Hilary Mantel’s art was steeped in her pain – 71Bait

“Once the queen’s head is severed, it goes away. A sharp attack of appetite reminds him it’s time for a second breakfast or maybe an early dinner.”

These are the first two sets of The mirror and the light, the third volume in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about the life of Thomas Cromwell and the last book she published before she died on Thursday at the unfortunate age of 70. With masterful rapidity, she thrusts us into the thick of things, telling us exactly where we are, and making us gasp at a combination of things we never thought could occupy the same moral universe—namely, decapitation and a second breakfast. But she makes them meaningful together. Beating off heads and a second morning meal are both prerogatives of the powerful in late medieval England. I could have ripped out about two random lines from their novels and showed them doing the same amount of work. That’s how efficient this writer was. We lost that.

We are in the mind of Cromwell, street kid made steward of, well, everything in the land in the name of the bloated, childish King Henry VIII. “Lord Cromwell is the government and so is the Church,” someone remarks. He is also the satiator of Henry’s lusts – his procurer, if you will. Cromwell made a queen for Henry and killed that queen for Henry. Everyone knows how Anne Boleyn ended. But only readers of the first two novels in the series know that Mantel invented an impossibly gentle, suave Cromwell with a capacity for ethical thinking unimaginable in the royals among whom he moves. But now blood is spurting from the Queen’s neck, we are in the third act of the tragedy, and Mantle has added to the list of Cromwell’s powers the ability to turn one’s back on terror and think about food as cold as a king.

How do you animate history like this? Historians can’t do that. Very few historical novelists can do that. In their memoirs To quit service, Mantel reveals the secret of her method: “Eat meat. drink blood,” she writes. “Get up in the still hours of the night and prick your fingertips and use the blood for ink.” One may be tempted to dismiss the notion of cleaning oneself for art as trite, but then one discovers that blood is the dominant one Substance, the dominating catastrophe of Mantel’s life.

In her 20s, she developed a case of endometriosis that was so severe that she vomited and had such severe pain in her limbs and organs that she could not walk. But it was not diagnosed, and because no one understood what was wrong with her, she ended up in a psychiatric hospital. She was told not to write. Endometriosis is what used to be called a women’s disease. You could call it a menstrual rampage. The cells in the lining of the womb that normally bleed during a period instead grow in other parts of the body — the pelvis, bladder, intestines — and bleed there, causing scar tissue and excruciating pain. “Infertility is a definite possibility,” writes Mantel, and indeed she would never have children. A hormonal condition associated with endometriosis causes migraines and in her case “the migraine aura that caused my words to come out wrong” and “morbid visions, like visits, premonitions of dissolution”. After receiving a correct diagnosis, Mantel was administered a drug that caused her to balloon. After that, she recalls, she lived in the shadowy land of “fat lady stores” and couldn’t shake the “perception of the majority of the population who know that obese people are lazy, undisciplined slobs.”

What does endometriosis have to do with art? Everything for coat. She processed her experience until it became the physical substrate of her fiction. Her main work consists of blood and female bodies. Whether a man’s blood is noble or low determines his identity and destiny. The behavior of a woman’s reproductive organs can make the difference between life and death. There are many reasons why Thomas Cromwell towers over contemporary literature, a demiurgic figure on par with a Hamlet, but one source of his authority is his unusual (and admittedly anachronistic) attention to the situation of women.

He seems the only one of the monarchists of his day who was repelled by a social order that made queens – one of whom he loved before Henry burst in and took her away – sperm receptacles in the king’s service. Through his visits to Catherine of Aragon, who never bore a male heir beyond infancy, we observe what it means when a queen fails to fulfill her reproductive duties. Replaced by Anne and imprisoned in a secluded castle, Catherine is literally rotting from the inside, engulfed by some kind of abdominal cancer. Although Cromwell destroys Anne Boleyn, he at first feels sorry for her when her body sheds the only prince child she has ever sired, and blood from the miscarriage forms a slick trail on the palace floor. Henry just wants to get rid of her.

“When female monkeys have their wombs removed and are returned to the community by keepers, their mates sense this and abandon them,” writes Mantel in her memoir. “It’s a fact of basic biology; There is little kindness in the animal kingdom, and I had been down there with the animals, grunting and bleeding on the porter’s cart. There would be no daughter.” No. But there would instead be what Hilary Mantel sculpted from her body, which was more than one could have wished for.

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