The unquiet mind of Hilary Mantel

The desk at which Hilary Mantel writes is pushed up against a window with a view out to sea. The sea isn’t in the distance, spotted between hills. It’s there, almost at her doorstep, the shingle beach just across the road. To write, she sits at her computer facing the large window and the sea can fill her vision. It’s the kind of view that swallows time. There is no sign of human life; nothing except waves and clouds. On her computer desktop, Mantel has put an image: a photograph of the view from her window. “It reminds me to actually look up from the screen,” she says.

Every summer, there is a music festival in Bud­leigh Salterton, Devon. From the flat where she lives with her husband, Gerald McEwen, Mantel can walk along the beach into town in ten minutes or so. Last year, once she’d realised that she was writing not one, not two, but three books about Thomas Cromwell, once she’d realised that the second was going to end with Anne Boleyn’s beheading, once the title – Bring Up the Bodies – had struck her as she wrote the words (it echoes the Tower of London order to bring the accused to trial), once she had told her publishers that they’d have a second instalment sooner than they’d thought (you can imagine their fists punching the air), once they had told her that they wanted to publish in the spring of 2012, Mantel began to write.

This was not writing that can be identified as writing in the ordinary sense: spasmodic, agonised, write-delete-write-delete. These were eight-, ten-, 12-hour days, marathons of prose, a 400-page book written in five months, between May and September 2011. (Don’t be encouraged. The words spilled only because Mantel had done long, professorial research into her subject. She first had the idea for a book about Thomas Cromwell in her mid-twenties; she had read everything – all the books, all the books about the books and all the original sources; she filled red Chinese chests with meticulous notes and cards and folders of information. She checked every fact, every source, every date, every letter, every name. Her Cromwell books are a combination of wild imagining and unimpeachable accuracy.)

One of her few distractions from writing was going to concerts at the music festival or going for walks along the beach: “I wasn’t really listening to the music, but listening to what was going on in my head and walking along the seafront home with my head feeling as if it was wobbling with the weight of ideas and voices inside it and then coming and sitting down at my desk to catch it all down.”

Budleigh Salterton: population 5,000, mostly elderly. It’s a town of gift shops and mobility scooters. For Mantel, perfection. On a walk through the town she stops to pet a pug and tells its owner about the pugs she once had, how much she loves the breed. At a restaurant, a man comes to the table to tell her how an article she wrote has resonated with him. “Oh thank you, thank you,” she says, smiling. The people are congenial here, she says. No one has the vulgarity to ask her how the next book is going.

Mantel first saw Budleigh’s roofs from a cliff­top when she was 16. She was escaping at the time. Along the coast, in Exmouth, her family was on holiday in a caravan, cooped up and crabby. She went for a walk along the coastal path and saw the town below her, houses falling down the hillside, and it imprinted itself on her mind as the place where she would live if she could live anywhere in the world. It became her idea of exotic, of Europe, the white houses by the sea. “I remember when I went back to school that year, telling people about it – they were all very sniffy because they were much more moneyed and sophisticated girls. They said, when you’ve been abroad you won’t think anything of a place like this. But even when I’d been abroad very extensively, it was still in my head and actually I can see why now, because” – she points through the living-room window, perhaps to where she stood as a teenager – “if you are up on the cliffs there looking at the view you’d be hard pushed to find a more beautiful spot anywhere.”

Mantel, born the eldest of three in 1952, spent her early years living in the village of Hadfield, in northern Derbyshire, surrounded by grandparents, parents, great-aunts, cousins. The first jolt was a move to a modern house, up the hill in Brosscroft. The second was more disruptive. One day when she was six, a man called Jack Mantel moved in. Her father, Henry, a clerk, didn’t leave. The family lived like that, an awkward, unspoken configuration of three children and three adults, until the shunning of the villagers moved them on to a small town in Cheshire, leaving behind all those relations and Henry, who she never saw again. She even took Jack’s surname.

Mantel was desperate to grow up and get out (her principal recollection of childhood is about how little it suited her). In her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, she recalls a pair of curtains from the family home. Their pattern was, self-referentially, windows, but not the kind of windows she knew from Hadfield or Brosscroft. They were Mediterranean windows, with colourful blinds and pots of flowers, windows that were used to the sun shining through them, warming the house. Many years later, Mantel told her mother about how she often fantasised about living behind those windows. “My mother turned away, so that I couldn’t see her face. She whispered, and I, oh so did I.”

It took a long time for Mantel to return to Budleigh, to this town of her dreams on the south coast of Devon, to a top-floor flat with windows looking out to sea. At last, she is here. “I don’t think I’ll ever want to move on from here, because what could replace it?”

This is a strange, suspended moment. Two books of a trilogy down, one to go. Mantel can’t wait to write it, but such is the success of the first two books that the demands on her time are overwhelming. There is no possibility of immersion, those sucked-under days or head-wobbling beach walks. For years, says her agent Bill Hamilton, Mantel said yes to every invitation to speak, every festival, every opportunity to promote one of her books, but the books never quite took off. Her subjects were odd and unpredictable: an 18th-century Irish giant, moor-dwelling nuns, a suburban social worker, performing psychics, Norfolk missionaries, 800 pages on the French Revolution. It took Henry VIII to usher her into the light.

She is aware – how could she not be – of how her readers have swollen in number. Before the Booker-winning Wolf Hall, she says, she could stand by a pile of her own books at a signing and go unrecognised. Now new readers write to her – after Wolf Hall many complained: it was confusing, ambiguous; why was the protagonist referred to as “he”? The novelist Amanda Craig wrote in this magazine that it was “one of those novels you either loved or hated. I belonged to the latter camp.” Craig, though a fan of both Mantel’s earlier work and Bring Up the Bodies, says now that she found Wolf Hall “attention-seeking . . . the combination of the historic present and the lack of clarity, the word ‘he’ – it gets in the way”. (Craig also says that she felt like a lone voice when she expressed her reservations, and was rounded on by friends in the literary world though many readers support her views. “People would just not say anything bad about this book; there was a great push for her to win.”)

Mantel wondered if she was being too demanding. But then she thought that to adjust her style in any way would be not only a loss, but patronising (“You simply cannot run remedial classes for people on the page”). Some will be lost along the way, but she doesn’t mind. “It makes me think that some readers read a book as if it were an instruction manual, expecting to understand everything first time, but of course when you write, you put into every sentence an overflow of meaning, and you create in every sentence as many resonances and double meanings and ambiguities as you can possibly pack in there, so that people can read it again and get something new each time.”

She can sound arrogant, Mantel, assured of her abilities and candid about them in a way that seems peculiarly un-English. But even the arrogance is purposeful. It is one of her pieces of advice to young authors: cultivate confidence, have no shame in being bullish about your ideas and your abilities. She was patronised for years by male critics who deemed her work domestic and provincial (one, writing about A Place of Greater Safety – the French 800-pager – dwelt on a brief mention of wallpaper). So she makes no apologies for her self-belief.

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