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Hilary Mantel, Historian

What does death make of us? It’s a question posed in “The Princess Myth,” a short essay penned twenty years after Princess Diana’s death by novelist Hilary Mantel. In it, she rejected death’s finality. “For some people,” she wrote, “being dead is only a relative condition.” In grief, I returned to the essay on September 22, when I learned that Mantel had died. She was only seventy, though she’d suffered a lifetime of chronic pain caused by severe endometriosis.

She arrived late to writing. She started to put words on pages only after university and published her “first” novel (although not the first novel she’d completed) at the age of thirty-three. While some of her works concerned the contemporary, she was most highly regarded for historical fiction. Best known was her Wolf Hall trilogy about Henry VIII’s advisor Thomas Cromwell, which was adapted into a miniseries by the BBC. And A Place of Greater Safety—the first novel she wrote, though not the first she published—is about the French Revolution.

Since her death, there’s been an outpouring of praise for her work, which twice won the esteemed Booker Prize. The New York Times lauded “the beauty of Mantel’s prose, her sly, unexpected use of language, the emotional resonance braided into the narrative.” Others commented on her ability to bring the past to life or to place us inside the heads of her characters. Even the Daily Mail, which had a notoriously techy relationship with Mantel, conceded her “genius” but still thought her obituary the right place to discuss her parents’ marital infidelities.

It is striking, though, that while these essays pay tribute to her ability to transport the reader to another time, they often fail to appreciate that Mantel never treated history as a set. Rather, the past in her novels is alive, a place with real implications for the present. What I mean to say is that Mantel approached her subjects not only as a novelist, but also as a historian—demanding of the past not merely scenery but also meaning, an argument, something that might help us explain who we are today.

The trilogy composed of Wolf Hall (2009), Bring Up the Bodies (2012), and The Mirror and the Light (2020) concerns Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief advisor from the early 1530s until his execution in 1540. He was also the great-great-granduncle of Oliver Cromwell. For a long time, historians thought of Cromwell as a goon, Henry’s henchman who battered down the doors of English monasteries and engineered executions of the king’s enemies (until he himself fell beneath the axe).

But in later works of history, especially those by Geoffrey Elton, Cromwell came to be seen as a more sophisticated operator, someone who fundamentally rethought the English monarchy and, in a certain sense, invented the modern state with all its peculiarities. When Henry wanted a divorce from his first wife, the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon, his chief minister Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, at the time Cromwell’s patron, could not provide it. Cromwell could. Working through parliament, he severed England’s ties to the Vatican and, a firm proponent of the Reformation, set about creating a Protestant Church of England under the monarch. In so doing he affirmed royal supremacy in government while building new bureaucracies to oversee the Church and the revenues it brought to state coffers. Here, goes the argument, are the origins of our modern state, in Henry’s need for an heir and Cromwell’s desire to reform the Church.

This is the argument of Mantel’s trilogy, too. Following the course of Cromwell’s life, she gives us a shoulder perch to his rise from blacksmith’s son to European mercenary to lawyer to member of the privy council to, briefly, Earl of Essex. He’s a commoner, though, which the lords and ladies of court never once let him forget. His use to the king must be distinctive, then: his command of numbers, his talent for getting people to do what Henry wants. And, yes, his willingness to plunder the riches of the Church—its fattened abbeys and monasteries—to keep the state solvent.

Read entire article at Boston Review