What does death make of us? It’s a question posed in “The Princess Myth,” a short essay penned twenty years after Princess Diana’s death by novelist Hilary Mantel. In it, she rejected death’s finality. “For some people,” she wrote, “being dead is only a relative condition.” In grief, I returned to the essay on September 22, when I learned that Mantel had died. She was only seventy, though she’d suffered a lifetime of chronic pain caused by severe endometriosis.
She arrived late to writing. She started to put words on pages only after university and published her “first” novel (although not the first novel she’d completed) at the age of thirty-three. While some of her works concerned the contemporary, she was most highly regarded for historical fiction. Best known was her Wolf Hall trilogy about Henry VIII’s advisor Thomas Cromwell, which was adapted into a miniseries by the BBC. And A Place of Greater Safety—the first novel she wrote, though not the first she published—is about the French Revolution.
Since her death, there’s been an outpouring of praise for her work, which twice won the esteemed Booker Prize. The New York Times lauded “the beauty of Mantel’s prose, her sly, unexpected use of language, the emotional resonance braided into the narrative.” Others commented on her ability to bring the past to life or to place us inside the heads of her characters. Even the Daily Mail, which had a notoriously techy relationship with Mantel, conceded her “genius” but still thought her obituary the right place to discuss her parents’ marital infidelities.
It is striking, though, that while these essays pay tribute to her ability to transport the reader to another time, they often fail to appreciate that Mantel never treated history as a set. Rather, the past in her novels is alive, a place with real implications for the present. What I mean to say is that Mantel approached her subjects not only as a novelist, but also as a historian—demanding of the past not merely scenery but also meaning, an argument, something that might help us explain who we are today.
The trilogy composed of Wolf Hall (2009), Bring Up the Bodies (2012), and The Mirror and the Light (2020) concerns Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief advisor from the early 1530s until his execution in 1540. He was also the great-great-granduncle of Oliver Cromwell. For a long time, historians thought of Cromwell as a goon, Henry’s henchman who battered down the doors of English monasteries and engineered executions of the king’s enemies (until he himself fell beneath the axe).
But in later works of history, especially those by Geoffrey Elton, Cromwell came to be seen as a more sophisticated operator, someone who fundamentally rethought the English monarchy and, in a certain sense, invented the modern state with all its peculiarities. When Henry wanted a divorce from his first wife, the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon, his chief minister Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, at the time Cromwell’s patron, could not provide it. Cromwell could. Working through parliament, he severed England’s ties to the Vatican and, a firm proponent of the Reformation, set about creating a Protestant Church of England under the monarch. In so doing he affirmed royal supremacy in government while building new bureaucracies to oversee the Church and the revenues it brought to state coffers. Here, goes the argument, are the origins of our modern state, in Henry’s need for an heir and Cromwell’s desire to reform the Church.
This is the argument of Mantel’s trilogy, too. Following the course of Cromwell’s life, she gives us a shoulder perch to his rise from blacksmith’s son to European mercenary to lawyer to member of the privy council to, briefly, Earl of Essex. He’s a commoner, though, which the lords and ladies of court never once let him forget. His use to the king must be distinctive, then: his command of numbers, his talent for getting people to do what Henry wants. And, yes, his willingness to plunder the riches of the Church—its fattened abbeys and monasteries—to keep the state solvent.
Sinister is one word for Cromwell. Mantel doesn’t deny it. While he needs the Boleyns to force the break with Rome, he is happy to later take revenge against them for their role in Wolsey’s downfall. Of Anne, he thinks to himself, “If need be, I can separate you from history.” With an equal coolness, he soon separates her from her head. There’s something positively Hegelian about Cromwell’s perspective. Indeed, the philosopher once wrote of how great men of history “fall off like empty hulls from the kernel” after “their objective is attained.”
But Mantel is not Hegel. It doesn’t do justice to her empathy. It’s not only that she is arguing that the modern state emerged from the Tudor court, it is also that it emerged from the very particular constellation of individuals and their peculiar desires. It’s one thing to say Cromwell invented the modern state by codifying England’s territorial sovereignty, rationalizing government through bureaucracy, and elevating parliament’s legislative role. It’s another to understand his grief at Wolsey’s demise, to comprehend his rage against the Boleyns, to feel his anxiety that if he cannot satisfy Henry’s whims, he may be next on the scaffold. Mantel has a deep sense of the past, the ability “to feel history through your skin,” as she once put it.
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Thus, we care about Cromwell and what happens to him not only because Mantel portrays him in such vivid detail, but also because we sense the world-historical purpose he drags behind him. We sense that there is a reason to his actions that continue to shape the world we inhabit today. And after decades of neoliberal reforms that have lopped off the wings of the state, we have need today for figures like Cromwell who perceived in the state its vast human potential.
This is what the best historians do. It’s a way of thinking about the past that Walter Benjamin described, while on the run from the Nazis, in “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940). Today, some still consider history to be nothing more than the dry recitation of facts—“telling the sequence of events like the beads of a rosary,” in his withering formulation. Benjamin instead advocated for a kind of historical writing that would “blast open the continuum of history,” one that would put the present in “constellation” with earlier eras in the knowledge that “even the dead will not be safe.” It’s writing history with fire.
We want to rush to Cromwell’s side, warn him of his impending doom—a doom that he surely knows is coming—because we recognize him not only as a human but as a carrier of the hopes of our own time. “The dead are real,” Larissa MacFarquhar wrote in a 2012 New Yorker essay about Mantel, “and have power over the living.” Cromwell has been in the ground for some centuries now but even he is not safe, and nor are we safe without him.
In perhaps no other work does Mantel so clearly express her view of history as in the short story “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.” Notoriety was its watchword: although the prime minister had been dead for over a year when it was published in fall 2014, and the events of the story are pure fiction, its publication led to calls for Mantel to be investigated by police.
In it, an unnamed narrator—a stand-in for Mantel—is waiting for a handyman to fix the boiler. A man shows up, not for the boiler, but for the PM, who is recuperating from minor eye surgery and will soon take a walk in the hospital’s garden, visible from the narrator’s window. The assassin brims with anger for those put out of work by Maggie the Milk Snatcher, for the plight of the Irish. It’s a political killing.
She dies. In the story, she dies. But as they wait for him to take his shot, the narrator tells the shooter how he might escape with his life, through a heavy fire door connecting their building to the one next door. That door is the pivot of the story, a secret passageway into a different order of events. “Who has not seen the door in the wall?” Mantel asks. “It is a special door and obeys no laws that govern wood or iron. No locksmith can defeat it, no bailiff kick it in; patrolling policemen pass it, because it is visible only to the eye of faith.” There is a “cold wind that blows through it,” which proves, through all the possibilities that the door extends, that “history could always have been otherwise.”
This is the faith that animates Mantel’s writing: that the past might have been different. That even if Thatcher “went on living till she died,” we might yet save the dead from the blights of neoliberalism that she inflicted upon them. It’s clear why Cromwell is something of a hero to Mantel, then: he’s the forebear of the state that she (and I, and many of us on the left) see as a salvation of humanity. He is rational governance incarnate, more modern than Thatcher, though she lived many hundreds of years after he had perished. We can’t change what’s happened. That’s true. But we can—and do, constantly—change what we learn from it, how we use it, what it whispers to us.
Mantel has stepped through the door, becoming living history, something that returns now “as angles and air, as sparks and flame.” And while it’s easy to feel that we’ve lost a genius of rare proportion, she would remind us that death is relative. So long as her books live, she lives. Perhaps, then, Mantel is not gone so much as changed, a spirit on the wind, beckoning us back to a future that always was and has yet to be.