The true complaint

Image: (Wikipedia) “Portrait of Sir Thomas More is an oak panel painting commissioned in 1527 of Thomas More by the German artist and printmaker Hans Holbein the Younger, now in the Frick Collection in New York.

The work was created during the period from 1526 when Holbein lived in London. He gained the friendship of the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus, who recommended that he befriend More, then a powerful, knighted speaker at the English Parliament.”

Kate Maltby wrote in the Financial Times of February 20 this year:

“…(Hilary) Mantel became public property late in life. After years as a well-regarded name in literary circles, she went global in 2009 with Wolf Hall, a novel based on the career of Henry VIII’s minister Thomas Cromwell. Her Cromwell is a Renaissance man of practical talents — “He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury.” He is also a subtler figure than the one familiar to viewers of Robert Bolt’s 1960 play A Man for All Seasons. Wolf Hall sold 2m copies. It also won Mantel the Booker — as, remarkably, did the second in the trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies, published three years later.

So the release next month of the last in the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, will be one of the publishing events of the decade. Bookshops will open early to allow devotees to grab their pre-ordered copy before their commute. Yet the Wolf Hall books are unusual bestsellers. They are written in a third person that allows us to hover over Cromwell’s shoulder, privy to the inner monologue of a man who hasn’t quite let us inside. How did this allusive, complicated Reformation history become such a phenomenon?

It helped that, where other historical novelists often attract sneers from academics, scholars fall over themselves to praise her research. Diarmaid MacCulloch, professor of the history of the Church at Oxford, tells me that what distinguishes Mantel from other historical novelists is “her combination of deep immersion in the period, with a striking ability to create believable personae from her knowledge”.

Where lesser writers take pains to remind us we’re taking a tourist trip into the past, Mantel’s gift is to make us forget. As Suzannah Lipscomb, professor of history at Roehampton University, tells me, “she recognises the difference of the past: that it hears and measures differently. But she tells us what the past looks like without ‘othering it’. She never condescends to describe how clothing laces or what a jerkin is. We only learn what people are wearing when it is unusual.”

In a modern era defined by righteous polarisation, Mantel’s trilogy also offers a plea for complex thought and a distaste for political certainties. Her Cromwell thinks like a post-Enlightenment sceptic. Reflecting on his orthodox nemesis Thomas More, this Cromwell asks, “Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more.”

Diane Purkiss, professor of English at Keble College, Oxford, points out that this vision of Cromwell is thoroughly anachronistic. Evangelical Protestants, Cromwell among them, were every bit as dogmatic as their Roman Catholic foes. For Purkiss, the “total excision of Cromwell’s religious beliefs” is “analogous to having him drive a car” in its historical untruthfulness. But for many readers looking for a postmodern hero in a story of kings and cardinals, it doesn’t matter.

…before Wolf Hall, Mantel was known best as a witness to the female experience. Her 1988 novel Eight Months on Ghazzah Street captures life as an expat wife in Saudi Arabia, observing a society that finds the sight of her inconvenient at best.

Even in A Place of Greater Safety (1992), which did for the French Revolution what Wolf Hall did for the English Reformation, the tension between motherhood and female freedom is a constant presence, a paradox of liberty as stark as any theorised in the National Assembly. Here, the pioneering female novelist Louise de Kéralio endures her marriage and lies “awake in the darkness, her nose cold above the sheets, praying for infertility”.

Mantel knows about fertility and female autonomy. In December 1979, at the age of 27, she woke up in hospital to learn that she had undergone a hysterectomy. As she writes in her extraordinary memoir Giving Up the Ghost, “I was missing a few bits of me, beside my womb and ovaries, my reproductive apparatus. A few lengths of bowel: but you’ve plenty to spare.”

For nearly a decade, the young Mantel had visited doctors to demand an explanation for the debilitating pain that once a month seemed to flower across her body. A series of doctors attributed psychosomatic causes: one psychiatrist she names only as Mr G “diagnosed stress, caused by overambition”. Wouldn’t she be happier — healthier — abandoning her law degree and working in a dress shop, he asked?

…Her true complaint — endometriosis — went undiagnosed until crisis hit.

Unborn children haunt Mantel’s writing. An imagined daughter, Catriona, gives Giving Up the Ghost its title. (“What’s to be done with the lost, the dead, but write them into being?”)…”

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