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OPINION - Hilary Mantel wrote me kind notes that I felt deliriously teased by

Evening Standard logo Evening Standard 9/26/2022 Tanya Gold
hilary.jpeg © Getty Images hilary.jpeg

I met Hilary Mantel in 2013 in Clapham. She was working with the Royal Shakespeare Company to turn Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies into plays.

I had marvelled at her prose, of course. When I read Wolf Hall it spooled out, as if she was inexhaustible. I kept saying, “It’s better than Jane Eyre”. (A book by a similarly almost-thwarted female artist filled with sensibility. Both Brontë and Mantel were told not to write for their health as young women.) Then I read A Place of Greater Safety, her book about the French Revolution, and I thought it was better: she finished it when she was 27, it was a masterpiece, and no one would publish it for 13 years. (Meanwhile, people asked her: Do you self-publish? Do you write children’s books?) Then I read her memoir Giving Up the Ghost and thought it was better: “I’ve always been addicted to something or other, usually something there’s no support group for. Semicolons, for instance, I can never give up for more than 200 words at a time”.

I loved her. She was kind: when we met she hugged me. She was fascinating to watch in the rehearsal room: she said she had no skin and, working with the RSC, she began to speak like an actress. Even so, I was less fascinated by her talent — talent just drops on you, it is like having blue eyes — than by her negotiation with it, and her mastery of it. Perhaps that is the journalist in me, always looking for what people conceal, or perhaps I loved her toughness.

I thought Hilary’s kindness was both powerful and deliberate, an act of discipline and will. If you see everything and can’t love, I thought, you will be destroyed by your insights, and so she made kindness like she made words: deftly.

After that I read everything she wrote with a mad hunger. She was so indomitable and so female: no man could have written her books. Men stole her fertility: when she went to a doctor at 19 with terrible pain he sent her to a psychiatrist who diagnosed her with ambition. By the time she self-diagnosed — it was endometriosis — it was too late. Her books are filled with ghosts. Any hack will say they write in blood but she meant it, and she did.

After we met, I wrote to her once a year, like a schoolgirl with carefully crafted news, very stilted, because to be near Mantel is to try to write like Mantel, and that’s a fool’s game. You must let the future have most of her. She would always write back promptly: kind and curious notes that I felt deliriously teased by. Re-reading Bring Up the Bodies soothed me, I wrote, after suffering a small personal crisis. “It’s quite true, whatever happens to a girl, it’s seldom as bad as what happened to Anne Boleyn,” she replied. “Glad to be of help”.

Now we have lost our national novelist. I want to speak the words of the only 20th-century writer who matched her (Auden, though lazier and less brave than she — I can’t imagine her fleeing a war, it would be too interesting): stop the clocks!

I suppose she is with Tolstoy now.

A noxious national sport

The Queen is dead: now, for a sequel, we torment her grandson and his wife. A serialisation of a book has appeared, detailing their entitlement. It isn’t history, and it is barely news: it is gossip, and, whatever its truth, it is very cruel to a man whose mother was killed by the same desire for gossip.

But that is how we treat the monarchy: we set an absurd standard of perfection, try to ruin them and, if they are ruined, hate them for it. It is the national sport. Who can survive monarchy? Not many — that is why the late Queen was loved. Most others fracture, and become monstrous. Whatever the Duke of Sussex is, we made him, and while we talk about him, there are other things that we don’t discuss, and they are much more urgent. He is no longer a working member of the royal family. It is time to forget him.

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