“Once the queen’s head is cut off, he leaves. A sharp twinge of appetite reminds him that it’s time for a second breakfast, or perhaps an early dinner.
These are the first two sentences of The mirror and the light, the third book in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy on the life of Thomas Cromwell and the last book she published before she died Thursday at the lamentable age of 70. With masterful speed, she plunges us into the heart of the action, tells us exactly where we are, and makes us gasp at a conjunction of things we never thought could occupy the same moral universe. that is, a decapitation and a second breakfast. But she gives them meaning together. Cutting off heads and a second morning meal were the two prerogatives of the powerful in late medieval England. I could have extracted roughly two lines from his novels and shown that they do the same amount of work. That’s how effective this writer was. That’s what we lost.
We’re inside the head of Cromwell, a street urchin elevated to manager of, well, everything in the country, in the name of the bloated, childish King Henry VIII. “Lord Cromwell is the government, and so is the church,” someone observes. He’s also the one who satisfies Henry’s lusts – 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 only readers of the first two novels in the series know that Mantel invented an incredibly tender and courteous Cromwell with a capacity for ethical reasoning unimaginable in the royal family among which he moves. But now that blood is gushing from the queen’s neck, we are in the tragedy’s third act, and Mantel has added to Cromwell’s list of powers the ability to turn his back on horror and think about food, as inexperienced as a king.
How do you animate the story like that? Historians cannot do that. Very few historical novelists can do that. In his memoirs, Give up the ghost, Mantel reveals the mystery of his method: “Eat meat. Drink blood,” she wrote. “Rise in the quiet hours of the night and prick your fingers and use the blood for ink.” You might be tempted to dismiss the idea of draining your veins for art as trivial, but then you’ll discover that blood was the defining substance, the governing catastrophe, of Mantel’s life.
In her twenties, she developed a case of endometriosis severe enough to cause her to vomit and feel so much pain in her limbs and organs that she could no longer walk. But it was not diagnosed, and since no one understood what was wrong with her, she entered a psychiatric clinic. He was told not to write. Endometriosis is what used to be called a female condition. You could call it crazy menstruation. Cells from the lining of the uterus that usually bleed for a period instead grow in other parts of the body – the pelvis, bladder, bowel – and bleed there, creating scar tissue and unbearable pain. “Infertility is a distinct possibility,” writes Mantel, and indeed she would never have children. A hormonal condition associated with endometriosis induces migraines and, in his case, “the migraine aura that made my words come out badly” and “morbid visions, like visits, premonitions of dissolution.” Once Mantel received a proper diagnosis, she was given medication that caused her to bloat. Thereafter, she recalls, she lived in the shadow country of the “fat shops”, unable to shake off the “perception of most people, who know that overweight people are lazy and unruly rednecks”.
What does endometriosis have to do with art? For Mantel, everything. She worked on her experience until it became the corporeal substrate of her fiction. His magnum opus is made of female blood and bodies. Whether a man’s blood is noble or vile determines his identity and his fate. The behavior of a woman’s reproductive organs can mean the difference between life and death. There are many reasons why Thomas Cromwell dominates contemporary literature, a demiurgic figure on par with a Hamlet, but one source of his authority is his uncommon (and admittedly anachronistic) attention to the condition of women.
It would seem that he is the only one among monarchists his age to be repelled by a social order that reduces queens – one of whom he loved before Henry arrived and took her – to semen receptacles in the service of the King. It is through her visits to Catherine of Aragon, who never gave birth to a male heir who lived beyond childhood, that we observe what it means for a queen to fail in her childbearing duties. Replaced by Anne and confined to an isolated castle, Catherine literally rots from the inside, consumed by what appears to be some kind of abdominal cancer. Although Cromwell destroys Anne Boleyn, he initially takes pity on her when her body rejects the only prince she has ever produced and the blood from the miscarriage forms a slippery trail on the palace floor. Henry just wants to get rid of her.
“When female monkeys have their wombs removed and returned by the keepers to the community, their mates sense it and abandon them,” Mantel writes in her memoir. “It’s a basic biology fact; there is little kindness in the animal kingdom, and I had been there with the animals, growling and bleeding on the porter’s cart. There would be no girl. No. But instead it would be what Hilary Mantel fashioned out of her body, which was more than anyone could have asked for.