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Hilary Mantel: The Woman in the Gold Dress

Women We Love: The writer with the golden pen

With her dazzling wit and an astute grasp of history, Hilary Mantel has single handedly transformed the genre of historical fiction.

I can think of several words to describe historical fiction – intriguing, dense, insightful, perceptive  are some that come to mind – but fun would definitely not make it to that list. Not until you’ve read Hilary Mantel, who, after becoming the first woman to win the Man Booker twice (three men share this distinction with her), has earned the popular moniker of The History Woman. Although Mantel has been writing since 1985 and has 11 novels, a short story collection and a memoir to her credit, she became a household name only in 2009 with the publication of Wolf Hall, a historical novel set in the times of King Henry VIII of England.

When it won the award, Wolf Hall was the Booker’s greatest hit (in terms of sales), and for good reason. I could never imagine staying up half the night, often choking with loud laughter, for a historical novel. I’m willing to wager a substantial bet that Mantel can single handedly increase the number of students staying awake during History class – if only the Great Powers can convince her to write their history books.

But Wolf Hall, and its award winning sequel Bring Up The Bodies, are such smashing hits not just for their sparkling wit. Mantel’s trump card is her choice of the story’s principal character – she does not select Henry VIII, his famous Cardinal Thomas More or his second wife Anne Boleyn to narrate the story. Instead, she chooses Thomas Cromwell, a lawyer in Henry’s court who is notorious for plotting and scheming his way to power, a man reviled for arranging the beheading of the noble Cardinal Thomas More and the young queen Anne Boleyn. Talking about the writing of  Wolf Hall, Mantel describes a portrait of Cromwell that was painted in 1533, before his rise to power, and of how unflattering the painting is to its subject. Mantel believes that just like the painter made no attempt to penetrate the layers beneath Cromwell’s seemingly murderous appearance (“I look like a murderer”, he is quoted as saying in Wolf  Hall), so the historians and authors have lazily refused to investigate Cromwell’s supposedly villainous character.

Tracing Cromwell’s journey from a 15 year old being thrashed by his drunken father to the King’s chief confidante, Mantel gives us a lasting peek into one of the most significant periods of English history – of the King’s breaking away from the Roman Catholic Church, of Henry VIII’s obsession with a male heir (a desire that resulted in him marrying six times) and of the web of intrigue and deceit in Tudor England where a single false step could deliver you into the hands of the Hangman.

“At New Year’s he had given Anne a present of silver forks with handles of rock crystal. He hopes she will use them to eat with, not to stick in people.”

But Mantel is not alone in having a prodigious way with words, or in winning the Booker twice. To understand Mantel the writer, as opposed to Mantel the celebrity author, you have to read her memoir after she first won the Man Booker prize in 2009. Mantel displays an endearing empathy for the underdog – or the “losers” – for she herself was “a veteran of shortlists” before her breakthrough year. Describing her journey back home after an awards function where she did not win, she talks about an urge to do something wicked: something truly odious, something that would reveal me as a mistress of moral turpitude and utterly disqualify me from ever being shortlisted for that prize again”. She also talks about the practical struggles of being a writer – “the public don’t like to think of authors as citizens who pay their debts”, of being constantly ranked and categorized on Amazon, and of being able to live with the contradictions of writing as a job vis-a-vis writing as an act of creation. And even when she recalls the “primitive, savage glee” of her win, she can’t help think about the woman who could have lost, the one “with a sinking heart and the sad loser’s smile….wandering the city streets in a most inappropriate gold dress” (Mantel was clad in a resplendent gold dress at the Booker ceremony).

A year ago, Mantel’s lecture (aptly titled Royal Bodies) at the British Museum kicked up a storm in a teacup – the tabloids were incensed with her opening remarks about their darling Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, who Mantel referred to as “becoming a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung… a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own, entirely defined by what she wore”. Mantel further went on to remark how the Duchess appeared to be “designed by a committee and built by craftsmen, with a perfect plastic smile”. Mantel was spot on in her assessment (each time I look at Kate smiling and waving, I am reminded of Ira Levine’s chilling Stepford Wives), but the press was livid. That’s because none of them bothered to listen to the rest of her hour long lecture (or skim through the transcript). In reality, Mantel was not mocking Kate but the British public – the common man who has come to treat royalty as a public good, or worse, as exotic animals – to be stared at, commented upon, chased through allies and photographed incessantly. She laments about the manufactured perfection of Kate, the hunting of Diana and the cruel price that we extract when we treat royalty as entertainment:

“Harry doesn’t know which he is, a person or a prince”.

Mantel also discourses at length about the Tudor reign and the role of women – of how someone like Anne Boleyn, despite being intelligent and ambitious, was valued only for her ability to conceive (a male heir). “We have arrived at the crux of the matter: a royal lady is a royal vagina” - she says while talking about the Tudors, but she’s not just talking about the Tudors, she’s also talking about the Dianas and the Kates and their unfortunate royal offspring.

In her introduction to Wolf Hall, Mantel writes: ” Some of these things are true and some of them lies. But they are all good stories”. And it’s for being such a bloody good storyteller that we are eagerly awaiting The Mirror & the Light, the last book in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy. May the ink never dry and the words never fail to dazzle for this extraordinarily gifted writer!

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