In the obituaries and articles that have appeared since Hilary Mantel’s death on September 22, the focus has been, understandably, on her historical novels, especially the great trilogy that began with Wolf Hall. The scale and intimacy of her portrait of Thomas Cromwell and his world, the wealth of historical fact translated into present-tense closeup: all this has been rightly admired. But Mantel was more than adept in briefer forms, and much of her wisdom and flair can be celebrated at the level of the sentence.
Her prose style contains a studied wildness of image and metaphor, like a falcon hooded and trained for the pageant field. The rigor she learned young: “By the time I got into my teens, I had nothing to say, but I had a very good style in which to say it.” Her daring command of figural language came later, after the constraints of a law degree hampered her writing, and she had to rebuild her style to compose A Place of Greater Safety (her first novel but published after several others). In short fiction, essays, and memoir, quite as much as the celebrated novels, each Mantel sentence seems to contain all of her: the grisly consolations of a Catholic girlhood, the exactitude of her legal training and sedulous interest in historical sources, a Gothic view of the body—this last ripened by experience of illness and medical cruelty.
The short stories in her collection Learning to Talk are mostly, as Mantel put it, “autoscopic”—they raise a misted spyglass to her early life in the northern county of Derbyshire in the 1950s and 1960s. She resolves these visions from a distance, and with what extravagant phrasing! When Mantel was seven, her married and pious mother installed a lover in the family home. She writes of the ménage: “In that one moment it seemed to me that the world was blighted, and that every adult throat bubbled, like a garbage pail in August, with the syrup of rotting lies.” The grownups around her seem hardly human, struggling to rise above the depredations of poverty, age, sickness, or just being embodied—“skin with the murky sheen of carnation water two days old.” And tart humor punctuates her more livid or lugubrious passages: “There should be support groups, like a twelve-step programme, for young people who hate being young.”
As a child she was “Little Miss Neverwell”—illness seemed an inheritance, a birthright, and it soon loused up early adulthood. Mantel suffered from endometriosis, a condition she had to diagnose herself; her doctors had insisted it was psychosomatic and put her on antidepressants, tranquilizers, and antipsychotics. A hysterectomy followed: “I was old while I was young, I was an ape, I was a blot on the page, I was a nothing, zilch.” The language Mantel found for her own pain—unlike Virginia Woolf, she didn’t believe sickness evaded style—was vivid, prodigious, and without sentiment. Writing in the London Review of Books about abdominal surgery in middle age, she notes that her spiral-stitched wound makes her look like a manuscript, and she comically compares herself to a fading young Brontë sister: “Over the next hours, days, nurses speak to each other in swift acronyms, or else form sentences you might have heard in Haworth: ‘Her lungs are filling up.’”
She was a prolific and vagrant critic—some of her most profound and perfectly discomfiting sentences are in book reviews and occasional essays. In 2013 she wrote about “Royal Bodies” for the LRB and recalled the death of Princess Diana sixteen years earlier: “She went into the underpass to be reborn, but reborn this time without a physical body: the airy subject of a hundred thousand photographs, a flicker at the corner of the eye, a sigh on the breeze.” (In the same piece, she upbraided the British state and media for having turned Kate Middleton into “a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung”—the press pretended she had insulted not them but the future princess.) Four years later in The Guardian she revisited the specter of Diana and this time went further out along the line of perilous conceit, imagining the late princess surfacing again from the Alma tunnel, “collar turned up, long feet like blades carving through the rain.”
What did she want from such imagery? A startling conjunction, I think, of rightness and oddity, obscurity and insight, attention to the world and the attending mind. Writing about your own life, she said in her memoir Giving Up the Ghost—she reused the image in The Mirror and the Light to describe the death of Thomas Cromwell—was like blundering through your house in the dark: “Your hand touches glass, you think it is a mirror, but it is the window.”