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By now, everyone who reads contemporary fiction will have heard of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel’s acclaimed historical novels about Thomas Cromwell, the powerful advisor to Henry VIII who all but single-handedly disestablished the Catholic Church in England. Anathema to many Catholics on account of their sympathetic portrayal of Cromwell, the books have been runaway bestsellers, were awarded the Booker Prize (twice), and have been successfully adapted for both stage and screen. Psychologically persuasive and prodigiously self-assured, they are examples of what can happen when an artist, who has been honing her craft in the meantime, finds or invents material that turns out to be the perfect vehicle for her powers. In Mantel’s case, when she began writing about Cromwell, by her own account she was “filled with glee and a sense of power,” a conviction that everything in her life had prepared her for this.

When Mantel was a child, she lived with her parents and a baby brother in an inhospitable village in the north of England, where, among the children of the village, the wars of the Reformation were still being waged. Her mother was narcissistic and socially ambitious; her father quiet, bookish, and ineffectual. When their Catholic marriage foundered, at a time when divorce was out of the question for Catholics, the mother took a lover, a jaundiced Protestant named Jack, who moved into her bedroom while her husband moved to another bedroom down the hall, a room he shared with his daughter, Hilary. Another boy was born, who years later so resembled Mantel’s father that Mantel belatedly realized her mother had been sleeping with both men. When Mantel was eleven, her mother and Jack moved with the children to nearby Cheshire. Mantel’s father disappeared; she never saw him again. In Cheshire, Mantel’s mother and Jack pretended to be married. There was a name change; there were better schools and upward mobility. Helped by these footholds, Mantel escaped to university, married, and began to write, ultimately fulfilling her early ambition (“to distinguish myself in my generation”). But she was also ill, underwent a hysterectomy, and mourned—belatedly and protractedly—her failure to have a child.

Psychoanalytic criticism may have fallen out of favor, but it has not ceased to be useful. Even so bare an outline of Mantel’s life, drawn from her 2003 memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, makes clear the connections between Mantel’s biographical backstory and the goings-on at Henry VIII’s court. In her novels about Cromwell, all of Mantel’s formative issues are in play: the plot-driving engine of marital unhappiness; divorce and the impossibility of divorce; ambiguous sexual situations; the desirability but also the powerlessness of children. Mantel’s early experiences explain not only her richly ambivalent attitude toward her Tudor characters, but also her impressive “negative capability” as their artist—her ability, that is, out of the small circle of her original family, either to play or to cast all the parts.

For example, she herself is Mary, the king’s awkwardly placed oldest daughter who is banished from his presence together with a rejected, painfully dignified spouse (Katherine of Aragon). She is also Elizabeth, another unwanted but ultimately triumphant (if sterile) daughter who, at a stroke, lost a parent (Anne Boleyn) as a child. Mantel’s mother, of course, is Henry, the books’ capricious, death-dealing sovereign, and Jack is Anne Boleyn, the sallow Protestant parvenu. But Mantel’s mother is also Boleyn: small and catlike in her movements, unscrupulous and shape-shifting. Cross-referencing Mantel’s memoir with the novels, the reader encounters the same clusters of descriptors again and again, shared out among Mantel’s mother, Jack, and Anne Boleyn, or among Cromwell, Mantel herself as a child, and Cromwell’s small daughter, Anne. Sometimes a phrase or sentiment from the memoir is lifted virtually unchanged into the novels, as when Mantel’s mother and Jack, like Henry and Anne, are described as “[the] couple who had endured, to be together, so much adverse public opinion.”

In the novels, Mantel is reimagining the small-scale squalor of her parents’ domestic arrangements on a large scale, as consequential history. The exercise may have been exhilarating, or cathartic, as when history requires that she banish Queen Katherine and her daughter, Mary, not to a yellowing bedroom down a dimly lit hall, but to far-flung palaces. But any temptation on Mantel’s part to use the novels to romanticize or exorcise her own past is balanced in the writing by an equally strong authorial impulse to expose it.

For example, there is Mantel’s puzzling choice of a title: Wolf Hall. Scarcely mentioned in the novel that bears its name, Wolf Hall is the family seat of Jane Seymour, the eventual third wife of the king. Halfway through Wolf Hall, in a brief digression, the reader learns that old Sir John Seymour slept with his son’s wife for two years, during which time she gave birth to two boys. Laughing when the scandal of the boys’ dubious parentage becomes known, Anne Boleyn says to Henry, “They could tell Boccaccio a tale, those sinners at Wolf Hall.” Inexplicable as a title choice apart from a familiarity with Mantel’s history, Wolf Hall is the world for Mantel personally. Or as Cromwell puts it to himself elsewhere: homo homini lupus, man is wolf to man.

But if the general subject matter of the novels is demonstrably congruent with Mantel’s past, why does she tell the stories from Cromwell’s point of view? Why is Thomas Cromwell the protagonist of her transposed childhood drama, and her hero? Why, for that matter, are Thomas More and other stubbornly orthodox Catholics her villains?

Again, Mantel’s memoir is helpful. When she is a little girl, Mantel is cheerful and industrious, impatient with her small size, and acutely sensitive to the routine humiliations of childhood. (“This is what it is like to be a child. You have no rights. . . . ”) Trusting that at a certain point she will turn into a boy, she aspires to be a knight errant, a priest, a man-at-arms, a railway guard. In the meantime, “with a head stuffed full of chivalric epigrams, and the self-confidence that comes from a thorough knowledge of horsemanship and swordplay,” she appoints herself her mother’s chief protector and knight.

Then Jack moves in, and her world falls apart. She is supplanted, and by a man who dislikes her. There is a rift with her beloved maternal grandparents, and with the whole scandalized, God-fearing community. Her mother stops going to Mass, then stops going anywhere at all. Their family is talked about in the street. They are cut off and alone, in a house that begins literally to be haunted.

For the preternaturally sensitive seven-year-old, struggling to understand what is happening, the whole dreadful situation comes to a head one afternoon in what we might call Mantel’s primal scene. On this particular afternoon, Mantel’s mother is sunbathing in the backyard, with her daughter nearby, when a neighbor woman suddenly throws herself against the fence and erupts in a tirade against Mantel’s mother. As the woman shrieks and rails (“You there with your fancy man in the garden in the bright light of day . . . canoodling with him you in nothing but your floral swimming costume and showing your very thighs”), Mantel’s mother, in a turn that anticipates Mantel’s later descriptions of Anne Boleyn, rises from where she is basking, blinks, and dawdles indifferently indoors, leaving her daughter—small, foursquare, hands planted on her hips—to defend the family honor.

With all the verbal energy she can muster, the parentalized child struggles to rise to the occasion. But whether she succeeds, as she claims, the hostility that menaces her family is not dispelled. At home, “Our daily life is hushed, driven into corners. We move in a rush between the house’s safe areas, and the ones less safe.” At school, the older girls ask Mantel questions the significance of which she does not understand. (Who sleeps in what bed?) Too young to view her mother objectively or to judge the situation on its merits, she is like the child in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s essay “What Is Meant by ‘Telling the Truth’?” who, in front of his classmates, is questioned by his teacher as to whether his father comes home drunk.

It is true, but the child denies it. The teacher’s question has placed him in a situation for which he is not yet prepared. He feels only that what is taking place is an unjustified interference in the order of the family and that he must oppose it. . . . The child [would ideally] find a way of answering that would comply with both the rule of the family and the rule of the school. But he is not yet able to do this. He lacks experience, knowledge . . .

In Mantel’s case, when her schoolmates question her, she refuses to answer. She feigns indifference, but the situation marks her for life. Indeed, one can argue that this early, excruciating experience of existential anxiety and humiliated pride—Mantel’s awareness of her own inadequacy and her never-forgotten failure to discharge a responsibility laid too soon on her small shoulders, in effect, to defend the indefensible—conditions her identification, in later life, with Thomas Cromwell.

Because what, after all, is Cromwell famous for in history if not for defending the indefensible, not just once but numerous times? Who but Cromwell has in spades both the intellectual qualities Mantel requires in a hero and the rough qualities she stood sorely in need of in her backyard: flesh like a shield, “[an] indifference to public opinion [and] the snarling willingness for a public brawl”? Against the angry censure of a scandalized populace, Cromwell defends the whims of his king, to whom he stands in a relationship similar to Bonhoeffer’s child to his father, or Mantel to her mother: a relationship in which loyalty to a flawed caregiver takes precedence over loyalty to truth.

A case of arrested development writ large, Cromwell is Mantel’s “mature” solution to the problem that bedeviled her in childhood. In the books that have made her name, Cromwell is her alter ego and ideal self, the kind of man she aspired to develop into as she grew. If the books’ other characters are more or less realistically drawn (Thomas More being an exception), Mantel’s Cromwell is perfect, a childhood dream of astonishing competence and trenchant power. (“He is at home in courtyard or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury.”) A loving father and faithful husband, patron of the arts and friend of the poor, Cromwell not only defends the indefensible, and even legitimates it, by drafting new laws, he also, in his sweet time, takes definitive revenge on his enemies: those who stood in judgment on his patrons, Cardinal Wolsey and the king, and those who underestimated himself, the lowborn blacksmith’s son.

Both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies end with officially sanctioned murders engineered by Cromwell himself for personal as well as political reasons. Thomas More, who is beheaded at the end of Wolf Hall, famously opposed Henry’s divorce, remarriage, and presumptive title as Head of the Church in England. But in Mantel’s telling, he also offended Cromwell personally by overlooking him in his youth, an unforgivable sin in Mantel’s catechism. Remembering when More was a cardinal’s page and he himself a pot-scrubbing street child, Cromwell thinks, when More’s execution is imminent, “I remembered you, Thomas More, but you didn’t remember me. You never even saw me coming.” Similarly, in Bring Up the Bodies, Anne Boleyn’s fall from favor becomes an occasion for Cromwell to settle old scores, not only with Boleyn herself for her role in Wolsey’s fall, but also with the sniggering courtiers who made public sport of Wolsey after his death. Already, in Wolf Hall, Cromwell is watching (“they do not know who is watching”) and remembering the offenses he will avenge, years later, with the axe.

Unforgiven, long-nursed grudges; strategically deferred, murderous designs: These are the real passions that drive Mantel’s books, far more than the sexual passions of her secondary characters. Mantel’s memoir, like the novels, is thick with smoldering grievances: against teachers (“I don’t know if there is a case on record of a child of seven murdering a schoolteacher, but I think there ought to be”); adults generally (“In Hadfield, as everywhere in history of the world, violence without justification or apology was meted out by big people to small”); and above all, against the Catholic Church, which stood in judgment on her mother when Mantel was a child. Accordingly, it is Thomas More, orthodox Catholic and proclaimed saint, who is Mantel’s stand-in for every kind of established authority that she hates. Her More is a thorough hypocrite and a pious fraud, a misogynist husband and a sadistic torturer. He is her villain—physically scrofulous and morally unclean—and she is a child he once humiliated who wants to see him dead.

Of all the parts Mantel plays in the books, her brief walk-on as Dick Purser is a part especially close to her heart. In Wolf Hall, as in history, Purser is a boy More had whipped in front of his household for trying to persuade another child that the Eucharist is just a piece of bread. Near the end of the novel, still seething with resentment years later (Mantel’s invention), the boy begs Cromwell to take him along to see More condemned. Cromwell comforts the boy, Mantel’s childish alter ego, who then cries on the shoulder of her adult alter ego.

In Mantel’s universe, the scene requires no justification. We can picture the two of them—the child Hilary and her hit man—hastening to More’s trial. There is no disproportion, in Mantel’s telling, between a whipping and a beheading. On the contrary, the humiliated child’s desire for total revenge is the real engine that drives these books, which are not only about deferred vengeance (Cromwell’s revenge on his enemies) but are themselves Mantel’s own long-deferred, carefully plotted strategy for settling old scores. Just as Cromwell defies the pope, confiscates church property, and dismantles the monasteries brick by brick, so Mantel herself, another ambitious child from the provinces, rhetorically tears down the reputation of the Catholic Church and its saints.

She accomplishes this, above all, by her narrative methods. The books are told in the third person, but from Cromwell’s point of view. Everything comes to us through his consciousness, through what he sees, thinks, and feels. At the same time, Mantel makes constant use of free indirect thought, a method of narration that dispenses with phrases like “he thought” and “he believed.” What this means is that while the point of view is always Cromwell’s, the reader tends to forget this, and the more he forgets, the greater Cromwell’s influence over him. Cromwell’s opinions, set free from qualifying signposts, increasingly define the world. The fact that these opinions are rendered mildly, and seemingly regretfully, only increases their authority. For example:

These are days of brutal truth from Tyndale. Saints are not your friends and they will not protect you. They cannot help you to salvation. You cannot engage them to your service with prayers and candles, as you might hire a man for the harvest. Christ’s sacrifice was done on Calvary; it is not done in the Mass. Priests cannot help you to Heaven; you need no priest to stand between you and your God.

Are these “brutal truths” Tyndale’s, Cromwell’s, or Mantel’s? All three, but by the end of the paragraph they pass for truth, period. Rarely has blasphemy or heresy been so gently proclaimed. In Mantel’s novels it is Thomas More who is sarcastic and fanatical, Jesuitical and proud. Mantel the author is as patient and even-tempered as her hero, and as effective. Not for Mantel the rhetorical equivalent of the neighbor woman, bouncing on the fence and squealing. Nor for her either the fate of the neighbor’s son, who accidentally blows himself up in later life with a homemade bomb. In “King Billy Is a Gentleman,” an early story of Mantel’s that covers some of the same ground as her memoir, the narrator learns of this neighbor boy’s death from a yellowed newspaper clipping. But Mantel herself, as she points out via her narrator, is still alive, her explosive bestsellers about Thomas Cromwell still to come. The last line of the story is “I am burning on a slower fuse.”

There is one other important way in which Mantel’s Cromwell resembles Mantel herself. Near the end of Wolf Hall, Henry’s daughter, Mary, says to Cromwell, “[Reginald] Pole says you are Satan. . . . He says that when you were born, you were like any Christian soul, but that at some date the devil entered into you.” Cromwell responds gravely, “Did you know, Lady Mary, I came here when I was a boy, nine or ten?” Expanding a little on those days, he continues, “Would you suppose the devil had entered me by that date? Or was it earlier, around the time when other people are baptized? You understand it is of interest to me.”

In Mantel’s memoir, after Jack moves in with her mother, their house slowly fills with unseen, malevolent presences. It is not only the child who is aware of this, but the adults and adult visitors as well. Objects disappear; gusts of wind roar through the rooms; doors slam and their dogs cry with fear in the night. On weekends, the sallow, perspiration-soaked Jack hacks at the undergrowth in the overgrown garden, opening a view to the fields and the moors beyond.

Mantel is seven, going on eight. A pious, scrupulous child, she fears more than other sins blasphemy and inflicting brain damage, which would happen, she explains, if you were to drop a baby before the soft bones of his skull had closed. You might think, she confides elsewhere, that she would have asked God to show himself and put an end to the events in her home. But in her words, she was spiritually ambitious and had her own understanding of grace. (“By not asking for it, you get it.”) Rejecting the prayer of petition, and the risks that accompany it (“Because if it didn’t work . . .”), she simply waits. For a year, she carries around inside herself an empty, waiting space for God, a space that sounds ominously like what Malachi Martin calls an “aspiring vacuum” in his book about demonic possession.

It is the morning of an ordinary day. Mantel is playing by herself in the backyard when something causes her to look up, some trick of the light. Her eyes are drawn to a spot beyond the yard, in the garden that Jack has been clearing.

[The spot] is, let us say, some fifty yards away, among coarse grass, weeds and bracken. I can’t see anything, not exactly see: except the faintest movement, a ripple, a disturbance of the air. I can sense a spiral, like flies; but it is not flies. There is nothing to see. There is nothing to smell. There is nothing to hear. But its motion, its insolent shift, makes my stomach heave. . . . It is as high as a child of two. Its depth is a foot, fifteen inches. The air stirs around it, invisibly. I am cold, and rinsed by nausea. I cannot move. I am shaking. . . . I beg it, stay away, stay away. Within the space of a thought it is inside me, and has set up a sick resonance within my bones and in all the cavities of my body.

Mantel’s first thought is that she has seen the devil, who did not intend to reveal himself. She knows from experience that if you witness other people’s mistakes, and they know it, they will make you pay. Terrified, she flees to the house as “grace runs away from [her] . . . like liquid from a corpse.” In the days and years afterwards, she is always more or less afraid and ashamed. After her encounter in the garden with what she calls elsewhere a “slow-moving sinister aggregation of cells . . . like a cancer looking for a host,” wherever she goes and whatever she does, what she has seen accompanies her: “a body inside my body . . . budding and malign.”

On the face of it, Mantel does not blame her mother or Jack for what happened to her. Nowhere in her autobiographical writing does she explicitly connect the sinful behavior in her home with the demonic infestation that accompanied it. Nowhere, for that matter, does she use the word “sin,” except when lamenting the influence of the Catholic Church.

On the level of language, however, in the writing itself, connections are made: between Jack’s jaundiced skin and the “jaundiced” air in their contaminated home; between the lazy, insolent motion of the apparition and her mother’s indolent dawdling in the backyard. Everywhere in the memoir the color yellow is an ominous flag, linking the yellow bedroom Mantel shares with her father, with Jack’s thin yellow bottom shrinking away from his trunks; or the “sulfur reek” of the hell Mantel imagines the devil leaving on his way to their house, with her mother’s fire-colored hair and the “smoke from her burning boats.”

But despite this pervasive subtext, Mantel excuses her mother (“those were hard years for her”) and defends her and Jack (“they were doing the best they could”); sympathizes with them (“they were young”) and attempts to understand them. Preemptively, she scolds the reader, “You should not judge your parents.”

Who, then, does she blame, if not her mother and her mother’s lover? Provisionally, she blames herself: for being in the wrong place at the wrong time; for not keeping custody of her eyes; for looking and seeing “what no human person was meant to see.” But if her goal is to exonerate her mother, she is on dangerous ground, because who, knowing what was going on in her home, would believe that she is speaking only about the apparition itself? After all, as she admits, what happened in the garden didn’t happen to other children in the neighborhood but only to her—“only me, me in my family, me in my family when I’m seven going on eight, me in my family when I have reached the age of reason . . .” (emphasis mine).

So she blames God. It is safer. To this day she blames God for failing to show up and protect her. She concludes:

[God] didn’t help me in the secret garden, and I think he couldn’t anyway; I think that whatever I saw that day was more powerful than any bewhiskered prayer-book God, simpering in a white robe: his holy palms held apart, as if He were sizing up a plank. Why didn’t he try though? He could have done something. He could have showed willing. I wanted him to manifest, and own me, take charge. But he never turned up, in the secret garden; the old bugger never got out of bed.

When Mantel’s father disappears from their family, never to be seen or heard from again, Mantel follows her mother’s line: He was a nonentity, dispensable. (“We didn’t miss him much.”) Just as Cromwell, after the death of his father-figure, Wolsey, throws in his lot with Anne Boleyn and the king, so Mantel, after her father’s disappearance, throws in her lot with her mother and Jack (what choice did she have?), suppressing her real feelings for her father and her memories of him.

But when she writes about the apparition, her real feelings erupt: bitter anger and contempt, and plaintive misery, over having been abandoned. For who is this ineffectual God who failed to show up and claim her but a version of her father who abdicated and disappeared; who failed to protect her from what was going on in her home; who, in effect, “dropped” her before she was fully formed? Before her identity was established and her boundary secure, she was exposed to things against which she was defenseless, things that to this day she cannot call by their real names, that entered her, flooding her soft bones and “all the cavities of [her] body.” And then, as she remembers what happened, blasphemy pours from her mouth. The two sins she most feared as a child go together, as it turns out: the dropping of an unformed child and blasphemy; abandonment by a father and angry unbelief.

In a book-length interview called God Is More Beautiful Than the Devil, the late Roman exorcist and author Fr. Gabriele Amorth connects abandonment by a father with grave spiritual vulnerability in children. It is the responsibility of the father, he maintains, to strengthen the child for the encounter with reality, including the reality of evil, just as it is Jesus’s relationship with his Father that enables him to endure the cross. A child in the habit of entrusting himself to a reliable father will be an adult capable of entrusting himself to God in everything. In Mantel’s case, the pressure placed on her in childhood to accept a false, uncomfortable father and to “disappear” her real father affects her whole spiritual life. Considered in this light, Mantel’s mother’s sins, which set Mantel at odds with the Church, may have been less important for her spiritual development than the loss of her father, which estranged her from God himself.

Of course, the two reinforce each other: estrangement from God, and from the Church. Even as Mantel complains bitterly of God’s absence, she turns away from the Church that extends his presence in the world, in the sacraments and the rites, including the rite of exorcism. If a testimony, traditionally understood, is the story of a life-changing encounter with God, Giving Up the Ghost is an anti-testimony, the centerpiece of which is a life-changing encounter with a demon. Yet it never seems to occur to Mantel to discuss her situation with a priest. In the same way that she explicitly exonerates her mother while implicitly condemning her, she has written an anti-Catholic memoir that is also a cautionary tale implicitly endorsing the moral teaching of the Church. Is she aware of this? “The Catholic Church is not an institution for respectable people,” she has declared dismissively. Fair enough. It is a place for sinners and orphans, the lost and the afflicted, including those suffering from infestation, obsession, and possession.

In the meantime, in her novels about Cromwell, Mantel attempts to bind up her own wounds. Out of the raw material of the historical Cromwell, she fashions a powerful father, one whose love-hate relationship with Anne Boleyn allows her to express, in the safe forum of historical fiction, both sides of her ambivalence towards her mother. In Wolf Hall, Cromwell makes Boleyn queen, removing all obstacles to her rise. In Bring Up the Bodies, he pulls her down, building a case against her and beheading her for adultery.

Soon enough, Mantel will have to kill Cromwell, too. Whatever redeeming qualities the compromised counselor possessed, he was eventually cast off by the king on whose behalf he compromised himself. These are the events Mantel will treat in The Mirror and the Light, her third and last book about Cromwell. Wolf Hall was published in 2009; Bring Up the Bodies in 2012. The Mirror and the Light is taking Mantel longer to write. It is not hard to imagine why.

Patricia Snow is a writer in New Haven, Connecticut.