourselves “the resonance of the omitted thing.”

Carlyle on the Death of Louis XVI

I had a phrase from Carlyle’s French Revolution circling in my head today: I thought I wanted to use the phrase in the piece I’m writing for Open Letters Monthly (though now I think I won’t), but I couldn’t quite remember how it went (not even enough to try a search for it), so I was browsing through the book trying to bring it into focus, and oh! what an amazing, weird, spectacular, inimitable book it is. So, for no other reason than that we should all read a little Carlyle every so often (and yes, it will inspire us but also make us want to punch him in the head, as William Morris said), here’s some of my favourite chapter, “Place de la Révolution”:

A King dying by such violence appeals impressively to the imagination; as the like must do, and ought to do. And yet at bottom it is not the King dying, but the man! Kingship is a coat: the grand loss is of the skin. the man from whom you take his Life, to him can the whole combined world do more? Lally went on his hurdle; his mouth filled with a gag. Miserablest mortals, doomed for picking pockets, have a whole five-act Tragedy in them, in that dumb pain, as they go to the gallows unregarded; they consume the cup of trembling down to the lees. For Kings and for Beggars, for the justly doomed and the unjustly, it is a hard thing to die. Pity them all: they utmost pity, with all aids and appliances and throne-and-scaffold contrasts, how far short it is of the thing pitied. . . .

They arrive at the place of execution:

What temper is [Louis] in? Ten different witnesses will give ten different accounts of it. He is in the collision of all tempers; arrived now at the black Mahlstrom and descent of Death: in sorrow, in indignation, in resignation struggling to be resigned. . . .

The drums are beating: ‘Taisez-vous, Silence!’ he cries, ‘in a terrible voice, d’une voix terrible.’ He mounts the scaffold, not without delay; he is in puce coat, breeches of grey, white stockings. He strips off the coat; stands disclosed in a sleeve-waistcoat of white flannel. The Executioners approach to bind him: he spurns, resists; Abbé Edgeworth has to remind him how the Saviour, in whom men trust, submitted to be bound. His hands are tied, his head bare; the fatal moment is come. He advances to the edge of the Scaffold, ‘his face very red,’ and says: ‘Frenchmen, I die innocent: it is from the Scaffold and near appearing before God that I tell you so. I pardon my enemies. I desire that France —–‘ A General on horseback, Santerre or another, prances out, with uplifted hand: ‘Tambours!‘ The drums drown the voice. ‘Executioners, do your duty!’ The Executioners, desperate lest themselves be murdered (for Santerre and his Armed Ranks will strike, if they do not), seize the hapless Louis: six of them desperate, him singly desperate, struggling there; and bind him to their plank. Abbé Edgeworth, stooping, bespeaks him: ‘Son of Saint Louis, ascend to Heaven.’ The Axe clanks down; a King’s Life is shorn away. It is Monday the 21st of January 1793. He was aged Thirty-Eight years four months and twenty-eight days.

I would not be the first one to propose that The French Revolution is best understood as one of the (maybe, the) greatest novels of the 19th century. Certainly it defies conventional expectations for historical writing, then as much as now. It is itself, as Carlyle said, “itself a kind of French Revolution,” or in Mill’s words, “not so much a history as an epic poem.” The memories this all brings back! My undergraduate thesis was ‘Definition More or Less Arbitrary’: Ideas of History and Fiction in The French Revolution and Middlemarch, and my first publication was an essay on Carlyle’s “carnivalesque” historiography. After I read The French Revolution for the first time I couldn’t imagine not writing about it–I had simply never read anything like it before, certainly not in the assigned reading for my history courses! And I’ve never read anything like it again, though when I wrote about Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety I did find some affinities there. Though A Tale of Two Cities has its own kind of genius (a more sentimental kind than Carlyle’s, that’s for sure), there’s nothing of the epic poem about La Vendée, I’m sorry to say.

Recent Reading: Mina and Mantel

In my previous post about summer reading plans I forgot to mention that my daughter and I have committed once again to our local library’s summer reading club. (As an aside, let’s hear it for public libraries, perhaps the greatest public institutions we have!)  This year her pledge (for me to match) is 25 books over July and August. I’ve managed to read four titles since she signed up, but I haven’t blogged about any of them yet, so I have some catching up to do.

First up, I finally read Denise Mina’s Field of Blood, which was highly recommended when I put out my ‘bleg’ for ideas for my seminar on women and detective fiction. Unlike many of the titles I read as I worked on my book list, it’s very good! What makes it stand out from the others? The simplest answer is that it suits my own reading tastes better. It’s rich in context and characterization, but it’s not overwritten, pedantic, or (like the awful Stieg Larsson books) just one damned thing after another with intermittent pornography (I know, I know, Salander is a great character, but…). Paddy Meehan is flawed and conflicted, but not melodramatically so; her family and co-workers are effectively and efficiently specified so that we rapidly get a sense of the community she moves in, which is an interestingly complicated one. It’s not really a detective novel, and in fact one reason I think I couldn’t have fit it into my course very well is that the crime itself is almost peripheral to Paddy’s own story. I thought there were a few missteps: there’s a ‘killing-due-to-mistaken-identity’ episode that I found did cross over into cliche in the writing, for instance. I was most interested in the push-and-pull for Paddy herself between her family’s expectations and her ambitions. Paddy is also a good example of the type I now think of (thanks to Anita Brookner) as the tortoise: she’s plain, underappreciated intellectually, overlooked romantically–in short, she’s every socially awkward, ill-at-ease bookish young girl who can therefore read in her eventual success validation of their own painful experience as misfits. As Brookner points out (in Hotel du Lac), books are written for the tortoise market because in reality the hares are off winning the race (or the guy).

I did read one other mystery, though I finished it in June so I can’t count it towards my summer total: Katherine V. Forrest’s Murder at the Nightwood Bar. If I had read this sooner, I might have included it on the syllabus, though I would have had some misgivings. I had hoped to find a teachable example of lesbian detective fiction, which is a thriving subgenre now. Forrest was one of the earliest writers to establish herself in it: Amateur City, the first in the Kate Delafield series, was published originally in 1984, soon after Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky had launched their female private eyes. Murder at the Nightwood Bar is far more overtly political than the Laurie King and Sandra Scoppetone ones I read earlier, and the crime is set up to resonate with those political interests and to stand as exemplary of a larger social problem, giving the book the kind of unified effect that lends itself to the kind of work we would do in a seminar discussion. On the other hand, it is perhaps a bit too obviously set up in this way: I like a little nuance with my social consciousness raising. Forrest is another competent but unspectacular stylist; nothing in the book seemed as literarily fine as, say, P. D. James’s An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. At any rate, the book didn’t make it on the list for this fall (though Nancy Drew ultimately did–we’ll see how that goes!) but I’ll revisit it next time around.

My other summer book for this post is totally unlike these two: I continued my trip through Hilary Mantel’s back catalogue with The Giant O’Brien. Once again, it was a surprise: like Beyond Black, it gives no sign of being by the same author as Wolf Hall, for instance, except in being strangely conceived but ultimately quite compelling. It follows the experience of a Giant who has travelled from Ireland to London in the 1780s, escaping poverty and famine at the cost, ultimately, of his self-respect, his integrity, his humanity, and even his life, though we realize from early on that all of these aspects have been compromised for him from the start simply by his being a giant, a freak, a spectacle. Juxtaposed against his story is that of the anatomist John Hunter. They are set up to embody a number of oppositions, not just scientist and potential experiment or subject, but also the man of facts, of physicality, and the man of imagination–ironically, in an extraordinary physical frame, but living the life that really matters to him in his mind alone, and through the stories he tells. They are also England and Ireland, I think, and to some extent, also winner and loser. There’s pathos, but Mantel downplays it, going instead for a combination of quirky and grotesque that, inevitably but rightly, one of the critics in the blurbs identifies with Hogarth’s famous prints of 18th-century London. The prose is beautifully styled, moving between short epigrammatic conversations, terse sections of exposition, brutal graphic detail, and passages of great lyricism without any hint of sentimentality:

The poet has his memorial in repetition, and the statesman in stone and bronze. The scholar’s hand lies always on his book, and the thinker’s eyes on canvas travel the room to rest on each human face; the rebel has his ballad and his cross, his bigot’s garland, his wreath of rope. But for the poor man and the giant there is the scrubbed wooden slab and the slop bucket, there is the cauldron and the boiling pot, and the dunghill for his lights; so he is a stench in the nose for a day or a week, so he is a no-name, so he is oblivion. Stories cannot save him. When human memory runs out, there is the memory of animals; behind that, the memory of the plants, and behind that the memory of the rocks. But the wind and the sea wear the rocks away; and the cell-line runs to its limit, where meaning falls away from it, and it loses knowledge of its own nature. Unless we plead on our knees with history, we are done for, we are lost. We must step sideways, into that country where space plaits and knots, where time folds and twists: where the years pass in a day.

Some of the most haunting passages in the novel are those in which the giant pacifies his motley associates with tales told in the resonant tenor voice that belies the monstrosity of his frame. The transcendence of his voice, his ability to take both himself and his listeners outside themselves, outside the ugly and inescapable realities of their literal lives and their physical selves, beautifully captures the promise of story-telling itself.

This Month in My Class and Other Updates: Hilary Mantel, Beyond Black

A long, long time ago, I noted that I was about to begin teaching an intensive spring session course…oh, wait, it was only four weeks ago! And tomorrow is our last class meeting before the final exam. As Archdeacon Grantley would say, Good Heavens! As I said then, “the pace is relentless . . . and it all goes by in what seems like a flash”–and it certainly has gone by with amazing speed and intensity. We’ve read and discussed Pride and Prejudice, Scott’s “The Two Drovers,” Jane Eyre, Gaskell’s short stories “Lizzie Leigh” and “The Old Nurse’s Story,” A Christmas Carol, and Silas Marner. Though at times during class discussion I did regret not having done bigger books (with Dickens, especially), for the time we actually had between class meetings this did seem like plenty to read, as the students were also completing (and therefore I was also reading and evaluating) daily reading responses and two other writing assignments. Also, though at times I regretted having signed up for another of these mad romps, overall it still suits me better to be teaching than not. I was lucky in my students, too, the large majority of whom seemed keen and participated energetically and intelligently pretty much every day.

I hoped that being under some pressure and on a regular work schedule would be good for my reading and blogging. That turned out to be somewhat optimistic (you may have noticed a couple more posts from the archives–though I always meant that to be part of establishing myself at this new address, so it wasn’t altogether a sign of being overwhelmed with other business.) As for my reading, I did complete The Antiquary and write about it for the Scottish Literature Reading Challenge (you should also look at the posts on it at Wuthering Expectations–between us, I think we did it justice–and it is indeed uncanny how allusions to the darn book do crop up once you’re noticing them, as in a review of Silas Marner from which I was reading to my students just yesterday, quite unsuspecting that once again, the Mucklebackit cottage would come up as exemplary of how to write about simple folk without diminishing them). I sneaked in Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop, too, before things got too crazy (and it appears to be the case that The Blue Flower, which I take to be her best, or at least most highly acclaimed, novel, is not currently in print, at least in Canada? can this be true?).

Last night I also finally managed to finish the only other book I’ve been able to read any of during the course, which is Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black. It’s a very strange, grimly comic, discomfiting book. A bit hesitantly, I do recommend it, even if (like me) you are a complete skeptic about psychic phenomena of all kinds. Mantel has an astonishing ability to compel my belief in her stories–and her versatility is astonishing as well, as I can’t think of anything about Beyond Black that gives it away as being “by the author of Wolf Hall,” or “by the author of A Place of Greater Safety,” for that matter. You’ll get an idea of the book’s flavor from this remark, by her “sensitive,” Alison, who is impatient with the reiterated questions she gets about proof:

Why should people come through from Spirit for other people who don’t believe in them? You see, most people, once they’ve passed, they’re not really interested in talking to this side. The effort’s too much for them. Even if they wanted to do it, they haven’t got the concentration span. You say they give trivial messages, but that’s because they’re trivial people. You don’t get a personality transplant when you’re dead. You don’t suddenly get a degree in philosophy. They’re not interested in helping me out with proof.

“You don’t suddenly get a degree in philosophy”–I love that. And poor Alison should know, as the spirits (if that’s even the right word) that she deals with are spiteful, even vengeful, dirty-minded, low-humored, or else vaguely pathetic, lost and confused about their situation. When her pale assistant Colette, in a panic, begs for advice on what to do if she dies, Al’s advice is hardly spiritual in the sentimental way we might casually expect:

Don’t start crying. Don’t speak to anyone. Don’t eat anything. Keep saying your name over and over. Close your eyes and look for the light. If somebody says, follow me, ask to see their ID. When you see the light, move towards it. Keep your bag clamped to your body–where your body would be. Don’t open your bag, and remember the last thing you should do is pull out a map, however lost you feel. If anybody asks you for money, ignore them, push past. Just keep moving towards the light. Don’t make eye contact. Don’t let anyone stop you. If somebody points out there’s paint on your coat or bird droppings in your hair, just keep motoring, don’t pause, don’t look left or right. If a woman approaches you with some snotty-nosed kid, kick her out of the way. It sounds harsh, but it’s for your own safety. Keep moving. Move towards the light.

It’s as if the afterlife is a tube station at rush hour, crammed with people equal parts lost, desperate, and treacherous. Al’s spirit guide is an offensive low-life named Morris, who (we gradually learn) was (is?)  intimately connected with Alison’s childhood traumas, which include sexual abuse and mutilation (to oversimplify). I don’t think Mantel is setting up her story of the other side simply as a projection of memories and feelings from this side: though there is some cynicism mixed in about the possible chicanerie among the ranks of the mediums or psychics themselves, and about the neediness and self-absorption of their clients, that some people are “sensitive” to disembodied presences is a reality in the novel, worked out in a wry spirit of ‘what if…’ What if people are just as self-interested and emotionally needy after they pass over? What if they retain some capacity to interact with the living world? What if they can find you, or follow you, and annoy you, no matter where you go to hide? What if the pressure of their intrusions and demands makes you ill and exhausted? On the night of Princess Diana’s death, for instance, Alison is reduced to “rocking herself and groaning” from the shockwaves to her sensitivities. But Mantel shuns pathos: when Diana “manifests” to Alison, she’s lost her glamour but retained a quality of peevish entitlement:

“Give my love to my boys,” Diana said. “My boys, I’m sure you know who I mean.”

Al wouldn’t prompt her: you must never, in that fashion, give way to the dead. They will tease you and urge you, they will suggest and flatter; you mustn’t take their bait. If they want to speak, let them speak for themselves.

Diana stamped her foot. “You do know their names,” she accused. “You oiky little grease spot, you’re just being hideous. Oh, fuckerama! Whatever are they called?”

“Give my love to . . . Kingy. And the other kid. Kingy and Thingy,” she says as she begins to fade away, “melting away to nothing,” Alison thinks, “to poisoned ash in the wind. . . . Al implored her silently, Di, don’t go. The room was cold.”

The constant emotional battering is exhausting, debilitating. If that’s indeed what it’s like being receptive to messages from the beyond, you might find yourself, as poor Alison does, standing in your own hallway yelling “What testicles?” to a recalcitrant spirit. Though I had some sympathy for Colette (‘”That’s it,” she says. “I don’t intend to spend another night under this roof. How can I live with a woman who has rows with people I can’t see, and who stands outside my bedroom door shouting ‘What testicles?’ It’s more than flesh and blood can stand”), it’s tormented Alison, unable to separate her present from her past, who earned my compassion, as she seeks understanding and perhaps relief from her haunted life:

Back and back. There is an interval of darkness, dwindling, suspension of the senses. She neither hears nor sees. The world has no scent or savour. She is a cell, a dot. She diminishes, to vanishing point. She is back beyond a dot. She is back where the dots come from. And still she goes back.

Imaginative Power: Hilary Mantel, A Place of Greater Safety

safetyGeorge Eliot considered the writing of historical fiction “a task which can only be justified by the rarest concurrence of acquirement with genius,” requiring “a form of imaginative power [which] must always be among the very rarest, because it demands as much accurate and minute knowledge as creative vigour.” Novels of “the modern antique school have a ponderous, a leaden kind of fatuity,” she complained, “under which we groan.” The extraordinary difficulty of the genre is testified to by her own attempt “to reanimate the past” in Romola, the only one of her novels set back more than a couple of generations. She began writing Romola as a young woman and ended it an old one, she said herself, and having worked through the novel recently in my graduate seminar, I know that the effort it demands can make it feel as if it is having the same effect on its readers. To be sure, Romola does have its thrilling moments, and it certainly demonstrates both “accurate and minute knowledge” and “creative vigour”–just not always at the same time, or always in harmony with each other. And there’s the whole “cheese to the macaroni” moment…but I digress from my main point, which is that really good historical fiction is really hard to write, and thus really rare to read.

This brings me, of course, to Hilary Mantel. Like so many others, I admired Wolf Hall a great deal, not least because it was so unlike what I have come to expect of run-of-the-mill contemporary historical fiction. Unsentimental in its approach, economical in its prose, uncannily sideways in its perspective, Wolf Hall evoked the ‘difference’ of the past without condescending to us with faux antiquities or excessive explanation. Its momentum was achieved by Mantel’s gift for the evocative moment or detail, and by her tacit confidence that her reading audience could handle complexity without handholding. Rather than yoking her narrative to one of the reliable moneymakers of the period, she chose a man of  some principle but also much ambition, who not only loves and hates but befriends, alienates, and outmaneuvers. Then she had the courage to portray him as neither the hero nor the attendant lord, but as a man at work and at home, a man being, simply, himself–or, rather, never simply himself but always intensely himself, and thus, in many specific ways, not Everyman, and not us. Mantel’s Cromwell is (in the spirit of, say, Scott’s Fergus MacIvor) a man of his time, shaped and motivated by currents of ideas, by situations, by contexts and opportunities, by values and beliefs, that are not universal. The slight but persistent sense of disorientation created by the odd point of view Mantel adopts for the novel, putting us at Cromwell’s shoulder, in his mind but not of it, helps to keep us at an appropriate distance from that other time towards which we can, after all, only reach out imaginatively but never truly enter. But by not providing elaborate passages of exposition, Mantel also allows us to take that other place for granted, as a reality we can, provisionally, inhabit. We aren’t told about historical trends or events–the shift, for instance, from sacred to secular power–but we are there as they are happening. It’s a risky strategy, a difficult balance: not enough information, after all, and we’d just be confused, but too much information and we might disengage.; not enough excitement or pathos, and we might cease caring, but tip into histrionics and the book’s literary integrity would be compromised. The critical and popular success of Wolf Hall (and sucha long book, too, as so many readers seem compelled to remark!) speaks to Mantel’s achievement.

place-safetyMany of the same qualities and techniques are evident in Mantel’s earlier novel A Place of Greater Safety, particularly the lack of sentimentality and the sharpness of the writing, which is at once prolix and poignant, even uncomfortable–if, as I recently suggested, reading Ian McEwan’s prose is like getting acupuncture to your brain, I found reading A Place of Greater Safety akin to walking barefoot across a stretch of gravel towards a graveyard: you aren’t particularly enjoying the experience, but it has its own vividness and particularity, and there’s a morbid fascination in the direction you know you’re headed. (I seem to be finding my reading especially, if only metaphorically, tactile lately.) A Place of Greater Safety also, like Wolf Hall, builds momentum gradually by developing our relationship, with not just one complicated protagonist this time, but with three, the revolutionary triumverate of Georges-Jacques Danton, Camille Desmoulins, and Maximilien Robespierre. Again, there are neither heroes nor villains in this crowd, though each has his heroic, as well as his villainous, moments. (Desmoulins, beautiful, erratic, alternately effervescent and enervated, and writing, always writing, seemed to me a particularly brilliant characterization.) And just as Wolf Hall only incidentally informs its readers about the causes and contexts of the Reformation, A Place of Greater Safety eschews the potential pedagogical role of the historical novel. At the end of its 750 pages I really didn’t feel much better informed about the events or even the political and philosophical stakes of the French Revolution than I was already. Here again, Mantel adopts a slantwise approach: not altogether personal, not just the ‘human story’ of the men and women who lived it, but not abstract, theoretical, or fully contextualized either. Here’s a rare but characteristic ‘explanatory’ passage, terse and ominously proleptic:

Bread is the main thing to understand: the staple of speculation, the food for all theories about what happens next. Fifteen years from now, on the day the Bastille falls, the price of bread in Paris will be at its highest in sixty years. Twenty years from now (when it is all over), a woman of the capital will say: ‘Under Robespierre, blood flowed, but the people had bread. Perhaps in order to have bread, it is necessary to spill a little blood.’

There’s as little exposition here as in Wolf Hall, and the overall impression is one of a great deal going on that wasn’t well understood by, and certainly wasn’t under the control of, even the major participants. But Mantel only very rarely steps in to explain to us what they can’t know, or even, most of the time, what they do know: we get fragments of debates, pamphlets, laws, and contexts, in a kind of swirl of partial information and misinformation. I found this effect frustrating at times: I wanted to know just what the Girondins or the Cordelier Club stood for, what (if anything) was accomplished at and by the Tennis Court Oath or the storming of the Bastille. But it isn’t really a book about that. Though her people are intensely political, the novel is primarily personal, more so than Wolf Hall, with more emphasis on relationships, but without the sentimental premise that, for instance, home is the ‘place of greater safety’–or, if it is so, or if it feels so, that safety is temporary, or illusory. It’s a novel, then about the personal side of politics, or about political personalities, and above all it emphasizes the ways politics, especially revolutionary politics, are ultimately antithetical to personal loyalties. Principles have consequences to which even cherished friendships may ultimately need to be sacrificed. “From now on,” Louis Suleau tells Desmoulins, “personal loyalty will count for very little in people’s lives,” and we feel the inexorable truth of this statement as the Revolutionaries turn, eventually, on each other.

wolf-hallIt’s tribute to Mantel’s peculiar gifts and strategies as a storyteller that she assembles an even less attractive crew here than in Wolf Hall and yet what matters is not how appealing they are but how compelling they are, and how intensely themselves, so that by the final chapter, as the Revolution devours its children, I didn’t care who they were, really, only that they were going to die, after my having known them for so long. Mantel manages their end (known from the novel’s beginning because, after all, it is history) without any of the tumbril sentimentality the inevitable Dickens comparisons on the jacket blurb might lead us to anticipate. None of the characters comes across as heroic or noble, but they have such great vitality (even Robespierre, with his tedious incorruptibility), that their deaths felt like great losses–losses, quite simply, of life, of the energy and lust for life, for words, and for action, that characterized them all. Again, a sample of her terse, epigrammatic style:

There is a point beyond which–convention and imagination dictate–we cannot go; perhaps it’s here, when the carts decant onto the scaffold their freight, now living and breathing flesh, soon to be dead meat. Danton imagines that, as the greatest of the condemned, he will be left until last, with Camille beside him. He thinks less of eternity then of how to keep his friend’s body and soul together for the fifteen minutes before the National Razor separates them.

But of course it is not like that. Why should it be as you imagine?

And the famous final flourish:

He watches each death, until he is tutored to his own.

‘Hey, Sanson?’

‘Citizen Danton?’

‘Show my head to the people. It’s worth the trouble.’

In that predictable Dickens allusion, the Library Journal says he “did it first in A Tale of Two Cities.” But Dickens got his information from an earlier and far, far better, far more revolutionary, account of the Revolution: Thomas Carlyle’s 1837 The French Revolution. There’s no overt reference to Carlyle in A Place of Greater Safety, but I feel Mantel must have read it and learned from it that the only way to approach the reality of that wild, idealistic, turbulent, violent period was through story-telling that itself embraces confusion. Her book is far more orderly than Carlyle’s, of course: you couldn’t write The French Revolution today, I think, and indeed it was rightly felt and understood to be extraordinary in its own time. Just to give a sense of how crazy and yet compelling it is, here’s Carlyle’s version of Danton’s execution:

Danton carried a high look in the Death-cart. Not so Camille: it is but one week, and all is so topsyturvied; angel Wife left weeping; love, riches, Revolutionary fame, left all at the Prison-gate; carnivorous Rabble now howling round. Palpable and yet incredible; like a madman’s dream! Camille struggles and writhes; his shoulders shuffle the loose coat off them, which hangs knotted, the hands tied: ‘Calm, my friend’, said Danton; ‘heed not that vile canaille (laissez la cette vile canaille).’ At the foot of the Scaffold, Danton was heard to ejaculate: ‘O my Wife, my well-beloved. I shall never see thee more then!’–but, interrupting himself: ‘Danton, no weakness!’ He said to Herault-Sechelles stepping forward to embrace him: ‘Our heads will meet there‘, in the Headsman’s sack. His last words were to Samson the Headsman himself: ‘Thou wilt show my head to the people; it is worth showing.’

So passes, like a gigantic mass, of valour, ostentation, fury, affection, and wild revolutionary force and manhood, this Danton, to his unknown home. He was of Arcis-sur-Aube; born of ‘good farmer people’ there. He had many sins; but one worst sin he had not, that of Cant. No hollow Formalist, deceptive and self-deceptive, ghastly to the natural sense, was this; but a very Man: with all his dross he was a Man; fiery-real, from the great fire-bosom of Nature herself.

This is history as philosophy and prophecy, which is not Mantel’s history. Her theory of the revolution, as far as she offers one, is economic (“the price of bread”). But she too feels, or at least conveys, the urgency of understanding that whatever it means, if anything, history is lived (as Carlyle said in another context) “not by state-papers and abstractions of men” but by “very” men.