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The haunting of Hilary Mantel

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In the long, strange, stop-start months since The Mirror and the Light was published last March – the book came into the world minutes before the first lockdown began, which was both well timed, given its great length, and appropriate, given the contagions that stalked the reign of Henry VIII – I’ve often wondered about how its author came finally to kill off its central character. By then, after all, she’d been living with him for almost 15 years. Did she procrastinate madly, dread rising inside her like poison every time she approached her keyboard? Or did she just get on with it, determined her own cut would be swifter and neater – altogether kinder – than that of his real-life executioner, who reputedly did not quite manage to separate head from neck at the first attempt?

But writers don’t always begin at the beginning, and end at the end. Sometimes the unconscious, having staged a coup, puts paid to simple chronology. And so it was with Thomas Cromwell, whose death, it transpires, Hilary Mantel drafted even before she’d completed the first book of her trilogy about him (Wolf Hall came out in 2009; the books trace the career of Henry VIII’s chief minister from 1527, when he is Cardinal Wolsey’s right-hand man, until 1540 when, following the king’s disastrous fourth marriage to Anne of Cleeves, a warrant for his execution is signed). “One day, you see, it came to me how to do it,” she says. It was all a bit unfortunate. She was in Sainsbury’s with her husband, a realm not usually inhabited by Tudor ghosts. “We got to the checkout and I started to cry. I cried really hard, on our groceries and on my hands; they were all wet as I pushed things along the belt. We paid, and I sniffed, and then I went home, and I wrote a draft – several drafts – and then I put them away. When it came to the day, many years later, that I had to write the scene, all I had to do was pull out those drafts.” She looks at me carefully. “I wrote it, and something inside said, ‘Now leave it to me.’”

I’ve come to see Mantel in Sunningdale, Berkshire, at the flat she uses when she needs to be in London. Each of us is sitting on a plumped sofa, a coffee table on the pale carpet between us – a piece of furniture that, every now and then, will suddenly strike me as incongruous (when Mantel talks, her cadences straight out of Derbyshire and the Bible, you travel to other places, only returning to reality with a start). She remembers with perfect clarity the morning she wrote those final scenes: the waking knowledge that this day would be the one on which she led Cromwell to the scaffold. She was at home in Budleigh Salterton in Devon. “I got up, and I said, ‘At most, I’ve got three hours’ work to do, and then the book will be finished.’”

[See also: Hilary Mantel’s complex, conflicted Thomas Cromwell]

Soon after this, she went into the sitting room to find a picture of Henry VIII had fallen from the wall on which it had been hanging. “It was as if, in the night, I’d transmitted the mental energy that had done this. The hook had snapped clean through. I couldn’t believe it because, of course, at the end, it’s not really Cromwell who is down; it’s Henry. The next seven years of his reign are going to be horrible. He realises quite soon after the execution that he’s made a blunder.” Mantel reminds me of Cromwell’s final moments, as they are written in the novel: the door that is the last thing he sees, and behind it, the light that represents the next life, in which he believes with his whole heart. She went with the bloodiest accounts of the execution – three goes of the axe – the better to allow his consciousness to ebb. This scene would have been “quite a thing to face if I’d had to do that work at the end”, she says. “But sometimes, a writer’s psyche arranges things very nicely.”

How did it feel to be done? Again, the memory is vivid. “I phoned Jez [her husband, Gerald], and asked him if he could come and collect me [she writes in a flat not far from their home]. ‘I’ve finished,’ I said.” When he arrived, they looked at one another, standing in the hall, and burst out laughing. What was that about? “Relief. Incredulity. This project that I’d been working on since 2005 was home at last.” Her mind goes to Henry’s portrait, resting at an angle on the skirting board. “Things like that do happen to me,” she says. Since childhood, she has known the world as uncanny: a sphere not only of powerful signs and curious presences, but one in which the past is not – to pinch from William Faulkner – really past at all. When she talks of Cromwell now, he’s neither a historical figure nor her own creation, but something in between: a person with whom she “collaborated”, and whose uncommon pragmatism and vigour, having been somehow transmitted to her like electricity, she will henceforth miss.

Image credit: André Carrilho

In the small silence that follows this part of our conversation, I hear someone outside throwing what I take to be a ball against a wall (I hope it’s a ball). Like another home of hers I once visited – before she moved to Devon, she lived in a converted lunatic asylum in Woking – this flat is in a somewhat anonymous development on a somewhat anonymous road, in a place that is about as perfect an embodiment of Middle England as you could hope to clap eyes on. It makes me think, with sudden longing, of Beyond Black (2005), the last novel she published before Wolf Hall (it is about a Home Counties psychic called Alison and her assistant, Colette, whose........

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