Guest Column/ Hilary Mantel’s Ghost(s)


Regina Janes

“She came to tell a story, and she has done it; to see a father, and she has seen one: what’s to keep her now?”

         —The Mirror and the Light

   She promised us a lecture at Skidmore College, and then she went and died. Vexing, very vexing. One wants to beat her as Walter Cromwell beat his son Thomas, or shoot her as Margaret Thatcher was not, alas, shot. Pointless: she is, after all, dead, and she would only scoff at avenging discipline so puny and derivative. One Mantel Piece oozes more of her own blood than anyone else would dare exact. A specialist in violence, she wanted, as her memoir has it, “Slaughter.” A sentence in a word. Every volume of the Cromwell trilogy finishes with a beheading, and the last begins and ends there. Her idea of a Place of Greater Safety (the grave) slices off great and lesser heads of the French Revolution, Manon Roland, Desmoulins, Danton, tipping Robespierre and Lucile Desmoulins into a final Note. Infanticide and matricide: the banally titled Every Day Is Mother’s Day snuffs a baby, and a mother is killed by her daughter, who intends the blow, but perhaps not entirely the death. Babies also murder: the birth canal untraversable, Robespierre’s sibling, like Danton’s child, kills itself and its mother. “The wonder of wonders” the Mahabharata’s Yudhishthira calls the fact that every day people die, yet all act as if they are immortal. Just so every day women die in childbirth, yet some act as if there were somewhere, over the rainbow perhaps, a place without maternal mortality. That place does not exist; wherever women become pregnant, some die because of it.1    Violence, pain, and the spectral: only three cards, but in Hilary Mantel’s hands a full house. The spectral is the oddest, but there her premature memoir Giving Up the Ghost (2003) begins. Following eight novels in eighteen years, the memoir preceded Wolf Hall (2009) by six years, so it contains no explicit “genesis of the trilogy” apart from Henry VII’s walk-on. It does explicate the spectral, a dominant trope of the earlier novels and historical fiction’s twin. In the memoir’s first lines, Mantel sees someone on the stairs who is not there, but who was there once. Later, in the garden, a strange, immensely disturbing un-vision occurs. Something, indistinct and wavering, takes up residence inside her, the beginning of shame and the devil. It is not clear that all novelists see the dead walking down stairs or hear them chattering in the next room, but that immediate sense of presence perhaps assists their progress to the page. Her first novel re-animated the famous dead of the French Revolution, but found no publisher. So she fell back on animated dead in the present. In Every Day Is Mother’s Day, Evelyn, a retired medium, fears the dead in all the rooms and feels the dead pulling at her. Fludd’s seductive revenant charms a town, while Beyond Black, the last novel before the trilogy, shares a medium’s secrets of Spirit World and unsavory spirit guides.    The memoir recounts a life peculiar by any standard: Roman Catholic parents of Irish origin in northern England, a period with two fathers, when her mother’s friend Jack moves in, and then Jack and mother and Hilary (and mostly invisible brothers) move away, and Hilary’s name changes. Abandoned, father Henry abandons the family in turn. After her mother and Jack shift towns, the memoir reports that she never saw her father again or heard his name mentioned by others. (Later she learned that her father had died, but not before marrying again, divorcing and then remarrying his second wife, as his daughter did.) Her striving mother makes a career successful by her lights, though mocked by her daughter (“Third Floor Rising,” Learning to Talk). Almost too poor for university and too sick for a job, she suffers undiagnosed endometriosis. Marrying an academic, she goes with him to Africa and Jeddah; they divorce, remarry. Her endometriosis at last surgically addressed, the children she had as yet no interest in birthing, now ghosts, taunt her with the absence of choice. A failed thyroid makes the thin one fat. Her bulk doubles in houses thronged with poltergeists and a nebulous cat. Having two fathers and two names, she has, naturally, two first novels: the one about the French Revolution and the one about the changeling. Otherwise, she does not specify, viz. “I sat down and wrote another book.”    Today’s trans wars re-situate the memoir’s curious conviction that she would turn into a boy. Very early, at three she knows “I am waiting to change into a boy. When I am four this will occur.” Yet the “onset of boyhood has been postponed, so far,” and she begins to wonder, “when exactly do I become a boy?” Before she turns six, she suspects something is amiss: “the dull knowledge inside me heavy in my chest—that I am never going to be a boy now,” but still “at six, I cling to the prospect of a man’s life.” At seven, she resigns herself: “Girl could change to boy: though this had not happened to me, and I knew now it never would.” She recalls from earlier childhood “practicing for when I’m an altar boy.” At 9, she knows “I am going to become a woman,” but she rages “at the thought of what is to come. The process is beyond control. You have no choice in it. My body is getting the better of me.” Her stepfather Jack’s seeming recognition of her non-binary status is not appreciated: “Once I had been Ilary, but after I was fifteen or so he called me they. ‘They always do this,’ or ‘they always that,’ he would sneer.” She does not object when she is informed about a later medication’s side effects: “A general virilization… oh, what’s the odds? I’d always wanted to be a bloke.” Vulnerable to being swept up as an exemplar of gender dysphoria, trapped in the wrong body, Mantel evidences how soon gender privilege is registered by the psyche, perhaps especially in a Catholic girlhood, and how traumatic the changes girls experience at puberty. Who wants to bleed monthly for thirty or forty years? Who would not prefer to shine as Catholic altar boy or Anglican chorister? In the TERF Wars, Mantel defended J.K. Rowling from attacks she called “unjustified and shameful,” “barbaric,” and cited her own dislike of being “misgendered.”2    There will be no more books, but the gaps she has left telling her own life will make biographers purr. At forty-two, she blithely remarked that “carpe diem is an empty sentiment, now that we all live so long” (An Experiment in Love). Cutting her off at 70, the three-score years and ten allotted mankind, is perhaps a Catholic God’s revenge for her having seen him abscond through the window at age twelve (Experiment, GUTG) or her comical representations of atheistic priests and oblivious nuns (Fludd) or her antipathy to St. Thomas More, his hair shirts, and his principled cruelty.    Pain is one of the great pleasures of reading Mantel. Thematized early, the first novel’s daughter objects against her mother, “Up the stairs you would have come, rushing to take my pain for yourself.” When that pain becomes “a frenzy…an unstemmable riot of pain, hers and hers alone,” mother duly appears to orchestrate the experience, making “every day… Mother’s Day.” Imagined scalpings, the eyeball in the spoon, testicles fed to dogs: violent little excurses punctuate a style Janet Malcolm praises as incisive, “cutting.” “Night closes in on the perjured ministers and burnt-out pedophiles;” “Magpies toddle amid the road kill” (Beyond Black). Severed heads are heavier than the recipient expects (Mirror and the Light). Even writing down a dream, granted a dream of screaming, blackened, deformed, gabbling fetuses as works in progress, is physically disturbing and oddly miniaturized: “I take the dream to the keyboard and mince it through a second draft” (GUTG).    Mantel’s affinity for historical fiction may owe something to the fact that history did not require her to invent pain. It was already there, built into the structure of the action. Nor, in her practice, did historical fictions require plot. That, too, was already there. Modern irresolution, that unwillingness to commit to transformative action characteristic of her contemporary fictions,3 is solved by the historical novel as Mantel writes it. Unlike the historical novels that Georg Lukács considered, hers do not place fictive characters in a specific historical moment in the past. So Henry Fielding put his Sophia in position to be mistaken for the Pretender’s friend Jenny Cameron in the ’45 (Tom Jones) or Tolstoy replayed the Napoleonic invasion with Natasha, Prince Andrei, and Pierre (War and Peace). Nor do invented characters solve mysteries while famous names introduce themselves as they stroll across the page, as in a third of the “historical fictions” in the New York Times’ yearly roundup. (Previews of Chevalier, a film about Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de St George, feature a character remarking, apropos of who knows what, “I am Marie Antoinette.” Somehow, it is difficult to imagine an occasion for that sentence. I guess I need to see the movie.) Nor are they satiric cameos in punch-drunk social satire of Robert Coover’s sort. Instead, Mantel’s characters re-enact their own story, and a final “Note” disposes of those who ended after the author stops. The ideological production that is an ending is deferred to events.    In the novels between the French revolution and the Tudors Mantel learned her trade and flirted with other possible forms of historical fiction before she found her unlikely hero and her way back to her original form. Of her alternative historical fictions, Fludd (1989) is magic realist, or alchemical. An introductory note dates the novel’s period c. 1956, certifies the town as fictional and “[t]he real Fludd [1574-1637]” as “physician, scholar, and alchemist,” alchemy a discipline “literal and factual…symbolic and fantastical.” An inexplicable curate, Fludd, transforms the town, rescues a nun, and then disappears from a novel bookended by the National Gallery’s Sebastiano del Piombo’s Raising of Lazarus and Ambrosio Bergognone’s Virgin and Child, male agency, female satisfaction. Certain wintry shafts of light “kindle hearts. Then office workers long to hear Mozart and eat Viennese pastries, and drink coffee scented with figs,” just like Canterbury pilgrims. An amiably atheistic Catholic priest, like Miguel de Unamuno’s San Manuel Bueno, Mártir, lacks the Spaniard’s anguish. Fludd’s comic delights gesture towards the past as a revenant that enriches and adorns and layers density. Remembered pasts thicken the scrawny present into significance, plumping and doubling it so it seems at last, at least a little, to matter.    The Giant, O’Brien (1998) is more properly an historical fiction, set in the late eighteenth century, deploying altered but actual historical figures, embedded with imagined ones. “This is not a true story, though it is based on one” begins a lengthy note introducing the giant and the anatomist who coveted his bones. Among the changes, the giant’s name becomes more obviously Irish: Charles O’Brien rather than Charles Byrne. At the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, Mantel closes her note, “[t]he bones of Charles Byrne may be inspected during the usual exhibition hours.” Queen Elizabeth was photographed viewing them in the 1950s. Recently the skeleton was removed from public view against the museum’s reopening in March 2023.4 Mantel said Byrne should be buried, but the Hunterian Museum insists his scientific utility continues. Boxed or still standing, his bones are a monument to enlightenment exploitation of the underclasses in pursuit of physical knowledge.    A painful tale of multiple systems of oppression, the novel is equally a meditation on storytelling, poetry, and the giant’s insight into mortality. Moving from coveted cows and Irish stories to London and satirical prints, the novel imbricates satire and pathos. The giant knows he will not rise at the resurrection unless his body is buried. Hunter the anatomist bankrupts himself to procure the bones. The giant’s friends sell his body and watch him die; the giant dislikes the inevitable ending of the tale of the seven dwarfs and the maiden. The trilogy’s techniques are in place: the close imagining of the central consciousness, flexible movement through time and landscape, socio-cultural horrors represented with no need for comment, the grotesque self-interestedness of the poor, the remoteness of the rich.    The Cromwell trilogy, Wolf Hall (2009), Bring Up the Bodies (2012), The Mirror and the Light (2020), brought fame and book-end Bookers for the first two. Bookers, Mantel observed, were like buses, “You wait forever, a lifetime, for one, and then two come along in a row.” The first books pair up: the last line of the oddly titled first novel points to the second, the title of which comes from its own final episode, the beheading of Anne and her alleged lovers. Wolf Hall takes Cromwell from a boyhood beating through his and Anne Boleyn’s triumph over Sir Thomas More and ends gesturing towards Jane Seymour (Anne’s doom) via her natal hall. Bring Up the Bodies begins in falcons’ bloodily hunting and ends as Cromwell destroys Anne Boleyn and five of her men. The Mirror and the Light took as long to write as the first two put together and, though longlisted, lost that year’s Booker to Shuggie Bain.5 The title is Cromwell’s phrase for Henry VIII, and the novel departs from Anne Boleyn’s execution to arrive at Cromwell’s own, on the day Henry VIII married Katherine Howard. Unlike the first two, it was burdened with recapitulating earlier events for beginning or forgetful readers, but the reader who returns to Wolf Hall after Mirror finds new shadows in Cromwell’s bloodied head and twisted neck on the cool stones.    As history manqué, rather than traditional historical fiction, the trilogy has raised some historical hackles. Cromwell was really “a saturnine toad” and torturer; sainted Thomas More was an honorable family man. There is no evidence that Cromwell mourned the deaths of his children.6 No one has objected to Mantel’s curious hostility to Anne Boleyn. (She swiped Kate Middleton in Mantel Pieces for a similar large-eyed skinniness and self-control.) Yet when you press on a fact in Mantel, there will be something behind it. Accuracy is her springboard.    To call the trilogy history manqué is to designate the novels as lacking as history, whereas their fault as history is that they are too full. Novels deliciously spill over with everything historical records lack. Too many thoughts, too much consciousness, too much of what we cannot know, far too much talk, but oh, so convincing and so filled with what we desire—an almost magical, super-empowered hero in Cromwell, an exposé of aristocratic boors and twits (Surrey) in a painfully stratified class system, a force for modernization, toleration, and the triumph of bureaucracy (also Cromwell). Ossified names are set in motion: Cardinal Wolsey glorious and wise, starveling Bloody-to-be Mary, sainted Thomas More remembered as an Argentine torturer at home, pallid Jane Seymour reanimated as wry, sly, and better than those around her, including her queen Anne. Severed are literary-history’s conjoined twins “Wyatt and Surrey,” Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. Wyatt brought the sonnet from Italy to England; his admirer Surrey invented blank verse and “Shakespearean” sonnet form and mourned Wyatt’s death: “Wyatt resteth here, that quick could never rest.” Elevated to painful eminence is Thomas Howard, Surrey’s uncle, for his punning play: “What helpeth hope of happy hap/ When hap will hap unhappily?”    Mantel shrugs off the familiar and hints at the hidden. Wyatt does not complain that “They flee from me that sometime did me seek,” nor smirk “Blame not my lute,” nor renounce love’s “rotten boughs” as he bids “Farewell, Love, and all thy laws forever.” He prosaically promises to go down to Kent, where readers in-the-know know that he will write proto-Popeishly to John Poyntz, “And here I am in Kent and Christendom, Among the Muses, where I read and rhyme.” Instead of Surrey, Cromwell is Wyatt’s reader, hurt by “In mourning wise,” Wyatt’s lament for the men executed with Anne Boleyn. Surrey as poet is not altogether forgotten, but dismissed as “singing his own verses and inscribing them in the manuscript books kept by the ladies, where they decorate them” with hearts and daggers (ML). The Devonshire manuscript, a principal Wyatt source, is one, where Thomas Howard and Lady Margaret Douglas trade the love poems Cromwell mocks.    Now happily published as The Devonshire Manuscript: A Women’s Book of Courtly Poetry,7 the battery of sonnets and songs complaining of the lady’s infidelity or coldness or refusal suggests an atmosphere of positively bruising sexual harassment, to which, patiently transcribing misogynist tropes, the ladies reply with witty rebuke or amorous anticipation or doleful disillusionment. Cromwell did not play those games, but his interlocutors did. Entering the dynamics of those exchanges is like plunging into that notoriously heady era, the 1950s, when women had to hold off and hold onto men’s advances without the pill to save them from errors of judgment.    Historical fiction, like history and art forgery, always reeks of its own time and place, like a person wearing too much perfume who cannot smell it. So let me briefly follow a theme that winds from our time to Cromwell’s, twisting a love knot to Mantel’s technique. First an anachronism: Cromwell thinks fleetingly that “The dead wander the lanes of the next life like strangers lost in Venice” (ML). He is Tudorizing Beyond Black, where “the bewildered dead cluster … among the dumpsters outside the burger bars”; their odds on meeting up, “not 14 million to one, like the national lottery [but] about the same as meeting somebody you know at a main line station at rush hour.”8 Bardo-ized afterlives are current, e.g., George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo, Booker, 2017; Shehan Karunatilaka, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, another Booker, 2020; Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths, 2022. A Buddhist concept, bardo is an in-between place the dead occupy before they pass on to—whatever they pass on to. Moderns gain an afterlife without transcendence or an ultimate. It is unlikely to have figured in Cromwell’s imaginings of future states. “Now Tyndale has put on the armour of light. On the last day he will rise, in a silver mist, with the broken and the burned”: that has an authentic ring. Yet “strangers lost in Venice” neatly travels the distance between Cromwell’s time and ours. We know Cromwell knows what it is like to be lost in Venice, and if we are lucky, we do too.    Far stranger is Cromwell’s musing on Elizabeth Barton, the Holy Maid of Kent, hanged in 1534 for prophesying that Henry would lose his kingdom if he divorced Katherine. “She said she could find the dead for you if you gave her enough money. She searched Heaven and Hell, and never found Wolsey, till she found him at last in a place that was no place, seated among the unborn” (ML; cf. WH). Where on earth, or out of it, does that come from? The 1885 DNB notes Barton’s claim that Wolsey entered heaven at her intercession (the detail disappears in 2004), contradictory, but not inconsistent. Supporting Cromwell’s Act of Attainder, the sermon discrediting the maid during her public exposure in 1533 bruited Barton’s claims to have found the cardinal in “a place of no salvation” and secured his transfer to purgatory. Mary Magdalen herself thanked her, she claimed, for delivering her servant’s soul from eternal damnation to “eternal joy and everlasting salvation.”9 This obscure public document Mantel turns into private meditation and tweaks the theology. A “place of no salvation” becomes “no place”: salvation excised. The unborn emerge from the modern editor’s note that the Limbus Infantium is the place “of no salvation” that is not hell. Cromwell, like other protestants, drops purgatory from the Maid’s itinerary. Impeccable sourcing, mysterious transubstantiation. Yet Mantel never mentions that the maid also claimed to have saved Wolsey’s soul. Usually she tells readers more than anyone can know, and sometimes she tells less.    In the final volume Mantel designates certain characters as “invented” in the cast list that heads each novel. They are usually servants, conveniently about for the principals to address themselves to or to refocus an episode that is known, but missing some parts. The poet Surrey was indeed threatened with having his sword hand amputated for drawing in the court precincts, but the actual antagonist and motive are now lost (DNB). Mantel’s invented servant Matthew receives the blow, befitting her critique of Surrey. An odd exception to such characters’ insignificance is Cromwell’s invented daughter who passes through to tell the story of Tyndale’s death and then goes away (epigraph above). Justifying her choice, the author might repeat, “This is your daughter Ilary speaking, and this is her book” (GUTG).    Cromwell manifested in her voice years before he reached her page. Like him, she wanted only to leave her natal town. “Possibly there was nothing to be done for Hadfield; as soon as I was able to reason about it I realized that leaving, preferably soon, was the wisest course. I ask myself now, looking back—if a ray of sun had shone through the deluge one spring day, and a Hadfielder had by chance found the end of the rainbow, what would that Hadfielder have done? Stared at the pot of gold for an hour; kicked and turned it about; sniffed the ingots, scratched at them with a fingernail; stamped them into the soil and said—said what? Nothing, zero, zilch: in the dialect, ‘nowt.’ Stomped into the pub scowling and said he found this pot, eeeh, call that a pot, call that a rainbow, it’s nobbut a fraud. If the parable of the talents had been set in Hadfield, all the talents would have been buried and no one would ever have been able to find them again” (GUTG). The first line, the action described, the easy biblical quotation make the reader cry out, “That’s Cromwell, she sounds just like him!” and then the reader feels like an idiot, because of course Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell sounds like Hilary Mantel, even before she takes him up.    In the last of her Reith lectures, Mantel was asked if she could live without Cromwell. He had lived without her for 500 years, she replied. Besides, he would likely rise again in a new theatrical production; he did so in 2021’s stage production of The Mirror and the Light. Then she was gone. They are together now, and Cromwell is still heard in Hilary Mantel’s voice, in spite of the stroke of that god-forsaken god leaping out of the window, with no one in pursuit. But what will they say when they meet?


1. Currently in the US 55.3 out of 100,000 black women die in childbirth; 19.1 out of 100,000 white women. “‘I don’t want to die’: Fighting maternal mortality among black women,” Erica L. Green, New York Times, 19 December 2023. Maternal mortality ranges from 3 per 100,000 live births in parts of Europe to 553 in sub-Saharan Africa. A midwife reassures women whose hospitals are closing that pregnancy is not a disease and 80% of pregnancies incur no complications (Letters, NY Times, 8 March 2023). 20% is a lot of pregnancies, one in five. Anti-abortion legislation and court decisions foster new varieties of femicide. Surely human rights should include the right of every baby to a mother who wants it.

2. That meant being called not “he” but “they.” In a university publication, “My books were ‘their books.’ I wasn’t singled out—the other alumni were similarly treated. I thought, ‘Being a woman means a lot to me. My sense of it has been tested. I have thought deeply about it. I value it, even though it has meant struggle and pain. I do not want my womanhood confiscated in print. It is not right to deprive an individual of identity on a whim, and make him or her into something neuter, plural. I have not given my consent to become a grammatical error.” To identify now as a grammatical error is not a confiscation, but a claim. Antonello Guerrera, “Hilary Mantel: why I feel ashamed in England, and I will be an Irish citizen soon and European again.” La Repubblica, 4 Settembre 2021.

3. The hero of the first two novels, a dithering adulterer, captures his type: “I belong to the generation of Angry Young men, though I was never angry until it was too late, oh, very late, and even now I am only mildly irritated” (EDIMD). The stories of The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher (2020) written during the Tudor trilogy, add Renaissance construction to modernity’s loose formlessness. The endings. artificially stitched, announce that this is not real: this is a story, this is art, this is craft, craft is what you are looking at in the end.

4. New York Times, January 22, 2023, A6.

5. Mantel seems to have been beaten by her own moves (and by Cromwell’s maddening failure to realize he is reproducing Wolsey’s trajectory and to escape his history). Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain is a Glaswegian Thomas who wins out over adversity, including a threatened “Glaswegian-smile” mouth-slashing. In a Mantelian out-of-body, floating-soul experience, the hero impales some chickens so that they look like “headless babies.” The Glaswegian smile appears twice, explained as a threat to Shuggie’s sister and later escaped in an episode when Shuggie is invited to kiss another boy through a mail slot. When Shuggie returns the girls’ spittle back instead, a knife rattles the mail slot.

6. Tina Brown, “Courtship,” review of Sarah Gristwood, The Tudors in Love, NY Times Book Review, 25 December 2022, p.6; Travis Curtright, “Wolf Hall: Tudor History through an Anti-Historical, Anti-Catholic Lens,” Public Discourse, April 9, 2015; David Starkey, .

7. Toronto: Iter, 2012.

8. In Beyond Black, an old coaching inn turned steakhouse chain is “Tudorized, fitted with plywood oak-stained panels and those deep-buttoned settles covered in stain-proof plush of which the Tudors were so fond.”

9. L.E. Whatmore, “The Sermon against the Holy Maid of Kent and Her Adherents, Delivered at Paul’s Cross, November the 23rd, 1533, and at Canterbury, December the 7th.” The English Historical Review, Vol. 58, No. 232 (Oct., 1943), p. 470.