When I chose to make Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and A Place of Greater Safety the subject of my dissertation, there was a dearth of scholarly work available on the author. But by the time I replaced A Place of Greater Safety with Mantel’s second Booker-winner, Bring Up the Bodies, Mantel had become, in the words of the chairman of the judges of the 2012 Booker panel, “‘the greatest modern English prose writer’ working today” (Stothard qtd. in Brown). For three decades—from her completion of A Place of Great Safety in 1979 to the publication of Wolf Hall in 2009—Mantel persevered with her work not only as a novelist but also as a reviewer and journalist, creating an impressive collection of novels, short stories, reviews, sharp-witted social critiques, and a memoir. Yet, until the breakthrough of Wolf Hall, Mantel’s fiction was “relatively neglected” (Wallace 211). Her first historical novel, A Place of Greater Safety (1992), was dismissed by one British reviewer as “upmarket soap opera” (Smith). Yet Mantel’s persistence in avoiding narratives about “sweet people” (Atwood) in favor of exploring the “dark purposes” (Atwood) of the human condition paid off. The story of her emergence as a preeminent author following her two Booker-Prize wins is one of how Mantel developed an awareness of evil at an early age, overcame the prejudice of misogynistic literary critics, and persisted in the exploration of the “dark purposes” of men and women, but returned to exploring it in the public and private lives of historical power brokers.
A child’s early experience with evil—or even the suggestion of an evil presence that Mantel’s medium from Beyond Black, Alison Hart, would have detected—can irrevocably influence that child’s worldview. When Mantel was seven, as she recalls in her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, she encountered a malevolent force, nothing more than the “faintest movement, a ripple, a disturbance of the air” (Ghost 93): something neither visual nor audible, yet something that with “its motion, its insolent shift, [made her] stomach heave” (93). The effect on young Mantel was the dark underbelly of an epiphany: “Grace runs away from me, runs out of my body like liquid from a corpse” (93). After this experience, Mantel confesses that she “ceased to expect much good from the world” (Ghost 108). She identified the apparition in the garden as evil, ever since trying to understand it:
“Is evil simply—simply?—an outgrowth of human nature, or is it detachable from the human, a force at large in the world like a mercenary for hire, looking for a human master to serve, never without one for long and always worth the whistle?” (Ghost 109)
Mantel first began to explore humanity’s “dark purposes” in A Place of Greater Safety, a dense, long narrative about the power, corruption, and Machiavellian-style of virtue1 amongst three leaders of the French Revolution: Maximilien Robespierre, Georges-Jacques Danton, and Camille Desmoulins. Its length of nearly nine hundred pages no doubt contributed to the novel initially being rejected by publishers. The first novel Mantel did publish, Every Day is Mother’s Day, was an exploration of a modern-day, vitriolic relationship between a failed medium, her socially deviant daughter, and the social worker obliged to save them. Her next novel, Vacant Possession, is set ten years after the end of the previous novel and focuses on the manipulative, vengeful daughter, recently released from an asylum. Mantel recalls in a 2009 interview that her first two novels were read as women’s domestic fiction and, as such, were “read as domestic black comedies” (Mantel, “accumulated an anger”), despite her intention that one is a condition of England novel: “[Vacant Possession] was set in 1984! It’s a bit of a clue” (Mantel, “accumulated an anger”). Her third novel, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street—based on Mantel’s own experience living in Saudi Arabia when her husband was posted there—was similarly categorized as a domestic story, despite Mantel’s insistence on its insights into Islamic fundamentalism (Mantel, “accumulated an anger”). Set in the 1980s, the book is also an interesting study of a reversal of the kind of imperialism that saw the Middle-Eastern countries around Saudi Arabia overtaken by the British, the Americans, and other Europeans in between the two world wars. The protagonist, Frances Shore, is a cartographer who is not only unable to map Jeddah—the colonizers’ first endeavour to bring under control a perceived-barbaric country—but finds her identity subsumed into the purgatory of women’s lives in that country. If these three novels failed to receive serious literary attention, perhaps it is because those reviews were influenced by the preponderance of male literary critics found in the magazines and newspapers that publish book reviews.
In 2009, Vida: Women in Literary Arts first documented the gender imbalance found in the underrepresentation of female reviewers at publications such as The Atlantic, the Boston Review, the London Review of Books, and the New York Review of Books. This discouraging statistic was matched by the underrepresentation of reviews of female authors’ works in those same publications. No Vida count was made prior to 2009, but, ironically, it was a female critic for the Independent who said, in a review of Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety (Mantel’s fifth published book), that Mantel’s novel is an “upmarket soap opera” (Smith) compared with the venerable Simon Schama’s chronicle, Citizens: the “French Revolution as human tragedy” (Smith). Moreover, in a New York Times review, Mantel’s huge historical novel is criticized for leaving the reader stranded on the uncertainty of whether “we [are] reading history amplified by the empathy of the novelist or fiction dressed up in historical costume” (Bernier), an uncertainty the male reviewer says is never resolved. Despite this negative criticism, Mantel received growing respect as a “gifted writer” (Bernier), something that would solidify as female scholars found reasons to celebrate Mantel in their assessment of historical fiction in Britain.
In one of her essays about historical fiction, A. S. Byatt returns to the above-mentioned “uncertainty” in A Place of Greater Safety, about the unresolved areas of fact and fiction that are endemic to historical fiction. Byatt argues that “there is a new aesthetic energy to be gained from the borderlines of fact and the unknown” (55), suggesting that Mantel, rather than disappointing readers, is leading them in a new, unexplored direction. She compares Mantel’s use of the present tense in A Place of Greater Safety (the same tense she uses in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies) as something the author shares in common with Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. Byatt further praises Mantel’s “apparently straightforward, realist narrative . . . recreating the intellectual and emotional turmoil of the time both on the grand scale and with precise images of small, local details of pain, excitement, curiosity, terror and desire” (54). What she found in its “innocently realist[ic]” story was an “old-fashioned psychological narrative which is the imaginative form she gives to the lives of real, partially known men” (55). Byatt praises Mantel equally with Pat Barker—a Booker Prize winner for The Ghost Road in 1995—for the intimate focus the authors provide through their unnamed narrators. She is not the only literary scholar to compare Mantel to Barker.
In 2005, when Mantel published Beyond Black, Diana Wallace released a study of historical fiction written by British female authors across the decades of the twentieth century. She also finds similarities between Mantel and Barker, as well as between Mantel and Penelope Fitzgerald, because these authors appear, superficially, to be writing in the realist tradition while using strategies that also subvert that tradition. In Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety, Wallace argues that, although Mantel focuses the story on three major, historical figures, she situates the reader in and amongst them rather than giving a bird’s-eye view of these men and their roles in history. Wallace also argues that Mantel’s strategy of presenting dialogue in the form of a dramatic play “disrupts the usual practice of the realist novel and thus draws attention to its fictionality” (Wallace 205). Moreover, Wallace identifies an aspect of Mantel’s fictional exploration of historical characters that re-emerges in her Cromwell novels: “Mantel . . . is particularly interested in the disjunctions between the private early lives of [Robespierre, Danton, and Desmoulin], when little is known of them, and their public personae as world historical figures” (205). By identifying this preoccupation of Mantel’s, Wallace emphasizes the author’s precision at re-imagining the private lives of men before they become famous, but also their navigation of the competing demands of the public and private realms when they are at the height of their power.
When Wolf Hall won the 2009 Booker prize, journalistic attention on Mantel increased; more importantly, the reviews revealed excitement and respect for her prose. The Guardian praised the novel for being “[l]yrically yet cleanly and tightly written, solidly imagined yet filled with spooky resonances . . . it’s not like much else in contemporary British fiction” (Tayler). Renaissance scholar Stephen Greenblatt declared the novel “a startling achievement, a brilliant historical novel focused on the rise to power of a figure exceedingly unlikely . . . to arouse any sympathy at all” (Greenblatt). But it was perhaps Christopher Hitchens—who gave his review of Wolf Hall the title “The Men Who Made England”—who best reflects the impression the novel has made on many of its readers. He begins his review by reminding his readers how the effects of the English Reformation can still be felt today, before describing how the novel engages with “the origins of this once world-shaking combat, with its still-vivid acerbity and cruelty” and acclaiming it a novel of “quite astonishing power” (Hitchens). In a review that features many excerpts from the novel and a scathing attack on the Robert Bolt representation of Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, Hitchens ends by declaring Mantel to be “in the very first rank of historical novelists” (Hitchens). This kind of praise only escalated with the release and subsequent Booker win of Wolf Hall’s sequel, Bring Up the Bodies. In her review of the latter novel, Margaret Atwood summarized Mantel’s oeuvre as a general avoidance of “sweet people” in preference to the exploration of “dark purposes” and Mantel’s writing as “deft and verbally adroit” (Atwood). However, at least one other female author, who had endured the same kind of literary sexual discrimination as Mantel had, was sceptical about whether Mantel’s historical, second-Booker win meant anything had really changed for female authors:
Well, it’s tempting to be cynical about it and note that, after a respectable but underappreciated career of writing mainly about women, she was finally recognized as a literary heavyweight once she produced a novel that was all about men. . . . Maybe it’s more simple—maybe it’s just that, with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Mantel has hit her stride as a novelist; that her writing, now, is too good for anyone to ignore. (Waters qtd. in Mantel, “Unquiet Mind”)
As if to affirm Sarah Waters’s reflection that Mantel had become “too good for anyone to ignore,” Mantel’s previously maligned historical novel about the French Revolution has recently received the attention of a scholar honoured by the Modern Language Association with an Award for Lifetime Scholarly Achievement: Fredric Jameson.
In Antinomies of Realism, Fredric Jameson praises Hilary Mantel’s representation of Maximilien Robespierre in A Place of Greater Safety. According to Jameson, Mantel “turn[s] Robespierre into a believable character” (277), far removed from the “satiric weight of political vilification and the caricature of his personality and private habits” (278). According to Jameson, the benefit of the rehabilitation of an infamous historical power broker like Robespierre, often portrayed as a two-dimensional villain, is that his “political program [of the politics of Virtue] can now again be taken seriously” (278-79). Jameson emphasizes the contemporary significance of Robespierre’s stance against corruption, most notably explored in a speech that Robespierre gave to the Convention on 5 February 1794, in which he outlines his emphasis on the role that virtue plays in politics. In reaction to the corruption under which the former French aristocracy operated—the regime that the Revolution had ousted—Robespierre insisted that his fellow deputies always strive to “maintain[n] and develo[p] virtue . . . that which is immoral is impolitic, that which is corrupting is counterrevolutionary” (Robespierre qtd. in Shusterman 216). Jameson suggests this approach of Robespierre’s is an antidote to “the universal tolerance of corruption” (279) that thrives today.
Since her childhood haunting by an evil presence, Mantel has been attuned to the darkness in her world: of people, of society, of politics, of power, of history. In her fiction, she has explored the nature of evil in slim narratives about mothers and daughters, children and parents, women and society, men and women, and women and the spiritual world. Despite the dismissiveness of male literary critics during the years when Mantel devoted herself to exploring how evil can be “a ripple, a disturbance of the air” and “a force at large in the world (Ghost 93). Despite the disappointing—mostly male—reviews, Mantel continued to write, honing her skills in various forms of writing, building her creative strength for the novel that she’d been wanting to write since the 1970s (Mantel, “accumulated an anger”): a novel about Thomas Cromwell. By finally succumbing to the “robust[ness]” (“accumulated an anger”) of Thomas Cromwell, Mantel has reached the position of an author respected for her “ingenuity, skill, and ability” (Bondanella 93) and an author “who will be read and studied forever” (Hamilton qtd. in “accumulated and anger”).
Terri Baker is an instructor at two institutions in Calgary, Alberta: Mount Royal University and the University of Calgary. Her dissertation, “‘Beneath every history, another history:’ History, Memory, and Nation in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies,” examines the contemporary social critique Mantel makes in the novels and was defended in 2014. Her publications include a review of Mary Novik’s Muse for Canadian Literature, an essay on Ian McEwan’s Saturday for the anthology Writing Difference: Nationalism, Identity and Literature, and an essay contribution on Victorian women collectors for the anthology Contemporary Collecting: Objects, Practices and the fate of Things. Other publications include numerous book reviews and a feature article on Mary Novik’s Muse for the Historical Novel Review.
Atwood, Margaret. “The downfall of Anne Boleyn.” Rev. of Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel. Theguardian. The Guardian News and Media Limited. 4 May 2012. Web. 10 May 2012.
Bernier, Olivier. ‘Guillotine Dreams. Review of A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary Mantel. The
New York Times, 9 May 1993, http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/10/11/specials/mantel-place.html. Accessed 27 Dec 2016.
Bondanella, Peter, translator and editor. The Prince, by Niccolò Machiavelli, Oxford UP, 2005.
Brown, Mark. “Hilary Mantel Wins Man Booker Prize for Second Time.” Theguardian, 16 Oct.
Accessed 23 Oct. 2014.
Byatt, A. S. “Forefathers.” On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays. Chatto & Windus, 2000, pp. 36-64.
Greenblatt, Stephen. “How it must have been.” Review of Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. The New York Review of Books, 5 Nov. 2009, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2009/11/05/how-it-must-have-been/. 10 April 2012.
Hitchens, Christopher. “The Men Who made England: Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall.” Review of Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. Arguably, Signal/McClelland & Stewart, 2011, pp. 146-151.
Jameson, Fredric. Antinomies of Realism, Verso, 2013.
Mantel, Hilary. Giving Up the Ghost: A Memoir. Fourth Estate, 2003.
---. “I accumulated an anger that would rip a roof off.” Theguardian,16 Oct. 2012, https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2009/sep/12/hilary-mantel-booker-prize-interview. Accessed 23 Oct. 2014.
---. “The Unquiet Mind of Hilary Mantel.” Interview by Sophie Elmhirst. NewStatesman, 3 Oct. 2012, http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/culture/2012/10/unquiet-mind-hilary-mantel. Accessed 25 Nov. 2013.
---. Wolf Hall, 4th Estate, 2009.
Smith, Joan. “The rough and tumbril of history.” Review of A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary
Mantel. Independent, 5 Sep 1992, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/book-review-the-rough-and-tumbril-of-history-a-place-of-greater-safety-hilary-mantel-viking-pounds-1549781.html. Accessed 27 Dec 2016.
Shusterman, Noah. The French Revolution : Faith, Desire and Politics. London, GB: Routledge,
2013. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 29 December 2016.
Tayler, Christopher. Review of Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. theguardian, 2 May 2009,
Wallace, Diana. The Woman's Historical Novel: British Women Writers, 1900-2000, Palgrave
1 In his translation of The Prince, Peter Bondanella defines the concept of the virtue of which Machiavelli alludes as “a decidedly masculine quality, denoting ingenuity, skill, and ability (93).