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Hilary Mantel: “We Still Work to a Man’s Timetable and a Man’s Agenda”

Hilary Mantel

When Hilary Mantel was in law school in England, she started suffering terrible internal pains. No one took a young woman’s agony particularly seriously, especially if it was situated uterus-adjacent. She went to visit a psychiatrist, who diagnosed the source of her anguish: It was stress, he said, caused by overambition. He wondered if law school was too taxing. Mightn’t a dress shop be a better outlet for her talents?

What none of the doctors knew, but Mantel suspected because she was consulting surgical textbooks, was that she was suffering from a severe and undiagnosed case of endometriosis. The drugs prescribed for her psychological and physical misery led her to a mental-health clinic. There, she began to write a short story about a changeling— that is, about a woman in rural Wales whose baby is snatched and switched for another. When she outlined the story to her psychiatrist—the one who prophesied a dress-shop career—he said “I don’t want you writing.”

I don’t want you writing! And you, Picasso, put down that stupid paintbrush. There are tomatoes to be packed. When I came across that anecdote in Mantel’s wonderful, spiky memoir Giving Up the Ghost, I almost shrieked. What if she had given up writing? A tragedy for the world of literature. A tragedy for me, personally: She is my favorite living author.

I’m firmly of the opinion that a journalist should never meet her heroes. They will invariably disappoint, not because of their own failings, but because they have been constructed out of some bright-sky material in the journalist’s brain and will necessarily be duller in real life. But, in a few cases, they do not disappoint, but leave an indelible, electric impression instead. Such was the case when I took the train one day to meet the woman whose latest novels had made her, against all expectations, a smash success.

Hilary Mantel’s little town on the Devon coast was ridiculously pretty, as pretty as a village from a BBC detective series in which the killer is the vicar or the lady who puts up the best pickles. It was prettier than it had a right to be. It actually had a café called the Cosy Teapot.

And here lived a woman with a singular gift for inhabiting dark and sinister worlds, past and present, and finding the humanity and humor in them. Most of her novels were contemporary, though it was the most recent pair, set in Tudor England, that had made her a star. They were all novels born of her body’s pain, written in spite of that pain, or perhaps because of it—how better to transcend the body than imagining a world that is different, distant, peopled with intriguing strangers? There was no darkness in the cheery flat overlooking the sea, or the woman who answered its door. Mantel had the round, bright blue eyes of a china doll, even though her smile suggested a doll possessed by a mischievous demon. The phone was ringing when I entered and hardly stopped (it was answered by her husband Gerald McEwan, a man she had divorced once and married twice). The phone rang because, after a life of critical acclaim but popular obscurity, she had achieved a whacking great success with her novels about the life of Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies (a final novel in the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, is in the works).

“Everything that has happened since the publication of Wolf Hall has astonished me,” she said, leading me slowly over to an overstuffed sofa. “I should be shockproof, but I’m not. It’s not a world I thought I’d be in.” That world, for a woman sometimes confined by illness to an area close to her writing desk, was a huge and liberating one: two Booker Prizes for the first two novels of the trilogy, smash success stage and television adaptations, millions of copies sold. Even stranger, this popularity hadn’t arrived on the wings of vampires or wizards or S&M–loving billionaires, but through highly literary, dense novels narrated in an archaic tense called the “historic present.” The books are not for all readers, and some complain that they’re too complex, too allusive. Yet, there they remain, the unicorn of the publishing world: thorny masterpieces that sell like iPhones. “You can’t go wrong with Henry VIII,” Mantel said with her sly smile. We both knew that the real star of the books was Thomas Cromwell, the king’s reserved and compelling consigliere, who began a pauper and ended with his head at the mercy of an incompetent executioner. The entire narrative arrived in one swoop, she said, when she heard a voice in her head say the words “So now get up.” They are the first lines in the first novel; they will likely reappear at Cromwell’s ignominious end.

We chatted about Bring Up the Bodies, because that’s what my newspaper and her publisher wanted (in fact, I had had to sign a non-disclosure agreement, which is pretty hilarious for a novel outlining some of the best-known episodes in Western history). Really, I wanted to talk to her about her own narrative: about how writing saved her, about the children she never had, about the intersection between the two. In my mind, she was heroic, having overcome pain and rejection, and quietly plugged away writing extraordinary novels that hardly anyone noticed.

I wanted to ask her about pain, because I, too, had felt my guts hollowed out with knife-spasms. She had endometriosis; I had Crohn’s disease. I wanted to ask how she had overcome that pain to write—not just overcome it, but fed it into her furnace, watched it burn and char, the blackened ash turning into words on the page. She began researching her first novel, A Place of Greater Safety, an invigorating, vast novel about the French Revolution, on “days [she] was half well.” No publisher wanted it, at least not at first; it was the first novel she wrote, the fifth to be published.

But I didn’t ask her about her pain, nor shared mine. It would have been too weird. This wasn’t a therapy session. But I could ask her about the unborn children she wrote about so beautifully in Giving Up the Ghost; they were the phantoms of the title, “stretching out their ghost fingers to grab the pen.” Ambivalent about whether she wanted to have children, the decision was made for her when she had to have a hysterectomy at twenty-seven.

“You had that psychiatrist,” I said, “the one who diagnosed you with an excess of ambition.”

“Oh yes,” she said, with a light laugh. The laugh of someone who is generous in triumph. “He recommended I go work in a dress shop.”

Could she ever  imagine a  doctor saying such a thing to a young woman now? “Probably people wouldn’t dare couch it in those terms, but things have really not got a lot easier for women,” she said. “The agenda of control has just become less overt. People still have a tremendous struggle in trying to live a woman’s life, and trying to bring up children and go out there and be an actor in a world that is still so much a man’s world. We still work to a man’s timetable and a man’s agenda.”

The obvious question to ask, as she watched me calmly with those huge blue eyes, was whether there would have been fewer books if there had been any children. Could one make such a crude and lumpen equation? Would she have been as productive, if she had to stumble over the famous pram in the hallway that Cyril Connolly said was the death knell for artistic ambitions?

She answered quickly, in her cool, bright voice. It was not the first time she’d thought about the question. “Probably not. Something would have suffered. To be honest, I’m quite a maternal person, and I’m a bit of a control freak, so it probably would have been the writing. Someone said one child equals two books.”

Well, that was a relief. I now had an excuse for four books left unwritten. I did have one book at home, a comic novel that I’d dithered over for three years. I worried, at that point, that it would never be published. I worried that it would.

On the train ride home, and on many days since then, I thought about Mantel’s immense productivity, her genius for creating character and situation, her unwillingness to be cut down by rejection or dismissal or fear. Years later, I would have a coffee mug on my desk. It says, in an antique, typewriter-y font, “Nevertheless, she persisted.” I try to live up to it. And on some blessed days I do.

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From Shrewed: A Wry and Closely Observed Look at the Lives of Women and GirlsUsed with permission of House of Anansi Press. Copyright © 2018 by Elizabeth Renzetti.

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