Long before she became a bestselling novelist (and two-time Booker Prize winner) writing about Thomas Cromwell, Hilary Mantel, who died Thursday at the age of 70, had learned two things by direct experience: that authority cannot be counted on and that evil is real. This presented a conundrum to anyone raised Catholic, as Mantel was. Born in 1952, she grew up in the particularly dreary part of northern England, a place where the people were “distrustful and life-refusing,” but where the authority of the church promised an escape from Satan and the general nastiness of life as long as you submitted to it, unquestioning. Mantel gave up on all that at the age of 12, but her apostasy really began when she was seven and encountered a fundamentally indescribable presence just beyond her back yard. “It is as high as a child of two,” she wrote in her memoir, 2003’s Giving Up the Ghost. “Its depth is a foot, fifteen inches. The air stirs around it, invisibly. I am cold, and rinsed by nausea. I cannot move.” What was it? The Devil, probably. At any rate, it seemed more present and powerful than God. She believed this force invaded her, and never truly left her alone afterwards—even the final sentence of her final book of stories published in America, this year’s Learning to Talk, returns to this presence, which “wrapped a strangling hand around my life.”
Mantel—who studied law and was employed as a social worker before leaving England in 1977, when her husband accepted a job in Botswana—suffered for most of her 20s from unexplained pain and fatigue. Her doctors insisted this affliction was psychosomatic, prescribing anti-depressants, sedatives, and antipsychotics, the last of which, she wrote, make you feel like “every fiber of your being is possessed by panic.” In Botswana, she decided to research her symptoms herself and soon realized that she suffered from endometriosis. She returned to England, got a hysterectomy and a divorce. Two years later, she re-married her ex-husband (they remained together for the rest of her life), and she followed him on a new job in Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia, where they lived for four years. It was in Jeddah that Mantel began to write novels, in a country she described in a vivid essay for the Guardian as oppressive and inscrutable, governed by innumerable unwritten rules, where foreigners were regarded as “just a bit of international flotsam with a temporary use and a short expiry date.”
From the first novel Mantel wrote, A Place of Greater Safety (initially rejected by publishers, it was the fifth of her books to be published, in 1992), she showed a liking for figures customarily seen as bad guys. A Place of Greater Safety, set during the French revolution, depicted Robespierre as more sympathetic than the romantic revolutionary, Danton. This seems less a matter of ideology than a stubborn resistance to conventional wisdom, since the inflexible moral purity of Robespierre, when embodied in the person of Thomas More in the Wolf Hall novels, is depicted as deplorable in the eyes of that consummate pragmatist, Cromwell. “I am glad I am not like you,” Cromwell tells More, who was executed in 1535 for refusing to validate Henry VIII’s separation from the Catholic Church. “I mean, my mind fixed on the next world. I realize you see no prospect of improving this one.”
Not that Mantel’s Cromwell is a do-gooder. The product, like Mantel herself, of a comfortless and often harrowing childhood, he finds himself obliged to commit unconscionable acts in the process of dragging a tradition-loving kingdom and its recalcitrant, vain, and self-serving aristocracy a bit closer to modernity. Mantel told the New Yorker’s Larissa MacFarquhar that her appreciation for Cromwell’s pragmatism, and for his sheer ability to get things done, was a factor of her age. She had lost the idealism of her socialist youth. But it’s also easy to see a parallel between Cromwell’s commitment to the publication of an English-language Bible (opposed by the Vatican)—so that people could read the book for themselves—and Mantel’s resolve to crack open medical texts and discover what was ailing her on her own.
Before she turned to Cromwell, Mantel’s novels found modest success. Select readers and many critics admired her work. These books were, if anything, frequently darker than the realpolitik of her Tudor novels. They have a delirious gothic tenor. Her first published work, 1985’s Every Day is Mother’s Day, presents a petty nightmare of British family life, featuring a half-demented mother who keeps her (possibly) developmentally disabled daughter in seclusion. When the daughter somehow gets pregnant, the mother decides the infant is a changeling, and drowns it in an effort to reclaim the real child from the fairies. In the sequel to this novel, 1986’s Vacant Possession, the daughter returns from the mental institution where she was sent after her mother’s death to wreak terrible vengeance on those responsible for putting her there. These novels are savage yet funny, and their characters primarily motivated by spite.
The best and most acerbically Mantellian of these pre-Cromwell novels is 2005’s Beyond Black. It’s the story of a traveling medium (spiritualists figure in more than one Mantel novel), who relays bogus heartwarming messages from beyond. But the novel doesn’t present her as a charlatan; she does communicate with the dead, only they’re just as seedy and disagreeable as the living. Her spirit guide, Morris, is a repellent former client of her prostitute mother. His ghost buddies are the revenants of the men who abused the medium during her horrific childhood. She wants nothing more than to escape all of them, but as any trauma survivor can attest, this is easier said than done.
It’s not hard to see why Mantel’s pre-Cromwell novels found a limited, if enthusiastic, audience. Part of the ruthlessness of these books is the smallness of the lives depicted, people constrained by both their modest circumstances and their inability to imagine anything outside of their blinkered spheres. But finding Cromwell gave Mantel scale, and the energy that comes with it. Mantel’s own early family life—the inspiration for so much of her fiction—was as tangled and intrigue-filled as Henry VIII’s court, but the fate of a nation didn’t hang on the outcome. You can sense her confidence at taking on this challenge in the surge of Wolf Hall’s opening chapter, the sentences as blunt and forceful as the blows young Thomas Cromwell receives from his drunken blacksmith father before he leaves home to seek his fortune as a soldier. To MacFarquhar, Mantel described writing the novel as gleefully liberating, the pages unscrolling before her, “like a film.” It felt like “after swimming and swimming you’ve suddenly found your feet are on ground that’s firm. I knew from the first paragraph that this was going to be the best thing I’d ever done.”
Most often depicted (in what Mantel dismissed as “cheap popular romantic fiction”) skulking at the edges of the stories of more glamorous figures from the Tudor era, Cromwell appealed to Mantel’s desire to overturn commonplace assumptions and scrutinize the workings of moral compromise. In her novel, Cromwell is a man who “is at home in courtroom and waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury.” Who can fail to admire such a man, or to marvel at his ability to manipulate his capricious monarch and to outmaneuver his enemies? Although he does terrible things to preserve Henry’s power while delivering England from the mire of its feudal past, he regrets the worst of it and actually tries to do a bit of good as well. In a classic twist of Mantel irony, it’s exactly those efforts that render Cromwell vulnerable to his many, many enemies. Above all, Mantel’s Cromwell is a creator, a builder of great houses and thriving business and the administrative practices that enabled his nation to function so effectively. In him, she found a subject as potent as her own formidable talent, each of them ended too soon.