Like many people, I was shocked to learn of the novelist Hilary Mantel’s death last month at the age of seventy. To be sure, seventy is not young, but given that she recently finished her much-acclaimed trilogy on Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister, one expected her to continue going from strength to strength. She had, of course, been seriously ill from the effects of—and efforts to treat—endometritis for her entire adult life. Given that physical and emotional burden, her output of twelve novels as well as a memoir and collections of stories and essays is little short of miraculous.
I have not read the big books in the trilogy, Wolf Hall (2009), Bring Up the Bodies, (2012) and The Mirror & The Light (2020) but I plan to. The first two won the Man Booker Prize. Her early 1989 novel Fludd, however, is a favorite of mine. It is set in a northern English village obviously based on the town where she grew up in a claustrophobic Irish Catholic parish just outside of Manchester. With its unbelieving parish priest, ruler-wielding nuns, and wildly gossipy and superstitious parishioners, Fludd is easily mistaken for an anti-Catholic screed. But because of Mantel’s baroque imagination and astonishingly evocative writing, as well as her sure grasp of the complexities and contradictions inherent in life, the novel is much more than that. Mantel certainly rejected the faith of her childhood, but she was as conversant with ghosts and various otherworldly revelations as are the characters in her novel. She also possessed a literally wicked sense of humor. Fludd is as funny as it is disorienting and haunting, as suits a contemporary novel whose title character died in 1637.
I have also read her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, and another early novel, An Experiment in Love. The novel, which has strong autobiographical elements, features a protagonist who, like Mantel, left her parochial village and dominating mother for an urban university. It is set in the culturally and sexually tumultuous late 1960s and early ’70s, a period I am all too familiar with. Perhaps for that reason, I found it somewhat unfocused. No one could say that about Giving Up the Ghost, which tells the strange and riveting story of a childhood spent in row-house poverty. It was in that row house that her upwardly mobile mother replaced Mantel’s biological father with a more economically promising lover. And it was in that house that both men stayed for several years.