The Late Hilary Mantel
In the spring of 2015 I wrote the following post in my writing group's blog (ninevoices.wordpress.com) and the sad demise of Hilary Mantel has moved me to repeat the piece here, in homage to a remarkable writer. She has much to teach those of us struggling to write convincing historical fiction.
Recently I read Wolf Hall for the second time. I didn't mean to, not quite so soon after my initial head-long rush through its pages, but I casually opened the book and Hilary Mantel hooked me in once again. But on this second-reading I was able to study the work with more of a writer's eye.
'So now get up.'
Felled, dazed, silent, he has fallen; knocked full length on the cobbles of the yard... One blow, properly placed, could kill him now...his left eye is blinded, but if he squints sideways with his right eye he can see the stitching of his father's boot is unraveling. The twine has sprung clear of the leather and a hard knot in it has caught his eyebrow and opened another cut.
What an opening. Our hero is in jeopardy. And from his own father. Hilary Mantel has drawn a vivid picture of that cobbled yard and the battered leather boot. We immediately know we have been transported to the distant past. We can imagine how easily that rough knot could lacerate tender flesh. How vulnerable Thomas is.
Then, three paragraphs later, come four telling sentences.
Inch by inch. Inch by inch forward. Never mind if he calls you an eel, or a worm, or a snake. Head down, don't provoke him.
Only when digesting this for the second time did it dawn on me that not only is this prose powerful, not only does it propel the story urgently forward, but that here - at the very beginning of her book - Hilary Mantel is foretelling Cromwell's progress at the Court of Henry VIII. The tortuous, careful advance. The need to ignore hurtful insults The terrible danger inherent in provoking a man who holds total power.
Those first pages were surely the last that she penned. Joyce Carol Oates has written: 'The first sentence can't be written until the final sentence is written'. She was talking to writers about not getting hung-up on the beginning of the book they might be struggling to write.
Few of us, sadly, can write to that standard. But it gives us a yardstick to a standard to which we can aspire.
I hope that you have enjoyed my short piece and that it has perhaps made you want to revisit Wolf Hall or the other books in the trilogy. If you have gained something from it, do think about letting me have a comment - criticism is allowed, that is how we writers lean to be better...