The Delicious Language of Hilary Mantel

Fellow and sister Counterpunchers, perhaps we need to have a few laughs and delight in something beautiful like a well-crafted sentence. I once thought to myself, “My life will be fulfilled if I can write one or two totally beautiful sentences that could skip and dance into people’s hearts and make them smile. One of the world’s greatest prose maestros is the famous novelist Hilary Mantel. Wow! Can she write! Currently I am reading Bring Up the Bodies (2012) and when my wife asks me, “Michael, what century are you living in today? I cheerfully reply, “Today, dear, I am in the 16th century and living in Henry the Eighth’s perilous court. If I’m not careful I will end up in the Tower.”

From endless possibilities, here are a few Mantel luscious bon mots. In a paragraph (told from the devious Thomas Cromwell’s perspective), Mantel says: “He has made her queen, she has made him minister; but they are uneasy now, each of them vigilant, watching each other for some slip that will betray real feeling, and so give advantage to the one or the other; as if only dissimulation will make the safe. But Anne is the king’s quicksilver darling, slipping and sliding from anger to laughter. There have been times this summer when she would smile secretly at him behind the king’s back, or grimace to warn him that Henry was out of temper. At other times she would ignore him, turn her shoulder, her black eyes sweeping the room and resting elsewhere.” I read that, and shout at Carmen:  “Hey, Carmen, my dear, would you like to be my little “quicksilver darling’?” There is no reply, only those very raised eyebrows. “And when are you taking the recycling out?” I’m slipping from laughter to her anger. Hilary, hope you don’t mind if I steal a metaphor or two or three?

No love lost between Crafty Cromwell and the unpredictable Anne Boleyn. Mantel describes Cromwell remembering a day when “Anne was wearing, that day, rose pink and dove grey. The colours should have had a fresh and maidenly charm; but all he could think of were stretched innards, umbles and tripes, grey-pink intestines looped out of a living body; he had a second batch of recalcitrant friars to be dispatched to Tyburn, to be slit up and gralloched by the hangman. They were traitors and deserved  the death, but it is a death exceeding most in cruelty. The pearls around her long neck looked to him like little beads of fat, and as she argued she would reach up and tug them; he kept his eyes on her fingertips, nails flashing like tiny knives.”

Mantel works us over with shocking contrasts between “fresh and maidenly” and “stretched innards.” Wincing with visualizing “looped out of a living body,’ we are whisked quickly to “gralloched” friars. Beautiful Mantel moves—“gralloched” means “disemboweled”; now we have links between Anne’s pink clothes, pink animal innards, and the pink intestines of the flailed friars. And, brilliantly, Mantel gets us thinking that, given half a chance, Anne would rip someone’s guts out with those “nails flashing like tiny knives.” That’s the point, isn’t it? The ghoulish symbolism of Anne’s pink.

Cromwell doesn’t care much for Henry’s staff. “George [Anne’s brother] is one of the newer staff, because Henry likes to stick with men he is used to, who were his friends when he was young; from time to time the cardinal would sweep them out, but they would seep back like dirty water. Once they were young men of esprit, young men of elan. A quarter of century has passed and they are grey or balding, flabby or paunchy, gone in the fetlock or missing some fingers, but still as arrogant as satraps and with the mental refinement of a gatepost.” The use of the contrast is blistering. Mantel lets you put flesh on words; deepening your sense of the wretchedness of Henry’s useless friends, seeping “back like dirty water.” These old guys, once full of piss and vinegar, stoked with elan, have gone pudgy, and may have lost fingers but none of their arrogance. This is a visual feast of raucous nasty perception. One can almost reach out and touch these old bastards.

We all know that Tudor England was full of superstitious practices and clerical corruption. Mantel provides us with a delicious send-up of a few of these practices. “In the year 1257, an elephant died in the Tower menagerie and was buried in a pit near the chapel. But the following year he was dug up and his remains sent to Westminster Abbey. Now, what did they want at Westminster Abbey, with the remains of an elephant? If not to carve a ton of relics out of him, and make his animals bones into the bones of saints? According to the custodians of holy relics, part of the power of these artifacts is that they are able to multiply. Bone, wood and stone have, like animals, the ability to breed, yet keep their intact nature; the offspring are in no wise inferior to the originals. So the crown of thorns blossoms. The cross of Christ puts out buds, it flourishes, like a living tree. Christ’s seam less coat weaves copies of itself. Nails give birth to nails. John ap Rice says, ‘Reason cannot win against these people. You try to open their eyes. But ranged against you are statues of the virgin that weep tears of blood.”

One transformation follows the next. Animal bones into human, things that multiply, things that give birth, and to top it off, pieces of Christ’s cross that bud like a living tree. Dead becomes alive. Who else but Hilary the Word Magician can write prose such as this? Doesn’t it make us happy?

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.