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Hilary Mantel reminded us that people make history

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Mantel—who died last month—understood the interplay of human agency and overarching historical process, bringing both to life, writes Julie Sherry
Issue 2825
The author Hilary Mantel smiles

Hilary Mantel’s fiction turned establishment history on its head (Picture: T_Marjorie on Flickr)

It was sore to learn that the wonderful, otherworldly light that was Hilary Mantel left our world last month. Mantel had a way of writing that perfectly captured something crucial, fascinating and beautiful about the locomotive of history.

In 1992 she spoke to Socialist Review about reading Marx as a teenager. She had “forgotten the theory because I didn’t have anyone to guide me, I never really understood it in the first place”.

Yet, running through her astonishingly impressive brood of books is how people make history not in circumstances of their choosing, and that being determines consciousness.

Mantel as a teenager developed an obsessional interest in revolutions and “the idea of the ‘world turned upside down’.” “I wanted the world to be different”, she said. “To be in charge of myself”.

Her two forceful, outstanding triumphs are both an utter joy to read. This is the eye, voice and assertions of someone celebrating the beauty, agency and complex interaction of life. She captures the magic of changing light in the sky, to how life asserts itself in a constant tension and engagement—the stuff of how revolutions evolve.

The journalist Paul Foot said her masterpiece on the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety, “gives a much clearer picture of the characters at the centre of the French Revolution than any standard history.

“Robespierre, Danton, Camille Desmoulins, Lucille, emerge as real people, suddenly sympathetic and comprehensible where in the history books they are monsters or larger than life heroes.”

Mantel was a gorgeously soulful writer. There is love, mischief, intrigue and excitement in every description of vivid bristling life in all its movement. This infectiously optimistic spirit makes her so convincing in challenging the mainstream historic narrative.

Her trilogy on Thomas Cromwell turns on its head a story that establishment historians love harking back to, to immortalise the monarchy. Mantel grabs history back.

She boldly places the story at the heart of, and an expression of, the rise of capitalism from within feudalism. It’s a society at a crossroads, a portrayal of class tensions behind the political power-play. 

Her trilogy brings to life the human expression of the interplay of the economic, the political and the ideological. Mantel described her intent to “follow the people as they move on their complex dance around each other, trying to see it through their eyes, and emphasising—they’re living through it—at the time there seemed nothing inevitable.”

The producer of the Wolf Hall adaptation said what he took from Mantel was, “Remember these people don’t know they are in history, they think they are like us, the fools”.

Working class people are constantly fed a dry, linear and rigid narrative of history. Mantel’s commitment to “getting the contingency back into the process, remembering it’s not predetermined”, is a powerful rebuttal to that.

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