Appreciation: Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” transformed fiction

Hilary Mantel raised the dead. For her millions of readers, the British novelist brought the past to quivering life, revealing her characters’ vanished worlds, private thoughts and crooked hearts with the force of her insight and imagination. She won English literature’s highest prize (and was made a dame): She turned a reviled historical figure into one of the most unforgettable characters in contemporary fiction. She died Thursday at age 70 from complications of a stroke, leaving her admirers bereft but also amazed at what she accomplished in her singular literary career. If ever an artist made the most of the time she did have, it was Mantel.

Her signature fictional creation was based on a real person — Thomas Cromwell, King Henry VIII’s political fixer and right-hand man. Mantel’s three books about Cromwell — “Wolf Hall” (2009), “Bring Up the Bodies” (2012) and “The Mirror and the Light” (2020) — sold 5 million copies. The first two books in the trilogy each won the Man Booker Prize. An award-winning play and a BBC television series based on the trilogy, plus its translation into 41 languages, made Mantel’s version of Cromwell’s story universal.

Despite ongoing health problems and chronic pain, Mantel published 16 books as well as a multitude of reviews, historical studies and essays. She was an acute and fearless critic, and her literary fiction won prizes and acclaim, but she was drawn to historical fiction, a genre disdained by many critics, from the beginning. Her first novel, “A Place of Greater Safety,” 700-plus pages about the French Revolution, had a hard time finding a publisher; finished in 1979, it wasn’t published until 1992. But it marked the beginnings of her alchemical transformation of historical fiction, a genre often bound up in predictable conventions of adventure and romance. In Mantel’s hands the past became a shimmering, visceral present, populated by humans of the most acute psychological complexity.

In a 2020 profile of the author in the New Yorker, critic Daniel Mendelsohn wrote that Mantel was looking for a particular kind of character, “a historical figure that could serve, naturally and organically, as vehicles for further exploring the themes she’d always been interested in. Where is the boundary between truth and lies? Where does the power of the state begin and end? Is it possible to break away from the past, and, if so, to what extent? How does the conflict between a modern trust in reason, on the one hand, and primitive ignorance and irrationality, on the other, play out in the lives of individuals and of nations?”

She found that character in Cromwell.

From the beginning, Mantel took care to fix her version of Cromwell firmly in history. “The Cromwell who reveals himself over the courses of her novels is very close to the Cromwell I met,” said Oxford theology professor Diarmaid McCullough, author of an exhaustive 2018 biography of Cromwell, in the Guardian.

But her understanding of him must have been personal.

Like Cromwell, Mantel came from humble beginnings. The daughter of millworkers in a Derbyshire town, she had a visceral grasp of Cromwell’s predicament, a striver in an era when commoners were considered lower life forms by the aristocracy. An abused son of a vicious father. A strategist who used his skills of observation and analysis to grow wealthy and politically powerful. And a man who lost everything he held dear — his wife and beloved daughters — to the deadly plagues of the day.

As Mantel tells Cromwell’s story across three volumes, the story turns darker, and Mantel’s account distills and intensifies. She re-creates the pleasures and luxuries of court life, but tells the story with savage dialogue, a pitiless eye and an astute attention to historical detail. At the end, Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second wife, is so reviled, no one even builds a coffin for her. As malign forces gather around Cromwell, Mantel populates his world with ghosts of the departed: his old master Cardinal Wolsey, his nemesis Thomas More. In her memoir, Mantel recounted her own ghostly sightings, and in her hands Cromwell’s ghosts are even more alive than the living.

Critics struggled for words to describe Mantel’s accomplishment — to yoke readers completely to Cromwell’s story, even as his means and methods became more malign and he sent his enemies to the chopping block. “Mantel walks the edge of a very sharp knife in the last part of ‘Bring Up the Bodies,’” wrote critic Laura Miller in Salon. “I don’t believe she cuts her feet on it, but sometimes it felt as if she were cutting mine. It’s impossible to repudiate Cromwell, but embracing him as become infinitely complicated. Of all the many fictional depictions of the moral quandaries involved in the exercise of great power, this may be one of the most disturbing. It comes much closer than any I’ve ever encountered to letting you know how it must feel to manage the fate of a nation: how intoxicating and how very, very perilous.”

When Mantel died, her readers felt that they had lost something irreplaceable. Writers and critics, who understood her immense accomplishment, took it even harder. “The loss of Hilary Mantel feels like a theft of a kind,” wrote the New Yorker critic Parul Sehgal in a tweet. “All those books we still needed from her. That lavish imagination, that beady understanding of power. “

Two weeks before she died, the Financial Times published a Q&A with Mantel. “Do you believe in an afterlife?” she was asked. “Yes,” she said. “I can’t imagine how it might work. However, the universe is not limited by what I can imagine.”

Perhaps her admirers can take comfort in her conviction. Or in the last lines of “Bring Up the Bodies,” which suggest that a story is never really over: “There are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings. Here is one.”

Gwinn, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who lives in Seattle, writes about books and authors.

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