TV review: Hilary Mantel: A Culture Show Special

Hilary Mantel's work is suffused with undercurrents and with what might have been, says Gary Day

September 22, 2011

Credit: Miles Cole

Hilary Mantel said that she likes to disconcert her readers, to make them feel uncomfortable (Hilary Mantel: A Culture Show Special, BBC Two, Saturday 17 September, 8pm). She certainly succeeded with James Runcie. He was so troubled by her work that he decided to kidnap her for a little chat. Hilary came to in a large, empty room in Acton Court, a Tudor house. It looked freezing, but James had wrapped her in a large cloak to keep her warm. The setting was a highly fitting place for the author of Wolf Hall, which tells the story of Thomas Cromwell's rise to power in the reign of Henry VIII. It won the Man Booker Prize in 2009. Acton Court has recently been "restored", but that is just code for James having removed all traces of his crime.

He began his interrogation by asking Hilary why she liked to "knock the reader off balance". Because we tread a fine line between a real and a hidden world, came the reply. It was a distinction impressed upon her by her Catholic upbringing. She lost her faith at the age of 12 but belief in the power of an invisible world was harder to shake. At the age of eight, she had sensed something in the garden, like Eve hearing a rustle in the leaves. "It seemed incredibly evil." There was a shot of the moors near where she grew up. They looked obligingly sinister, even in sunlight. It says something about Hadfield, her childhood home, that the creators of The League of Gentlemen chose it as the most suitable location for their gallery of grotesques.

Her mother's love affair must also have fired the young Hilary's sense of a secret world. Jack Mantel moved into the family home and her father, Henry Thompson, disappeared upstairs to do crosswords. In the meantime, meals were cooked, clothes were washed and Hilary went to school. Life continued as normal, except that it wasn't normal at all. Hilary spent her time trying to work out what was happening in the next room. The coexistence of two worlds made her doubt the solidity of the house and the furniture. She couldn't be sure that if she put her hand on the wall, it wouldn't go through. "Not everyone thinks like that," said James. "Fools," came the reply.

Hilary began to write when illness prevented her from following a career in the law. The pain and dizziness were caused not by the gap between the physical and the metaphysical but by endometriosis. "You can't describe it in a sentence," said Hilary. It's a condition in which the cells lining the uterus also grow outside it, mostly around the ovaries, and it's connected with infertility. Well, I tried. But she's right. One sentence is not enough. Misery was piled upon misery. After eight years, and several misdiagnoses, the disease was finally identified. The treatment made her double in size, "blossoming into the sofa-like creature you see before you", she said, smiling, but not with her eyes. It was more, much more than the frankly acknowledged damage to her self-image, that hurt. It was missing the child she never had. "What's to be done with the lost, the dead, but write them into being."

Her art gives substance to ghosts, to possibilities, to the might-have-been. Hence the thick, fleshy quality of her novels, their weight, heaviness and density. But there's always a shadow passing over the surface, like that of a cloud running across the moor on a windy day. Life is laid down in layers, like rock strata. Hilary is married to a geologist, Gerald, so it's a very complementary relationship. "He's very good-natured," she confessed. They don't quarrel. A writer needs a quiet life. Or, as Hilary put it, "niceness, blandness, safety, routine, security". She is as much thesaurus as woman. It is wonderful to listen to, but can be a bit wearing on the page. Her novels are hard-going. This is partly, Hilary admits, to her not following her own advice, which includes excising "piffling little similes" and "cutting every page by a third". The ones I have read also suffer from a lack of plot. But you could say the same about life. She justifies this in her historical fiction by saying that the characters are not aware of the patterns we will impose on them, they just stumble blindly forward, as we all do, I suppose.

James was satisfied. He released Hilary into a house by the sea, white and full of light. She was home. Was she happy? "From time to time. It depends entirely on the last sentence I wrote." She watched the waves. Each one could presage calm or storm. A character in Virginia Woolf's The Waves asks whether the moment we are most disparate is the moment we are most integrated. To which Hilary would probably answer "Yes".

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