“As soon as the Queen is beheaded, he walks away. A sharp pain in appetite reminds him that it is time for a second breakfast, or perhaps an early dinner.”
These are the first two sentences of mirror and light, the third volume of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy on the life of Thomas Cromwell and the last book she published before her death Thursday at the unfortunate age of 70. Where exactly are we, and it makes us gasp at the pairing of things we never thought could occupy the same moral universe—a beheading and a second breakfast. But it makes both senses. Decapitation and a second morning meal were the prerogatives of the powerful in late medieval England. I could pick out any two lines from her novels and show that she does the same amount of work. This is how competent this writer is. This is what we lost.
We’re inside Cromwell’s head, a street urchin who has been promoted to director of, well, all in the land, on behalf of the bloated and childish King Henry VIII. Someone notes: “Lord Cromwell is the government, and so is the Church.” It is also more satisfying to the lusts of Henry – his pimp, if you will. Cromwell made a queen for Henry and killed that queen for Henry. Everyone knows how Anne Boleyn ended up. But readers of only the first two novels in the series know that Mantell invented an improbably gentle and polite Cromwell with a capacity for moral reasoning unimaginable in the royals he moves between. But now blood is gushing from the queen’s neck, and we are in the third act of tragedy, and Mantell has added to Cromwell’s list of powers the ability to turn his back on terror and think of food, as if he were a king.
How do you move history like this? Historians can’t do that. Very few historical novelists can do that. In her notes, give up ghostMantel reveals the secret of her method: “Eat meat. She writes ‘drink blood’.” “Rise up in the quiet hours of the night and prick your fingertips and use blood for ink.” You might be tempted to dismiss the idea of drying one’s veins for art as cliched, but then you discover that blood was The defining element, the ruling catastrophe, for Mantel’s life.
In her twenties, she developed endometriosis severe enough to make her vomit and had so much pain in her limbs and organs that she could not walk. But she was not diagnosed, and because no one understood what was wrong with her, she entered a psychiatric clinic. She was told not to write. Endometriosis is what used to be called a female complaint. One might call it that menstruation is running out. Instead, cells in the lining of the uterus that normally bleed during a period grow in other parts of the body — the pelvis, bladder and intestines — and bleed there, creating scar tissue and unbearable pain. “Infertility is a distinct possibility,” Mantell wrote, and in fact, you would never have children. The hormonal condition associated with endometriosis causes migraines, in her case, “the migraine aura that made my words go wrong” and “pathological visions, such as visits, and premonitions of dissolution.” Once Mantel received the appropriate diagnosis, she was put on the medication for which the balloon was made. Then, she remembers, she dwelt in the shadow of “fat shops”, unable to shake off the “perception of most of the population, who knows that overweight people are lazy and undisciplined.”
What is the relationship of endometriosis art? For Mantel, everything. Her experience worked until it became the material pillar of her literature. Her greatest body is made up of blood and female bodies. Whether a person’s blood is noble or noble determines his identity and destiny. The behavior of a woman’s genitals may be the difference between life and death. There are many reasons why Thomas Cromwell excels in contemporary literature, a rootless figure on a par with Hamlet, but one source of his authority is his uncommon (and outdated) attention to the female condition.
He appears to have been alone among the royalists of his day in case he was repelled by the social order that reduced queens–which he loved before Henry swooped in and took her–into the receptacles of sperm in the service of the king. Through his visits to Catherine of Aragon, who never bore a male heir who lived in his infancy, we note exactly what it means for the queen to fail in her reproductive duties. Replaced by a remote castle, Catherine is trapped in a remote castle, literally rotting away from the inside, devoured by what appears to be some kind of belly cancer. Although Cromwell devastated Anne Boleyn, he first takes pity on her when her body rejects the only princes she has ever produced, and the blood from the miscarriage forms a slick trail on the palace floor. Henry just wants to get rid of her.
Mantell wrote in her memoirs: “When the apes are euthanized, and the guards bring them back into the community, their fellows feel it, and they abandon them.” “It’s a fact of basic biology; there is so little kindness in the animal kingdom, and I’ve been there with the animals, snoring and bleeding on the porter. There will be no daughter.” No, but there would be what Hilary Mantell made of her own body instead, which was more than anyone could ask for.