Though I read almost every novel Hilary Mantel published in the early days, it was because I admired rather than enjoyed her books. Madness, cruelty, cowardice and petty deceit seemed to permeate her pages, and even when one found a character with whom one could empathise, that character would allow darkness to take charge at the crucial moment. In ‘An Experiment in Love’, for example, Carmel the narrator is a vividly convincing bright young student in 1970: she explores friendship, sex and love, and new-found freedoms of action and thought at university. But she is dismayed to find Karina, a poor girl from her school-days whom her own mother had assigned to be taken under her wing, and from whom she had hoped to escape, now sharing the same girls’ hostel in London. Guilt and a lingering sense of responsibility prevent Carmel from exposing Karina’s dishonesty; and at the end, when it becomes clear that Karina has effectively murdered her room-mate in order to steal her fur coat, our heroine, Carmel, fails to act. No, she goes further: she helps the murderous Karina escape, because, she tells herself, she cannot be sure. As Helen Dunmore wrote in The Observer, Mantel ‘has written a bleak tale’ albeit ‘with crackling wit’.
However, her historial novel ‘Fludd‘ was, for me, a transformation. The historial Fludd was an alchemist, and as Mantel writes in a prefatory Note, ‘In alchemy, everything has a literal and factual description, and in addition a description that is symbolic and fantastical’. Here was her natural home as a writer, I felt: she could recreate the past using both her skills as a researcher to establish the facts, and her darker imagination to illuminate her interpretation of these facts. With the reviewer in the Literary Review, ‘I loved this book. I loved its humanity, its humour and its elusiveness.’
It was not until I read her autobiography, Giving Up The Ghost, that I understood why Hilary Mantel’s inner preoccupations led her to produce such dark, bleak early works. Fascinating they are too, in the way of ghost stories and tales of the supernatural, and she herself claims to be haunted by fragments of the lives of former inhabitants of her various homes. However, members of her family we barely meet – where are they when she is in hospital, finally diagnosed correctly with the disease that has so long ravaged her body? where is her husband, the man she marries twice? She presents herself rather as a lone traveller through a foreign land: she takes the trouble to learn the rules, hoping to find a way to circumvent them, but is at the capricious mercy of strangers, any one of whom may be well-meaning but stupid or malevolent and cruel. Rather like the heroine in Eight Months on Ghazzah Street.
In the dark light of her total opus today, it becomes less astonishing that she has made literary history by being awarded the prestigious Man Booker Prize twice for her Thomas Cromwell novels. It struck me while re-reading Bring Up The Bodies how much of the book is concerned with deceit and fiction in what is written, as well as spoken. Mantel takes no position on Anne’s guilt or innocence of the charges laid against her. Neither indeed does Cromwell, though he does make it explicit that if the men are not guilty as charged, they are nevertheless guilty in other treasonable ways. Cromwell himself has powerful motives: his task is to serve the King, and the King wants to be rid of Anne; he wishes to avenge Cardinal Wolsey, his master and surrogate father; and he needs to survive, for the sake of his household, followers, the large number of poor who depend on him, and for himself.
So Mantel has found a way to combine triumphantly her dark imagination, her experiences of deceit and ambiguity, her knowledge of pain and her empathic understanding of mixed motives, and the blind cruelty of power; all this entangled with a sense of Catholic sensibility, which I have so far not even mentioned. God hovers, all powerful, in the background – in the books, and Mantel’s imagination – unknowable and possibly treacherous.As Carl Jung wrote, even God has a Dark Side.