(b. 1952)

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Author, author: Every writer has a 'How I became a writer' story

Hilary Mantel

The Guardian

Saturday September 6 2008


Every writer has a "How I became a writer" story. It's what interviewers and audiences always ask for, and quite understandably; some explanation is needed for embarking on a course of conduct so egotistic, impoverishing and bizarre. Some authors reply sweetly: "I was born a writer." Most of us struggle to separate "how" from "why". The initial impetus is lost in a murky swamp of happenstance. I sometimes say that I wrote my first book because it didn't exist, and I wanted to read it. That's true as far as it goes, but if I am asked about "influences" I find it hard to give a slick answer. Some of us need a little push, before we recognise we have the right to pick up a pen. In my case it came from a book by the psychiatrists RD Laing and Aaron Esterson, Sanity, Madness and the Family.

Laing was the better-known partner in this collaboration. In the 1960s and 70s, he was fashionable and famous. His cultural influence has lasted, though some wish otherwise; his work reinforced the scepticism many feel about the biological basis of mental and emotional distress. But he died in 1989, and if you mention him nowadays you are likely to be met with stories of his disorderly private life, or with a distorted version of his work. He didn't, as some claimed, accuse parents of making their children schizophrenic; he interrogated the whole idea of schizophrenia as a clinical entity. He was exceptionally alive to language and gesture, to the layers of meaning in every utterance; alive, also, to power play, to conscious and unconscious manipulations. He had seen the pain, terror and desolation of madness. He did not glamorise it or claim it didn't exist. He and his co-workers suggested that the way some families worked could generate psychotic behaviour in one member, who was selected, more or less unconsciously, to bear the brunt of family dysfunction.

I picked up his book one afternoon in 1973 and read it in one sitting. The people in it seemed close enough to touch. I had already read Laing's more famous work, The Divided Self, and I wasn't sure I entirely grasped it; its case histories made my heart sink, but I struggled with its abstractions. But Sanity, Madness and the Family is vivid, direct, gripping. It is a series of interviews with families, who each include one member who has spent time in psychiatric hospitals. Each interview is a novel or play in miniature. The material was gathered between 1958 and 1963, so the families described still live in the shadow of the second world war. They are very different, on the surface, from families today, but I wonder if the dynamics have changed so much. The ploys, the shifts of sense, the secrets and the ambivalence still seem familiar.

In the hospitals where Laing had trained, it was axiomatic that doctors and nurses didn't "talk to psychosis". The patient was sick and generating nonsense, and you should not encourage it. Laing thought that, if you listened, the patient would tell you how her world worked; the language might be metaphorical, even surreal, but that was logical in a context where plain speech had been penalised and where children had been taught, as they grew, to distrust their own perception and memory, and give way to the memories and perceptions of others. In Laing's families, there is always a version behind the version. There are truths one member is allowed to air, that another member is forbidden to utter. The weakest finds him or herself in a lose-lose situation, unable to please, locked in a circuit of invalidation. Madness may, in some circumstances, seem a strategy for survival.

All this is played out in the pages of interviews, in trite little words that I cannot quote without the space to set the scene for each. So many of these family conversations seemed familiar to me: their swerves and evasions, their doubleness. All the patients profiled in the book are young women. I know their names are pseudonyms, but over the years I've wondered desperately what happened to them, and if there's anyone alive who knows, and whether any of them ever cut free from the choking knotweed of miscommunication and flourished on ground of their own: Ruth, who was thought odd because she wore coloured stockings; Jean, who wanted a baby though her whole family told her she didn't; and Sarah, whose breakdown, according to her family, was caused by too much thinking. In the course of the recorded conversations, their families trip and contradict them. The interviewer records their signals - winks, smirks, nods - and how, when the "mad" member protests, they say: "What, me? I didn't do anything." Barefaced lies are countenanced, as being for the patient's own good. Left is right, up is down, and, often enough, your mother's your sister, and your father's not your father.

Laing asked his reader: "Is it what you already knew, expected, suspected? Do these things go on in all sorts of families? Possibly." I looked at my own home and drew some conclusions; after all, it is class and context that select some families, and not others, for "interventions". You didn't find social workers and mad-doctors knocking on suburban doors, and if my own friends were in trouble they just stopped eating, bearing smiling and skeletal witness to long-running family tensions.

There is a right time to read every book, and 1973 was the time for me to read this one. I was a law student, and a placement with the probation service had put me on the alert for what is coldly described as multiple family dysfunction. On Manchester high-rise estates I had seen the sour human comedy enacted: dad pickled in alcohol, mum a nervy chain-smoking wreck, son a "young offender" caught up in a spiral of petty crime, pregnant daughter banging on the doors of the nearest psychiatric unit. Ah, the 70s: what a golden age! I was struck by how the men acted and the women reacted, how sons fought and thieved but daughters fell ill. I needed to see my instincts systematised, and when I read Laing, the dynamics were suddenly clear. For most of my life I had been told that I didn't know how the world worked. That afternoon I decided I did know, after all. In the course of my 21 years I'd noticed quite a lot. If I wanted to be a writer, I didn't have to worry about inventing material, I'd already got it. The next stage was just to find some words.


 New York  metro.com

 May 30, 2005 

Book Review


Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black is spooky, smart, and deep.

By Claire Dederer

Beyond Black
Hilary Mantel.
Henry Holt. 365 pages. $26.

Ghost stories, especially ones that come in the tasteful wrapping of the literary novel, often seem haunted far more by metaphor than the supernatural. The ghosts aren’t mere ghosts; they’re symbols representing some repressed aspect of the protagonist—her dark desires, his secret crimes. So there’s something refreshing about the initial lack of ambiguity of the ghosts in Hilary Mantel’s new novel, Beyond Black: These aren’t psychic conceits, but otherworldly, fiendish, Scooby-Doo–style ghouls.

Mantel—a funny, scathing British novelist, too long ignored in the U.S.—is a master of dark subject matter, and in her latest, she’s created a protagonist who’s accustomed to darkness: Alison, a psychic, a woman trying to live a pleasant life, if it weren’t for the ghosts that keep tormenting her. The opening scene of Beyond Black gives us an account of one of her performances; it’s a sustained, cohesive, enchanting piece of writing, akin to the long tracking shot that kicks off the film Boogie Nights—highlighting Alison’s skillful mixture of manipulation and genuine psychic skill. First, Alison plays on the audience’s insecurities: “I’ve got your mum here,” she tells one woman. “You need to drop a stone, she’s saying.” She wows them with her clairvoyance about their remodeling projects. Occasionally she even locates their long-losts. It’s a pleasure watching her ply the tricks of her trade, maintaining an uneasy balance between the worlds she calls “earthside” and “airside”: She doesn’t just give her customers what they want; she tells them what to want. 

Offstage, however, Alison is at the ghouls’ mercy. These hauntings can have a down-home charm. She’s forever being hounded by dead old ladies who’ve lost a button: “A certain class of dead people was always talking about cardigans,” she muses. And then there’s her spirit guide, Morris: “Other mediums have spirit guides with a bit more about them—dignified impassive medicine men or ancient Persian sages—but she had this grizzled grinning apparition in a bookmaker’s check jacket and suede shoes with bald toe caps.” Morris, who likes to slump on Alison’s bedroom floor and fondle himself, first met his hostess earthside, when she was a child, suffering a childhood too grim to be called merely Dickensian. Raised by a prostitute mother, Alison was sent to work, early on, on the living-room couch. Men hung about the house, drinking, betting on dog fights, and getting a leg over. And that’s just the part she can remember: The rest, the worst, she’s blacked out completely.

To keep the fiends at bay, Alison decides to hire some help: the bitter Colette, who proves perfectly serviceable as a kind of paid roommate. But when Morris begins bringing around the old (dead) bordello crowd, Alison’s equilibrium is destroyed. Mantel writes these ghosts so freshly, with such detail—the yellowing face, the creaking leather jacket—we never stop to wonder if the ghosts are projections. Alison’s ghosts are real, and their battlefield is the supernatural. Yet we feel just as deeply the horror of Alison’s childhood. Neither earthside nor airside is more real than the other. If there is symbolism here, it’s reciprocal: The ghosts reflect Alison’s childhood abuse; Alison’s childhood abuse reflects the epidemic evil of the world, which is always looking for a way to manifest itself.

One senses that Mantel writes so exhaustively about human evil because she hates it so profoundly. That makes her sound hopelessly do-gooderish, like a literary Bono, but Mantel’s brand of morality has a kind of vicious glee to it. She gives us a story of evil overcome and wounds healed, but she also scares the pants off us. She would have us believe that the most appropriate response to evil is not tears but terror.



The dead are as dithery as the British psychics

Reviewed by Jesse Berrett

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Beyond Black

By Hilary Mantel

HENRY HOLT; 365 PAGES; $26  

Hilary Mantel doesn't like it when readers get too comfortable; "Beyond Black," her intentionally ungainly oddment of a book, certainly keeps you on your toes. Most of the time, it's a dryly amused black comedy set among a circle of suburban British spiritualists. Our protagonist, Alison Hart, travels the fair circuit with, among others, addled Mrs. Etchells, Merlin and Merlyn (who's thinking of becoming a life coach, and is peddling franchise opportunities) and allegedly Russian Natasha, actually a can-do type named Mandy. But despite occasional bouts of dramaturgy ("a word of encouragement, a 'don't hold back on me,' and sooner or later the hands go up") these are real mediums, beset by visions and importunate visitors from the beyond.

In the comedic portion, the British spiritualist world sounds very much like "The Office." Mantel twits it affectionately without twisting into mockery or skepticism: For her, spiritualism is a better, more grounded means of coping than, say, drugs or MTV. Alison's snappish manager (or assistant, depending on who's doing the describing), Colette, has no ear for the dead, but she certainly has a nose for the bottom line: "As Al's assistant, could she possibly benefit from tax allowances on her appearance? It was an issue she'd not yet thrashed out with the Revenue." Good traveling salespeople, the other mediums hone their promo material and dowse ceaselessly for possible revenue streams (TV? Web page? Self-help quickie?) to pump up the bottom line. "There's a new psychic supplier opened down in Cornwall," Mandy notes, "and they've got a very keen price list with some special introductory offers. Also, for a limited period they're doing free postage and packaging"; "Cara's got this new therapy she's going in for, I forget what they call it. Anyway, you rub their feet and it brings back memories of life pre-birth."

The afterworld, like the living one, bulges with refugees, migrants and confused postindustrial Englishmen: "Bewildered dead clustered among the dumpsters outside the burger bars, clutching door keys in their hands or queuing with their lunch boxes where the gates of small factories once stood. . .. There are thousands of them out there, so pathetic and lame-brained they can't cross the road to get where they're going, dithering on the kerbs of arterial roads and bypasses, as the vehicles swish by."

It is also apparently just as beset by dumbing down, celebrity worship and reality TV: "When famous people pass they attract spirit imposters. ... Occasionally some oddball breaks through saying he's Jesus. But I don't know, Al said, there'll be something in his manner -- you just know he's not from ancient Palestine. In Mrs. Etchells' day, she explained, people still thought they were Napoleon. They were better educated then, she said, they knew dates and battles."

It's a very British death: yet another drab, anonymous, commercialized wait in line -- "they've actually gone over, but they think it's just the National Health." But beneath this theme runs a disturbing family gothic, a strain of ugliness and emotional bestiality that Mantel depicts as unflinchingly, and unsettlingly, as she did in her first novel, "Every Day Is Mother's Day," and its sequel, "Vacant Possession." Alison's savaged childhood recalls Dante, a metaphor that Mantel suggests may be exactly true. Her heedless mother raises Alison amid pervasive violation, offhand violence and even more nonchalant sex:

"As she lay in her little bed at night the doors banged, and sometimes the windows smashed. People came in and out. Sometimes she heard laughing, sometimes scuffling, sometimes raised voices and a steady rhythmic pounding. .. . Sometimes the men were there in a crowd, sometimes they swarmed off and vanished for days."

A variety of demonic thugs -- Keith Capstick, Donnie Aitkenside, the one-eyed MacArthur -- looms sexually over the child Alison and, as ghosts, equally menacingly near her adult incarnation. This wagonload of off-brand devils may account for her gifts, but it also threatens to drag her back into a moral, spiritual and ethical wasteland that she has fought to escape.

These two modes do not nestle companionably, by design. Floating two sets of narrative balls at once, Mantel masterfully spikes her sardonic take on contemporary supernaturalism with a raw cruelty that never needs updating: Alison's fraught relation with her spirit past finds its echo in her deteriorating present-day relationship with Colette.

Where Alison is large and gentle, Colette is stringy and all edges ("her figure that of an orphan in a storm"), and over the course of the novel she increasingly absents generosity, concern and even basic fellowship from Alison, willing herself into a kind of soullessness.

When last we see her, she is described, killingly, as having won this battle: "She looked at him and her heart was touched: where her heart would be. " Alison, in contrast, emerges as a flawed, immensely likable heroine, one whose battle with her own demons, while literal, should be all too familiar to any contemporary reader.

Jesse Berrett is a San Francisco writer.



Friday, May 20, 2005

"Beyond Black": The everyday problems of a hardworking psychic

By Michael Upchurch

"Beyond Black"
by Hilary Mantel
Holt, 365 pp., $26

In her 2003 memoir "Giving Up the Ghost," British writer Hilary Mantel talked matter-of-factly about seeing ghosts around her house whenever she has a migraine coming on. "I don't know whether, at such vulnerable times, I see more than is there," she wrote, "or if things are there that normally I don't see."

In her new novel, "Beyond Black," there isn't a doubt about it. Hardworking psychic Alison Hart sees ghosts right, left and center, including her surprisingly vulgar "spirit guide" Morris.

It's not always a pleasant experience, but it is, thanks to Mantel's powers of invention, a thoroughly credible one. Even Alison's assistant Colette, who hasn't got a psychic bone in her body, believes in her employer's phantasmal companions — and is careful not to step on Morris, once Alison has pointed out his position in the room.

"Beyond Black" is a strange mix of the humorous, the gothic and the scrupulously documented. In skinny Colette ("Her mind was quick, shallow and literal, her character assertive") and soft, hefty Alison (floating like some overfed, gown-enwrapped queen bee from psychic fair to psychic fair), Mantel has created a winningly odd couple.

But at 365 pages, she belabors their situation — Colette's uncertainty about ditching her dud husband, Alison's uncertainty about the facts of her grim girlhood — for longer than seems warranted.

Mantel has pulled off a long novel before (749 brisk, crowded pages about French Revolutionary chaos in "A Place of Greater Safety"). And at briefer length she has mastered tales of the outlandish and supernatural ("Fludd," about a 17th-century alchemist-curate working odd magic on a 1950s English moorland village; "The Giant, O'Brien," about a storytelling Irish giant pursued in 18th-century London by an anatomist who can't wait to get hold of his bones).

"Beyond Black," by contrast, feels in need of tightening. And its final revelations about Alison's tortured girlhood are so gruesome as to shock you right out of the book.

That said, Mantel does a marvelous job of convincing you that Alison is exactly what she says she is, "a professional psychic, not some sort of magic act." As such, she has to cope with all sorts of competing voices attempting to reach her from "airside."

Colette, at one point, wishes she could arrange a "spam filter" for Alison's mind, and grows exasperated at how trivial the concerns of some ghosts seem to be.

"But that's because they're trivial people," Alison patiently explains. "You don't get a personality transplant when you're dead. You don't suddenly get a degree in philosophy."

Trivial or not, the constant babble of the dead wreaks havoc with Alison's answering machine and disrupts her concentration while driving (hence Colette's role as chauffeur as well as business partner).

To keep the babble to a minimum, Alison always tries to stay in new hotels, where fewer ghosts are likely to be hanging around. She and Colette even pick themselves up and move to a new and hopefully unhaunted Surrey suburb when Morris and his thuggish airside companions start striking an increasingly sinister tone.

The move doesn't work out as well as they expect, however, and there's a suggestion, as things go sour for them, that the whole country is going down with them. Here, Mantel depicts an England of unprecedented heat waves, toxic seepages and terrorist threats (not to mention Princess Di hysteria), as though she wants the tale of Alison and Colette to imply something larger about British national destiny. It's difficult to see what, exactly, and any intended resonance falls short of the mark.

What does work is poor Alison, trying to put a gracious face on her peculiar situation, attempting to shield her followers from "the true nature of the place beyond black" (death), and doing the best she can to hang on to the help that practical Colette can give her in managing her unnervingly impractical world.








Beyond Black
Hilary Mantel Fourth Estate, 451pp, £16.99
ISBN 0007157754

Reviewed by Amanda Craig

Two women, yoked together by professional need and personal weakness, are driving round London's orbital motorway, a modern ver-sion of hell. They once liked and trusted each other, but now even the tiniest flaws make them mad.

Fat, timid Alison is a medium; thin, flint-eyed Colette is her "manager", attending to her every practical need, from VAT returns to breakfast. Quite apart from their disintegrating relationship, they have a serious problem: Al isn't a fake. Not only can she genuinely converse with ghosts, but she has a deeply unpleasant "guide", a former clown called Morris. The kind of spirit that follows you into the lavatory, Morris is searching for his equally sinister old mates.

This is a splendid start to Beyond Black, Hilary Mantel's tenth novel, and the public seance that follows is hideously funny. Al's suburban audience is suggestible to the point of stupidity; the participants ask whether "Her Majesty the Queen Mother" has been reunited with King George, and happily accept praise from dead ancestors about their new kitchen units. Al has fun telling her audiences what they want to hear, and there is only the occasional ugly note, such as when she pretends to pass on a message from a woman's father and is told: "Tell the old sod to bugger off . . . If I hear any more about my bastard dad I'll see you outside and sort you out."

Al's real ghosts are, however, of another ilk. Some are "marooned in an eternal Sunday afternoon . . . with sod all going on"; but Morris and his mates are taught by Satan himself. As we learn more about Al, we begin to wonder whether the ghosts might be projections of childhood rape and abuse, described in harrowing detail. As in the novels of Mantel's greatest in-fluence, Muriel Spark, it is the satirical, malign, bizarre aspect of the supernatural that predominates.

There are echoes here of the haunted Catholic childhood Mantel described in her outstanding memoir Giving Up the Ghost, but whereas the young Hil- ary made her escape by going to a good grammar school, poor Al hooks up with another medium and begins putting on surprisingly successful shows at psychic fayres. It is at one of these that she meets Colette, who is abandoning a sterile marriage and a career in computing.

The novel's true dynamic is the contrast between the two women, rather than the quest to rid Al of Morris, and it is tempting to think that Mantel has split herself in two to achieve it. Colette gets the razor-sharp mind and sardonic wit; Al gets the size 20 body and the vulnerability. It is hard to warm to either character.

As well as exploring Mantel's customary themes of loss and identity, Beyond Black has aspirations to be a state-of-the-nation novel. Densely written, with confidence and wit, this is a portrait of unremitting ugliness and gloom, with denatured towns and monstrous multi-storey car parks and ghosts queuing up to ask about lost pension books. The new-build housing estate where the women buy their joint home (and are taken for lesbians) is described with savage comedy.

However, both the suburbs and the absurdity of mediums have been mocked better (the latter by Noel Coward). The really disappointing thing about Beyond Black is that not much happens. The ghosts rant on and on, the two women torment each other, and eventually Alison succeeds in getting rid of her repulsive spirits and controlling manager. Mantel's best books have, like Colette, been lean and mean, and her worst have been over-inflated and portentous. It gives me no pleasure to say that, on this occasion, the fat woman wins.


life in writing

Escape from the margins

Drawn to Jane Eyre and Stevenson's Kidnapped, Hilary Mantel identified with outsiders. She began to write fiction relatively late and is compared to Graham Greene and Muriel Spark

James Campbell
Saturday November 19, 2005
The Guardian

Growing up in Derbyshire in the 1950s, on the edge of moorland, Hilary Mantel "always had the feeling that out there was some terrifically savage country. The fog was forever waiting to creep down. I grew up with stories of people who'd got lost in the fog." The novel she most strongly identified with then, as an eight-year-old, was Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson, in which David Balfour is tricked by his avaricious uncle and held on board the brig Covenant to be shipped to slavery. He escapes with the dashing Alan Breck, and after a journey through Jacobite Scotland is safely returned to civilisation and his inheritance.

"It made a lot of sense, when Davie" - Mantel refers to Stevenson's character familiarly - "finds himself marooned in the wild country, where the previous rules don't obtain. I just knew this was what a story should be like. It was the model that was always in my head. Stevenson takes the reader by a short route from one point of suspense to the next. Even as a very small and unsophisticated reader I understood the perils Davie was entering into."

The perils of Mantel's own life have been related in her extraordinary memoir Giving Up the Ghost (2003). At about the time of her first encounter with Stevenson's endangered hero, her father was surreptitiously replaced by the lodger, Jack, an event that went undiscussed at home, though "we are talked about in the street ... A darkness closes." Home, she says now, was "one perpetual crisis", a wild country where the previous rules did not apply. Mantel describes her stepfather as "an aggressive philistine. Things that I grew to be interested in through my teens were to him a cause for rows. Shakespeare - he couldn't believe that people really found pleasure in Shakespeare, and took it to be some sort of establishment conspiracy from which he was shut out, whereas Shakespeare was my recourse."

She dislikes it being said that she "escaped" into books. "When you read a novel or a play, it enlarges your own psychological repertoire. You see more choices that can be made. So it seems to me that by reading when you're young, you sophisticate yourself."

In her 20s, her health was damaged in a sequence of medical bungles, as doctors tried without success to pinpoint the source of her ever-widening pain. Eventually, she herself diagnosed the gynaecological condition endometriosis. After treatment, "I was missing a few bits" - including womb, ovaries and "a few lengths of bowel". Giving Up the Ghost contains many moving passages about the phantom daughter whom she and her husband, a retired geologist, planned to name Catriona, after Catriona Drummond, the girl Davie falls in love with in Stevenson's sequel to Kidnapped. At one point it dawned on her that, with two homes, comprising seven bedrooms and cupboards replete with freshly laundered linen, she was keeping house for "the unborn".

The contours of Mantel's experience may be discerned in certain of her novels, such as Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (1988), which maps the story of Frances Shore, a wife marooned in the fundamentalist, misogynistic deserts of Saudi Arabia where, again, the rules don't apply. She herself endured four years there in the 1980s when her husband took a job there. In response to the question, "What has been your happiest moment?", she once replied, "Leaving Jeddah."

Mantel and her husband Gerald live in one of several apartments in a converted Victorian lunatic asylum not far from Guildford. Securely gated, its once-gloomy brickwork now spruce and pointed, it is a stolid presence at the heart of a brand-new housing development. Her living room has the vastness of a ward floor. The furnishings are plush and comfy, and the visitor hopes not to be remarked upon as one of those unearthly Mantel characters, such as the medium's assistant Colette in her latest novel Beyond Black, whose weight makes no indentation on the carpet.

"What a writer Mantel is," John Banville marvelled in a recent review, "the possessor of a peerless prose style." Yet as a novelist, Mantel developed without a nurturing milieu. After attending Harrytown Convent School, near Manchester (fragments of which are embedded in her novel An Experiment in Love, 1995), she spent one year at the London School of Economics, before transferring to Sheffield University, where she studied law, to be with the man she would later marry, then divorce while living in Africa, then remarry in order to join him in Saudi Arabia.

"When I began to write, about a year after university, I was completely on my own, because I didn't know any writers, or anyone who was interested in writing. I kept it to myself. I went to a local authority writing class for about three sessions and decided it was just not for me." A sustaining project, for years to come, was what she refers to as "my French revolution novel", A Place of Greater Safety (1992). It was her first attempt at fiction, though it was to become her fifth published book. "I saw myself as being very barely a writer of fiction. I didn't consider I had great powers of invention. I was fixated on documents and on ferreting out as much of the truth as I could. I thought of making things up as rather a bad thing to do. But of course as soon as you put people on the page you're imagining things."

She has always existed on the margins: of her family, of her university group, of the expatriate communities in the Middle East and Africa, of literary London. The experience of being not quite at home, even when at home, has contributed to her life not only as a writer but as a reader. It is evident from her conversation, the bright life with which she invests her remarks about books and writers, that reading holds the same sort of status for her as writing. "If you grew up, as I did, a northerner, a Catholic, from an Irish family, you soon began to realise that there was this thing called 'Englishness', but it wasn't necessarily what you possessed. It was located somewhere else. It had different vowels. One of the things that engaged me right away about Kidnapped was that it wasn't written in 'English' English. I was not a Scot, but I could hear the language of Davie and Alan better than I could hear the dialect, the rhythms, of southern England."

Later, she was impressed by other stories of outsiderness and escape, told in language that is off-centre. She instances James Baldwin's novel of black-and-white, hetero-and-homosexual love, Another Country, Huckleberry Finn and Jane Eyre. "Structurally, of course, Jane Eyre is all over the place ... but what sticks is the clarity of the psychological situation. So, when I put Jane Eyre together with Kidnapped, which is structurally perfect, they gave me a knowledge, say by the age of 10, of what I was looking for in a story." Both novels come into the category of "books that you are always trying to fathom the secret of how they're done. And of course it is in the nature of great books that it always eludes you."

An important breakthrough came when she won the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing in 1987, and had her winning essay about life in Saudi Arabia published in the Spectator. By then she had published two novels - Every Day Is Mother's Day and Vacant Possession - and the much-revised French revolution novel in the drawer, but it was writing about Saudi Arabia, both in her essay and the novel that followed, that helped to bring her before a wider public. Her day-to-day existence, as the wife of a British worker in the kingdom, was similar to that of Frances Shore in Eight Months on Ghazza Street, except that Mantel spent six times as long in the country. Frances is practically a prisoner in her own home, unable to go shopping alone or to open the door of her flat for fear of allowing a Muslim man to glimpse her bare arms. "Eventually we lived on a self-contained compound, outside the city, so life was easier simply because you could step outside the door without wrapping yourself up and so on. And you didn't have that feeling of being watched constantly, which you did in the city."

Each time Mantel publishes a novel, the critical reception toasts her debt to Muriel Spark: the not always kindly wit, the observant eye that never sleeps, the reminders to bar the door at all times against the evil figure who might enter, as a teenager or a rogue priest - or as the two-foot-high, one-foot-wide devil that permeated Mantel's girlish body in the garden in Derbyshire, as described in Giving Up the Ghost, an experience that still provokes alarm on her face when it is mentioned. Mantel disavows the influence of Spark, however, as she does of another writer whose name is often evoked, Graham Greene. She refers to them as "posh converts", holding to a belief very different from that which shapes "the world of the cradle Catholic. I grew up with this sense of another reality. I can't imagine what it's like to convert to it as a rational adult."

She describes herself, after a pause, as a non-believer, "though I have a very powerful sense of the world as being infinitely mysterious. If education hadn't supervened, I might have grown into someone just like Alison," the medium in Beyond Black who tours the Home Counties with her psychic show.

In her memoir, Mantel outlined one of her "favoured grim sports, since I became a published writer and had people to interview me", was waiting to see "how the profiler will turn me out in print". The profiler might prefer the safety of her own descriptions, which range from "startlingly round" to "a sad sack". At the same time, she is delicate, with the hesitation of one who thinks about everything she says. She does not give the impression of harbouring self-pity, even as she includes herself among those who "have had the roots of their personality torn up".

Looking out over the closest there is to wild country in this part of suburban Surrey, she is entitled to think of fate as a trickster. Returning to Kidnapped and its gripping first chapter, she extends her arms and calls to the uncertain hero as if he were in her care - "You want to cry, 'Davie, don't go. Stay. Stay there, where you're at least reasonably safe'" - in a piping voice that could induce him to stay, if any could. "But then you know he must go."


The dark side

John Mullan finds humour tied to horror in Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black

Saturday January 14, 2006
The Guardian

The reviewers agreed. "A dark, dark book", "a black comedy", "darkly humorous", "wickedly funny". Hilary Mantel's novel is funny by being about bad things, cruel things, black things. Its very title describes its humorous intentions. The reader discovers almost halfway through that "Beyond Black" refers to life after death. Alison is a medium who avoids the word "death" and will not tell her "clients" - "even though they deserved frightening" - about "the true nature of the place beyond black". Beyond black is the zone with which Alison puts her "punters" in touch. It is how she earns her living. And "beyond black" is the humour of the novel.

Black humour seems integral to the subject matter. Alison travels the oval of the M25, "its wastes looping London", with her sidekick Colette, reading futures or communicating with spirits. It is her profession. The novel's first chapter gives us one of her performances. The pay-at-the-entrance séance is hilarious for its mixture of the sham and the sincere. It is "black" because the stuff of the mockery is fear and loss. The "punters" are there for consolation or reassurance. But out of their needs are made a fantastically banal parade of messages. "A petite woman wearing a turquoise blouse, she was very fond of it, wasn't she?" One woman's dead mother tells her to lose a stone. "Can you accept that?" A forgotten granny commends "'those new cabinets you've got - I can't quite make this out - a new kitchen, is it?' 'Oh my God. Yes,' the woman said. 'Yes.'"

"Black" for humour or comedy has become a promiscuous description, guaranteed to bespeak a reviewer's sophisticated taste. To discover something comic in what is macabre or even horrific is to display one's intellectual discernment. Though a traditional literary element (Shakespeare and Dickens knew it well enough), it was not discussed by critics until well into the 20th century. The dramatist Jean Anouilh influentially coined the term comédie noire. It implied the absurdity of a drama whose characters could have no conviction or hope. Not surprisingly, "black humour" was readily discovered in the works of Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett.

The blackness is the recognition of what is divertingly absurd in the midst of what might otherwise be grim, even horrific. The danger of black humour is gloating at others' folly, which Mantel brilliantly resists. Alison believes herself pursued by spirits from her hellish childhood, and they are both comic and demonic. They are led by Morris, an upsetter of shelves and lives, who gives a hilarious lie to all ideas of the noble dead. "He is a one!" exclaims fellow medium Mrs Etchells, Alison's soi-disant grandmother. Other "sensitives" (as they like to call themselves) claim as spirit guides medicine men or "ancient Persian sages". Alison has "this grizzled grinning apparition in a bookmaker's check jacket". He is one of those who tormented, tortured, probably raped Alison when she was a child. Colette mocks such spirits. "Don't make a joke out of the fiends, Al pleaded: but not out loud." The horrors of her childhood leak out; humour and horror are inextricable.

The dead themselves are imagined, via Alison's consciousness, as real beings, often as befuddled as the living. All literature that features the dead, from Homeric spirits to Victorian ghosts, gives them clarity. The dead know it all. Here they are as likely to be confused as anyone in the care of the community. "Pathetic and lame-brained", they are always after Alison with their futile questions: "where's my pension book, has the number 64 gone, are we having a fry-up this morning?" Al explains to Colette that those who have just died, now "airside", don't understand what has happened. "They start to cry, but still nobody comes. You see, she said, they've actually gone over, but they think it's just the NHS."

The "sensitives" ply their trade at wonderfully grotesque "fayres", where Alison meets her peers and sees who is up or down. "She nodded towards a shiny new people carrier. 'That's those white witches from Egham.'" But the "sensitives" are believers too. Even their businesslike pragmatism (what boom times when Princess Diana dies!) is not exactly cynicism. "Cara's got this new therapy she's going in for, I forget what they call it," Mandy (aka "Natasha") tells Alison. "Anyway, you rub their feet and it brings back memories of life pre-birth." Mandy is not describing a confidence trick; she's had a go and found it to be "Darkness. Sort of swishing". But what makes this "black" is Alison's unstated thought that she wouldn't fancy access to her thoughts before birth. Her prostitute mother tried to be rid of her. "An image came to her of her mother patiently fishing for her with a knitting needle." Beyond black.

John Mullan is professor of English at University College London


A question of belief

Do psychics really make contact with another world? Hilary Mantel describes how she had to move beyond questions of true and false

Saturday January 28, 2006
The Guardian

I first received a message from the dead in the shadow of Windsor Castle, from a woman on stage in the "function room" of a local hotel. She was wearing an obsolete spangled garment of the kind that used to be known as a cocktail dress, and she beamed down from the stage as she described to me a dead friend of mine. Almost all the showbiz psychics smile incessantly. Why? If I believed what they believe, I wouldn't be simpering, I'd be howling.

My dead friend was not a brown-haired man of moderate girth andaverage height. He was a man of very singular appearance. Floating in the ether, wearing his naval uniform, he made himself known quite distinctly. What, he wanted to know, did I propose to do about those terrible headaches. "We all get headaches!" I snapped. The psychic beamed down at me: "I can only pass on the message I'm given."

I left perplexed. Should I contact the dead man's family, and tell them he was still around, bobbing about in Berkshire? I was wise in deciding against it. In the foyer of the hotel I saw the psychic's photograph set up on an easel, and saw another woman - unsmiling, this one - twitching at it, repositioning it to a better angle. Psychic's assistant, I thought. What kind of job would that be?

It was soon obvious that if I was going to write about the psychic business - as a social and economic phenomenon - I had to stop asking myself what was true and what was false. A novel should be a book of questions, not a book of answers. I wanted to open an imaginative enquiry. The truth about what happened when my naval contact popped up, offering sympathy from the realm of the dead, was probably unknowable. Where does one begin? There is no point of contact between the reality we negotiate every day and the reality that for a few minutes I shared with the smiling psychic. Retailed, the story might sound unconvincing. Were the details really so specific? (Yes, they were, said my unwilling and sceptical self.) But I was not in the business of convincing anyone, either way. I just wanted to know what it might be like to have the medium's set of beliefs. What was her off-stage life? What did she herself think she was doing? How much money did she make? Could she offset that spangly dress against tax? How did she stop the dead chattering in her ear when she stepped down from the stage?

I was not immune from fellow-feeling. Which other self-employed persons stand up in public to talk about non-existent people? Novelists, of course. We listen to non-existent voices and write down what they say. Then we talk with passion and conviction about people no one can see. Our audiences are complicit, of course, whereas the audiences for professional psychics are ambivalent. They teeter on the edge of delusion and the edge of derision. For the psychic, it's a no-win situation. If she gets it wrong, she's rubbish. If she gets it right, she's a cheat. One of the things I learned while writing the book is that scepticism can be held as firmly, devoutly, illogically as any religious position. Elaborate edifices of fraud are proposed - so elaborate, so unlikely, that it's easier to believe that, after all, the dead are speaking.

Anywhere in this country you will find the psychics performing, in theatres and sports halls, in the back rooms of pubs. Some of their flyers boast "as seen on TV" - as if that were a guarantee of probity. Audiences are large and lucrative. What do they want? A sense of connection, I suppose, a reassurance that they figure somewhere in a cosmic plan. The psychics trade in what we all have in common - the residue of guilt and regret, the sleeping, unvoiced aspirations, our knowledge that the dead possess us, because we carry their genes. The trade, strange as it is, helps us with our deficits. We have trouble with our memories. We have trouble with connection. I saw psychics struggling to impart "messages" to people who were ignorant of the names of their own grandparents. That chilled me. I cannot imagine the fate of a nation so rapidly losing its grip on its own history.

It is, of course, possible to take a lighter view. In the audiences to whom I formed an audience, the recipients of messages from the dead seemed quite cool about it. They talked to their ancestors then went for a pizza. It occurs to me that there is an obvious attraction in visiting a delimited space where, for an hour, you can suspend the laws of nature and believe anything you like. A novel is also such a space. I became worried, though, about the concept of "laws of nature". What if, as my medium Alison suggests, "it's a bit of a free-for-all nowadays"?


The dead speak

Readers at the Guardian book club tackled Hilary Mantel about the supernatural, says John Mullan

Saturday February 4, 2006
The Guardian


The French, who respect literary critics more than the British, have a phrase for it: the succès d'estime - the book that the professional judges choose to admire, perhaps in disdain of popular taste. I had thought that Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black was an example, but when she came to speak about it to the Guardian book club it became clear that she had entranced plenty of readers too. They discussed the lives of Mantel's characters - particularly Alison, the professional medium, and Colette, her hard-hearted sidekick - with the strength of feeling and the amusement proper to a novel that has come alive.

Yet it was the dead that we mostly talked about. Mantel was quizzed about the supernatural in the novel, where dead spirits speak and cavort. Mantel pointed out that nothing happens that might not be merely what Alison hears or sees. The novel credits her conviction, but only as an imaginative necessity. Though Alison could be thought of as severely deluded, she had to be imagined as sincere. Liz Sneath, one of those writing to the book club weblog, picked on this in praise of the novel. It was "a validation of the view that psychics don't simply make things up and that the elaborate conspiracies that would be needed to 'set up' situations are as much beyond belief as the world beyond black seems to be". The novel succeeds because it does not reduce its characters to charlatans or cynics.

It was clear that the readers who came to the book club event did not share the exasperation of the reviewer in the Spectator who regretted that the novel gives plausibility to the supernatural. One reader was perturbed by the mix of the Christian and the unChristian. Alison appears to have no religious beliefs, yet we hear from the "fiends" who haunt her that her father might well be the Devil. Another reader described eloquently how, though he thought of himself as a person without supernatural beliefs, he never doubted the voices and visions in the novel so long as he was reading. Several others were both disturbed and convinced by the story of Alison's appalling childhood that emerges in ghostly mutterings and jumbled memories. One reader spoke powerfully of real cases in which children with terrible histories had created ghosts and spirits, supernatural beings who were the projections of their terrors.

Was the wonderfully dyspeptic vision of orbital southeast England the author's, or did her characters have an inkling of it too? Mantel was quite candid about the novel's roominess, allowing her enjoyable passages of set-piece satire. One reader on the weblog felt that the novel needed "a good prune", though those at the event praised the "bagginess", as Henry James would have disapprovingly called it. One reader who thought that it could have been shorter also relished the "state of the nation" passages that make the book long. "Loved the descriptions of life around the M25: awful."

Some readers contributing to the weblog have complained about Mantel's two main characters. Tom Chivers, one of several who found them distinctly "unlikeable", was aware that he was going against the grain of a critical consensus. "Perhaps I have completely missed the point of this whole book in some way," he observed, "because I have yet to read a review that is less than utterly, rapturously glowing." The fact that the central characters do not reach out to our sympathies troubled more than one reader. "I neither liked nor cared for Alison and Colette," said Mary Gilbert, who also disagreed with the verdicts of those "excellent reviews". "While I appreciated the quality and wit of the writing in this book, I found it hard to care about any of the characters", observed Jenny, another dissenter.

There were bloggers who shared the evident enthusiasm of those who came to hear Mantel speak. "I definitely cared about Alison (while Colette was entertainingly dreadful)" wrote Simon Barnes. "Just loved it." The awfulness of Colette was a delight for many (I include myself) who discussed the novel with Mantel in person. There was special attention to the pitilessness of Colette, a character as flinty and sardonic as any in contemporary fiction. Was there no hope for her, asked one reader? The novelist felt that she had got just what she deserved: a life back with the mediocre and spineless Gavin.

Alison, however, did seem to have been redeemed. The author was happy to agree that her black book was also a narrative with a moral shape. Alison performs an act of kindness and is saved from her "fiends". They are left behind on the executive housing estate and we have a happy ending - if circling the M25 on the way to Sevenoaks in the company of a couple of dead OAPs could be thought of as happy.

John Mullan is professor of English at University College London. Next week he will be looking at The Sea by John Banville.



The TLS - May 13, 2009


Hilary Mantel's Henrician hero

How Hilary Mantel's new novel, Wolf Hall, turns Tudor history into a compelling piece of fiction

Michael Caines


Hilary Mantel
651pp. Fourth Estate. £18.99.
978 0 00 723018 1



Henry VIII had six wives and at least as many Thomases: Wolsey, More, Cranmer, Cromwell, Howard (Third Duke of Norfolk), Wriothesley (pronounced "Risley", eventually First Earl of Southampton). Dismissed, beheaded, survived (to be burnt at the stake by Henry's daughter Mary), beheaded, survived, survived. Other Thomases could be mentioned – the poet Wyatt (died), for one, or Audley (died), More's successor as Lord Chancellor. The Cambridge scholar Thomas Bilney was burnt as a heretic in 1531; he was known as "Little Bilney", which is small help when reading Wolf Hall, a novel in which all of these Thomases, as well as their King and a couple of those lucky women, appear.

For Hilary Mantel, Thomas Cromwell is the hero of this, one of the more violent hours in English history; we begin with him being almost kicked to death in Putney by his raging, alcoholic father. The year is 1500 in this charming prelude, nearly thirty years before the crucial decade of Cromwell's rise to power – his emergence from the shadow of his master, Cardinal Wolsey, his efficient ecclesiastical reforms, his overseeing of the King's first remarriage.

He is born low but, after Putney, reborn great. Foreign powers find him worth spying on, and Francis I personally invites him to transfer his allegiance to France. In 1500, however, in Wolf Hall, he is just that: "he". Grammatical intimacy is thrust upon us. Mantel is forced to write "he, Thomas Cromwell" on several occasions, in order to clarify who "he" is, but usually there is no need. "Half the world is called Thomas." But there can be only one he, Cromwell:

It is said he knows by heart the entire New Testament in Latin . . . he is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop's palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed. He makes money and he spends it. He will take a bet on anything.

Or as More tells Wolsey in the anonymous play The Life and Death of Thomas, Lord Cromwell: "My lord, you are a royal winner, / Hath got a man besides your bounteous dinner" (this play was once thought to be by Shakespeare). Here is the man for the job of cleaning up England's act – or acts. Wolf Hall covers the period in which Cromwell put more legislation through Parliament than it would see for another 300 years, including the Act of Supremacy, by which Henry VIII asserted his authority over his own divorce, against that of the Pope.

Beyond the common name and the commoner personal pronoun, the nice points and the programme of reform, however, this Cromwell remains a mysterious, disconcerting blank. His own sister cannot "add [him] up"; rumours about his lost years abroad make it easy for courtiers to believe in the earnestness of his threats, when it is necessary for him to make them. He is "Thomas, also Tomos, Tommaso and Thomaes Cromwell", also "Cremuel" to the French, his "past selves" gathered in a "present body". It is the compound nature of this formidable figure that intrigues Wolsey and King Henry himself, that scares the noblemen who don't like to see merit making its way in the world, and ultimately renders him a blank to himself, as well as to others. Since his birth date is uncertain, his fate cannot be astrologically fixed. Those who claim to understand him, he believes, claim more than he does himself.

After the boy Cromwell's nasty fall in Putney, Mantel skips ahead to Wolsey's possibly nastier one, when the King deprives him of his office as Lord Chancellor in 1529. Scenes of the Cardinal's noble enemies coming, on the King's behalf, to confiscate his material wealth enfold scenes of comfortable plotting at York Place, with Wolsey still in his pomp but struggling to find a way to give Henry what he wants: to be rid of his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, so that he can marry Anne Boleyn.

In Cromwell's eyes, Anne and her family faction have been wrong to despise Wolsey, the only man who can help them in their quest for power. Like the Wolsey in Shakespeare and Fletcher's Henry VIII, who offers a dignified lament for his own defeat, this one has a special, virtually paternal relationship with Cromwell. For the latter, this prince of the Church would have made a finer king than Henry Tudor, and Wolf Hall is partly the story of a servant's revenge on his master's enemies.

Fortunately for Henry and Anne, who initially distrusts Cromwell, his methods exceed even those of his subtle master for efficacy against both interference from foreign powers and meddling from within the realm. A series of gradually more involved encounters with the King show Cromwell gaining his trust and admiration. His prospects prosper with Anne's. Of course, there is the small problem of the child she eventually bears: an ill-tempered redhead who is not the male heir whom Henry craves.

Meanwhile, the traffic between London and Antwerp includes letters for More from "my derlynge" Erasmus, and the contraband theology which More, as Lord Chancellor, seeks to destroy. William Tyndale, the translator of the New Testament into English, is out there somewhere, on the run. While Cromwell seeks a reconciliation between theological extremists, More seeks absolute conformity – the extinction of both Tyndale and his influence. In More's utopian eyes, it is a "blessed" act to torture a heretic or trick one into a confession.

Among its other stories, then, Wolf Hall also sets up a great opposition between these two lawyers – Cromwell and More, both masters of rhetoric's wily precision, both Henrician servants on the make, and their relationship, like that between Cromwell and Henry, increasingly involves a credible vein of sympathy as well as antagonism. It dates back to the moment when a very young Cromwell asked a slightly older More what he was reading. The Hamlet-like answer came back: "Words. Words. Just words". To neither Thomas could words ever be just that.

Wolf Hall also has its attention fixed on things that no parliament has ever ratified. "Beneath every history, another history." After playing it fairly straight for four chapters, Mantel suddenly offers us "an occult history of Britain": how there was once an island on "the edge of the known earth" which became known as Albina, bloodied at birth, and how demons and princesses gave rise to a race of giants who "spread over the whole landmass". The giants and their leader, Gogmagog, were defeated by Brutus, the great-grandson of Aeneas, who had killed his own father "by accident". "Whichever way you look at it, it all begins in slaughter."

These are just words, of course, just myths. But the reader may think of them later, when the founding Tudor victory at the Battle of Bosworth Field is mentioned, or when Henry is seen freely, happily riding away with the hunt while a martyr's remains are being "shovelled up" at Smithfield: "his youth, his grace, his learning and his beauty: a compact of mud, grease, charred bone".

Now it is possible to put Cromwell's giant brute of a father in his place: as a savage forefather to an age of grace. (At least that is what the son hopes it will become.) There are also rumours of a more recent secret history, of bad blood in the monarchy and an unfortunate proliferation of claims to the throne. A prophetess, Eliza Barton, declares in public, to the King's face, that he will not reign for seven months if he keeps the heretic Anne. Two washed-up fish "of prodigal size", giants of the Thames, are taken as bad omens. Superstition and ignorance are traps for the unwary and propaganda tools for those who wish to turn the tide one way or the other.

There is little if any mention here of the real Cromwell's concerted campaign in print to vindicate his policies ("that young giant, the printing-press", says one historian). One could imagine a different Cromwell emerging from the known facts about his part in forcing the Act in Restraint of Appeals of 1533 through Parliament (ignoring even the King's emendations to the draft, for example), or his unauthorized encroachment on a neighbour's land when expanding his property at Austin Friars (the neighbour's son was John Stow, who duly recalls Cromwell's presumption in his Survey of London: "the suddaine rising of some men, causeth them to forget themselues"). Or the tactics he deployed against the old religion, as described by Eamon Duffy in The Stripping of the Altars (1992).

Instead, Mantel presents Cromwell as a sceptic, a modern: more our contemporary than More's, a believer in rational light (light streaming through clear windows, purged of stained glass, being a persistent image in this novel), and a despiser of the lazy corruption of the monasteries. From his European tour of duty, he brings intellectual gifts appropriate to every occasion. Has the King's bastard son read Castiglione's Book of the Courtier? He recommends the passages on "gentlewomen and their qualities". What might Henry make of Marsiglio of Padua, who proposed as long ago as 1324 that "Christ did not make Popes"? He might, it turns out, see a money-making opportunity. And when Henry Percy, the dull-witted Earl of Northumberland, whines at an inconvenient moment that Anne Boleyn is his betrothed wife, not the King's, there is a more general explanation of how things stand:

The world is not run from where he [Percy] thinks. Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall [formerly York Place, formerly Wolsey's palace]. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, from where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from castle walls, but from counting houses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.

This, the Abacus to Bugle primer in world affairs, does not just describe the sixteenth century, of course, and it is not the only occasion on which Cromwell is made to sound ahead of his time. (Henry Percy is, not incidentally, the man who finally arrested Wolsey, on trumped-up charges, after his dismissal.) He speaks of all things, from royalty downwards, with something like post-millennial scepticism, if not downright anachronistic irreverence. It seems only natural that his thoughts sometimes seem to merge with those of the narrator.

Yet for all this enlightenment – and Cromwell's hubristic optimism as he settles into his role as the most powerful man in England without a crown on his head – he himself has his own lost history, his own myth. A memory system he picks up in Italy involves "shy hiding animals, eyes bright in the undergrowth", alongside people carrying "unlikely objects, St Ursula a crossbow . . . Plato . . . a soup ladle". Each startling image has its place. Later, on a day of "pageantry and living statues" for Anne's coronation, the narrative looks up, and sees that the world's own memory system has come to life:

Fenchurch Street, Leadenhall, Cheap, Paul's Churchyard, Fleet, Temple Bar, Westminster Hall . . . . And looking down on them, the other Londoners, those monsters who live in the air, the city's uncounted population of stone men and women and beasts, and things that are neither human nor beasts, fanged rabbits and flying hares, four-legged birds and pinioned snakes, imps with bulging eyes and ducks' bills, men who are wreathed in leaves or have the heads of goats or rams; creatures with knotted coils and leather wings, with hairy ears and cloven feet, horned and roaring, feathered and scaled . . . limestone or leaden, metalled or marbled, hooting and gurning and dryheaving from buttresses, walls and roofs.

Tapestries, rings and clothes make their way from place to place and owner to owner, houses change hands, the court is like a pack of cards, the King as changeable as the weather. He is also needily possessive, as is Anne: Cromwell she calls "my man", while the King has "my archbishop" (Cranmer), to complement "My river. My city. My salvation, cut out and embroidered just for me". By the end of the novel, these appointments seem quite secure, but the "strict order" of that memory system has taken its own mighty, feverish tumble into ruin.

Unusually for a novel 650 pages long, Wolf Hall is written in the present tense, which enhances its feverishness. This lends both people and their possessions a dramatic clarity, a presence, which an informed, retrospective viewpoint, left almost entirely to the reader's imagination, might have marred. We are not looking back at a path through time, but trying to find our way onward, and uncertainty reigns. There is a great deal here about Cromwell's family and interrupted, incoherent love life – a soap opera which episodically complicates and beautifies the pattern. The King yearns for a son; many of his highest officers know what it is like to lose a child. In pregnancy, uncertain of the sex of her unborn child, Anne is seen to be drifting "far away", "from terra firma to a marshy tract of land, to a landing stage, to a river where a mist closes over the further bank, and earth and sky are inseparate".

No wonder, with the future misted over and only fanatics sure of their route to God, that most people cling to their roles, deliberately enacting versions of themselves. Wolf Hall is full of portraits from portraits, of people catching their reflections in pageants, plays and song. Erasmus's advice, that one should "arrange one's face" in the morning, offers the necessary mask between courtesy and conviction. Reported conversations require a little role play; Eustache Chapuys, the Emperor Charles V's ambassador, puts in regular cameos, his every gesture being "like something an actor does": "When he thinks, he casts his eyes down, places two fingers to his forehead. When he sorrows, he sighs . . . . He is like a man who has wandered inadvertently into a play . . . and decided to stay and see it through". King Henry has so many sides to his character, "he could have been a travelling player, and leader of his troupe".

In this way, the novel becomes a play, becomes a gallery, conscious of its own framing devices, and is all the richer for being a historiographical as well as a historical novel: we know Cromwell has arrived at the height of his powers when he finds himself looking at Hans Holbein's portrait of him, Wolsey's ring on his finger, "no trace of a smile on the face of his painted self". This is both something that happened and something that comments on what has happened. The same goes for the glimpses, via ekphrasis, of bit players such as Edward Seymour (that "pure hawk's profile") and the astronomer Nikolaus Kratzer ("a dark man . . . with a long humorous mouth"), not to mention the King of France as a randy beanpole: the Frenchman who not only lives next to but owns the brothel.

There are perhaps too many repetitions of the snobbery motif, which has various peers telling Cromwell to his face what they think of him, and an abundance of material that some will read as sheer bagginess, but Wolf Hall is still a finely wrought thing, a worthy successor to the other fine performances from the same author, such as Fludd and A Place of Greater Safety, which are similarly concerned with revolutionary individuals ("religious conflict is the most dangerous force that could be unleashed in a nation", a salon declares in the latter novel). And Thomas Cromwell is a fitting hero for an epic in which bills of attainder do battle with an old world of superstition and chaos.

But that Cromwellian emptiness, while compelling, is also troubling. Could Henry's Master of the Jewel House really suffer from a slow-burning identity crisis? Is this more a distraction from inconsistencies than the ultimate character flaw (or salvation)? Cromwell is supposed to be immune to Anne's charms, for example. This does not stop him gazing at her at one point as much as does Henry, nor can he help imagining "resting his hand upon her shoulder and following with his thumb the scooped hollow between her collarbone and her throat; imagines with his forefinger tracking the line of her breast".

What is he, after all? The murdering spirit captured in Holbein's portrait? Firm but fair, an evangelical soul who would rather that the law spared More and Tyndale alike? Or a sum of historical parts that just won't add up?

Fiction abhors a vacuum. In the TLS, Hilary Mantel once wrote of herself trying to describe herself as a writer for an audience of aspiring writers: "Even as I talk I know I'm making myself up as I go along". Perhaps the same could be said of Cromwell, who would therefore have been made in the image of his creator. He would either make or mar, he is meant to have said on his way to court, in an attempt to reverse Wolsey's fortunes; here, he is very much the maker: "he can shape events, mould them. He can contain the fears of other men, and give them a sense of solidity in a quaking world: this people, this dynasty, this miserable rainy island at the edge of the world".

That is the same edge of the world encountered by those princesses who mated with demons to beget a race of giants, and Wolf Hall is that kind of novel: rephrasing its own phrases, even as Henry shifts shapes or Chapuys strikes another pose. No wonder slippery rephrasing is at the heart of Cromwell's conflict with More. The latter, we are told, would "for a difference in your Greek, kill you" – it might not say "Purgatory" anywhere in the Bible, but the word Tyndale translates as "love", More insists is "charity". Cromwell is more the sort of person to muse on the "equivocal mixture" of a sacramental offering: "this is my blood, this is like my blood, this is more or less somewhat like my blood, do this in commemoration of me".

We are on the edge of the known world, trying to decide if a cup of wine is, in fact, blood. Words. Words. Just words . . . .



Hilary Mantel on spectacular saintliness




LRB | Vol. 26 No. 5 dated 4 March 2004 | Hilary Mantel

Some girls want out

Hilary Mantel on spectacular saintliness

Hilary Mantel

The Voices of Gemma Galgani: The Life and Afterlife of a Modern Saint by Rudolph Bell and Cristina Mazzoni | Chicago, 320 pp, £21.

Saint Thérèse of Lisieux by Kathryn Harrison | Weidenfeld, 160 pp, £14.99

The Disease of Virgins: Green Sickness, Chlorosis and the Problems of Puberty by Helen King | Routledge, 196 pp, £50.00

A Wonderful Little Girl: The True Story of Sarah Jacob, the Welsh Fasting Girl by Siân Busby | Short Books, 157 pp, £5.99

We are living through a great era of saint-making. Under John Paul II an industrial revolution has overtaken the Vatican, an age of mass production. Saints are fast-tracked to the top, and there are beatifications by the bucket-load. It seems a shame to have all the virtues required for beatification, but not to get your full name in the Catholic Almanac Online. When the blessed are turned out at such a rate, the most they can hope for is a listing by nationality. In the current listings there are 103 Korean martyrs, 96 Vietnamese martyrs, 122 left over from the Spanish Civil War (with another batch of 45 in their wake), and a hundred-plus who have been hanging around since the French Revolution. And for the canonised, the site lists nine full saints for 2002 alone, though this is a considerable fall-back from the glory days of 1988, when more than a hundred came marching in.

Under previous popes, they dawdled along, at the rate of one or two a year. Gemma Galgani became a saint in 1940, in the reign of Pius XII. It was a rapid promotion, by the standard of those days. After a miserable life, Gemma died of TB in 1903, when she was 25. She is an old-fashioned saint, Italian, passive, repressed, yet given to displays of flamboyant suffering - to public and extreme fasting and self-denial, to the exhibition of torn and bleeding flesh. Her behaviour recalled the gruesome penitential practices of her medieval foremothers and resembled that of the 'hysterics' of her own day, whose case histories promoted the careers of Charcot, Janet, Breuer and Freud. But we can't quite consign Gemma to history, to the dustbin of outmoded signs and symptoms or the waste-tip of an age of faith. When we think of young adults in the West, driven by secular demons of unknown provenance to starve and purge themselves, and to pierce and slash their flesh, we wonder uneasily if she is our sister under the skin.

Gemma is far less famous than her contemporary Thérèse of Lisieux, whose remains a short while ago went on a four-month US tour. Thérèse also died of TB, in 1897, just short of her 25th birthday. Her illness was excruciating and prolonged. But popular piety preserved the romantic lie about the wasting consumptive and her gentle death; the sordid realities of vomiting and bedsores were suppressed, and her convent's policy of denying Thérèse pain relief was elevated into suffering gladly embraced. Kathryn Harrison's short life of Thérèse complements Monica Furlong's 1987 study, and is in many ways more sympathetic. Neither biographer found the saint easy to like. Despite her sobriquet of the 'Little Flower', Thérèse was tough when her saintly interests were at stake. She wanted to enter the Carmelite order at the age of 14, and when the local convent told her to wait she took advantage of a pilgrimage to Rome to harangue Leo XIII, clinging to his knees until attendants carried her off.

Gemma never got near the pope, never managed to get admitted to a convent at any age. They regarded her as too strange and too sick. 'They don't want me living,' she said, 'but they'll have me when I'm dead.' Both Gemma and Thérèse were quite sure they were saints. Thérèse had a fantastic imagination, suffused by fantasies of being flayed alive and boiled in oil, but the spiritual path known as the 'Little Way', expounded in her writing, is about the unheroic journey that awaits smaller souls. Thérèse lived within the convent rule, which discouraged displays of zeal, or at least kept news of them behind the grille until the would-be saint's CV had been worked over.

Rudolph Bell's book Holy Anorexia (1985) concentrates on Italian saints, and is especially rewarding for connoisseurs of the spiritually lurid. St Maria Maddalena de' Pazzi lay naked on thorns. Saint Catherine of Siena drank pus from a cancerous sore. One confessor ordered Veronica Giuliani to kneel while a novice of the order kicked her in the mouth. Another ordered her to clean the walls and floor of her cell with her tongue; when she swallowed the spiders and their webs, even he thought it was going too far. Scourges, chains and hair shirts were the must-have accessories in these women's lives. Eustochia of Messina stretched her arms on a DIY rack she had constructed. St Margaret of Cortona bought herself a razor and was narrowly dissuaded from slicing through her nostrils and upper lip. St Angela of Foligno drank water contaminated by the putrefying flesh of a leper. And what St Francesca Romana did, I find I am not able to write down.

Starvation was a constant in these women's lives. It melted their flesh away, so that the beating of their hearts could be seen behind the racks of their ribs. It made them one with the poor and destitute, and united them with the image of Christ on the cross. What does this holy anorexia mean? Can we find any imaginative connection with a woman like Gemma Galgani? Like her medieval predecessors, she received the stigmata, the mark of Christ's wounds. Like them, she was beaten up by devils. Like them, she performed miracles of healing after her death. When you look at her strange life, you wonder what kind of language you can use to talk about her - through which discipline will you approach her?

Born in 1878, Gemma Galgani spent almost her whole life in the Tuscan city of Lucca. She was the first daughter in her family, after four sons. Her father was a pharmacist. (This explains why she is the patron saint of Catholic pharmacists. She is also the patron of parachutists - it is hard to work out why, and whether she protects all parachutists, or only Catholic ones.) Her family were financially secure at the time of her birth, though they became poor in her late teens, after her father died. Gemma's mother gave birth to three more children, but died of TB when Gemma was seven. In losing her mother early in life, Gemma was again like Thérèse of Lisieux. But whereas Thérèse was brought up in an atmosphere of stifling religiosity, the Galgani family seem to have been only conventionally pious, and sometimes barely that; when the young Gemma entered one of her 'ecstasies', her sister Angelina brought her schoolfriends home to laugh at her, and later, when she manifested wounds on her head, body, hands and feet, her aunt Elisa complained about having to scrub bloodstains from the floor of her room.

News of Gemma's florid and discomfiting style soon leaked out, and no convent would admit her. So her agonies couldn't be concealed behind convent walls; she remained a citizen of Lucca, with a semi-public career. After her family became almost destitute, another Lucca family took her in, and when she fell into ecstasy, instead of jeering, they took notes. The priests who surrounded her in her later years, members of the Passionist order, had little regard for her privacy once they made up their minds that she was saint material. And yet much we would like to know remains hidden; and so much we need to know is hidden in the footnotes of Rudolph Bell and Cristina Mazzoni's book. There is a certain scattiness, as well as scruple, in the authors' methods, and you wish that, for part of the book at least, they would adopt Harrison's straightforward and conventional narrative manner. Harrison recognises that the subject-matter is strange enough, that it's pointless to add to the reader's dislocation. At the centre of Bell and Mazzoni's book is Gemma's own account of her childhood and selections from her diary and her letters, but without close guidance from the authors - and we do want to know what they think - it is difficult to fill in the gaps or to make sense of Gemma's petulant and flirtatious relationship with her guardian angel.

The authors do not give us a sequential account of Gemma's life and death. They have both written about Gemma before - the historian Bell in his book on Italian mystics, and Mazzoni, the literary scholar, in her book Saint Hysteria (1996), in which she tried to cast light on the relationship between the typical female manifestations of sanctity and the concept of hysteria, as it was understood at the turn of the 20th century - that is, around the time of Gemma's death. Here, Bell contributes the note on historical context with which the book begins, and writes on Gemma's 'afterlife' - the process of hagiography and canonisation. Mazzoni ends the book with a 'Saint's Alphabet', looking at Gemma's career through the eyes of feminist theology, cutting up the issues under headings. F is for Food, P is for Passion and X is for Extasy. The authors' intention seems to be that we construct the story for ourselves, rather than receive it ready-made from them. They want to explain Gemma without explaining her away. The danger is that her meaning slips between the lines. Gemma is the mistress of ellipsis, her sentences often petering out after a conjunction; her 'but' and 'because' conjoin us to nothing but guesswork. Q is for Question, and the reader has many.

We can understand when Gemma says that her first memory is of praying beside her dying mother. It is the kind of first memory permitted to saints, like Thérèse's sickly assertion that the first word she could read without help was 'heaven'. But we don't know how to understand a passing mention, in Gemma's autobiographical notes, of a household servant who 'used to take me into a closed room and undress me'. We don't know much about Gemma's education; her teachers' recollections of her were muddled and scanty. So we can't tell how much she had read; how far she was an original, and how far she was conscious of modelling herself on earlier saints. Her writing style was childlike, but it is possible that her mind was not. Like Thérèse, she presents a model of arrested development. Like Thérèse, she expressed herself simply, but didn't have simple thoughts.

Sometimes we can trace Gemma's efforts to fit herself into a tradition. At around eight years old, she heard in a sermon of the Venerable Bartolomea Capitanio (d.1833) who combined the role of mystic with that of teacher, and who was known, Bell says, 'for absolutely never striking her students' - which is a good deal to say, in the context of Catholic education. Like her medieval predecessors, Bartolomea was keen on licking floors, but with this piquant variation of self-abasement: she licked the floor in a pattern of crosses, until her tongue bled. With such a role model to contemplate, it's maybe not surprising that Gemma's first confession, made at the age of nine, stretched over three days.

What did she have to confess? Like Thérèse, she describes herself as a little girl who would cry if she didn't get what she wanted; if she didn't cry, she didn't get. (But what she wanted, usually, was to spend more time hanging around with nuns, or to be allowed to give money to the poor.) She was, she says (displaying the streak of melodrama she and Thérèse share), 'a bad example to my companions and a scandal to all'. She liked to stroll out in pretty dresses. One of her teachers called her 'Miss Pride'. Behind the formulaic accusation is a bereft, needy little girl. Whereas Thérèse proudly promenaded on her father's arm, his 'little queen', Gemma pushed her father away as he tried to hug her. No one was to touch her, she said; and one thinks of the nefarious servant, in the locked room. When her one pious brother, a seminarian, died of TB, she took to wearing his clothes; and when her father died of throat cancer, she slept in the bed his corpse had vacated. There is something desperately sad about these gestures. They are quasi-suicidal, for sure, for she hoped to 'catch' their illness - she had very little investment in life - but there is also something thwarted about them, a bungled attempt at both closeness and control. Living, she won't let them touch her; when they are dead, she touches them. She tries on a man's life, a priest's life; she tries to follow her father, who had abandoned her just as her mother had done years before. Nuns at their clothing ceremonies dress as brides, so Thérèse had her wreath of orange blossom, and veil of Alençon lace: Gemma had a sheet with the sweat of death on it.

Thérèse had been the adored baby of her family, instructed every day by two elder sisters who proceeded her into the Carmelite convent in Lisieux. Gemma had to beg for instruction. If she got high marks in class, a teacher rewarded her by spending an hour explaining some aspect of Christ's passion and death. After one of these sessions, at the age of eight or nine, she fell into a high fever, the first of many such illnesses. Sometimes paralysed, sometimes corpse-like, sometimes bleeding and almost always starving, Gemma, in her ecstasies, talked intimately with Christ and with his mother.

What did her ecstasies look like? They were not like the ecstasy of Teresa of Avila, sculpted by Bernini: that most passionate, fluid artefact, art's most convincing orgasm. Gemma lived in the era of photography, and her spiritual advisers provided her household with a camera. She looks demure, her hands clasped. Her eyes are raised to heaven, but she isn't doing anything dramatic, like rolling her pupils up into her lids. Jotted down, her words are broken, repetitive, a string of conventional pieties. Yet she returns from these states of self-hypnosis riven with supernatural pleasure and shot through with natural pain.

Harrison puts it very well: 'Ecstasies are unforgettable, and they are tyrannical. Those who experience them helplessly shape their lives in order to create the possibility of another encounter with the holy.' Like all mystics, Gemma is terrified that God will turn his face away. She wants to love God, but is baffled: how do you do it? Her confessor cannot help her. Jesus says to her: 'See this cross, these thorns, this blood? They are all works of love . . . Do you want to truly love me? First learn to suffer.'

What should Jesus want her to suffer? To talk about female masochism seems reductive and unhelpful. You have to look the saints in the face; say how the facts of their lives revolt and frighten you, but when you have got over being satirical and atheistical, and saying how silly it all is, the only productive way is the one the psychologist Pierre Janet recommended, early in the 20th century: first, you must respect the beliefs that underlie the phenomena. Both Gemma and Thérèse believed suffering had an effect that was not limited in time or space. They could, just for a while, share the pain of crucifixion. They could offer up their pain to buy time out for the souls suffering in purgatory. Their suffering could be an expiation for the sins of others, it could be a restitution, a substitution. Margaret of Cortona said: 'I want to die of starvation to satiate the poor.' Behind the ecstasy is a ferocious moral drive, a purpose - and no doubt a sexual drive, too. Simone Weil believed that 'sexual energy constitutes the physiological foundation' of mystical experience. Why must this be true? Because, Weil said, 'we haven't anything else with which to love.'

Such loving isn't easy. Thérèse, dying, bleeding from her intestines and unable to keep down water, was tormented by the thought of banquets. Gemma, too, dreamed of food; would it be all right, she asked her confessor, to ask Jesus to take away her sense of taste? Permission was granted. She arranged with Jesus that she should begin to expiate, through her own suffering, all the sins committed by priests: after this bargain was struck, for 60 days she vomited whenever she tried to eat. Her guardian angel was her constant attendant and is addressed in the language of the playground and the kitchen. Sometimes he brought her coffee, and when she was weak he helped her into bed. Once he manifested in the kitchen, while the servant was making meatballs. The devil showed himself, too. He was 'a . . . little man, black, very black, little, very little . . . a tiny, tiny man . . . all covered in black hair'. He would grimace and threaten at the foot of her bed; he would jump on the bed and pummel her; when she called on Jesus, he rolled around the floor, cursing. Once he came in the form of a great black dog, and put his paws on her shoulders. Gemma had the bruises to show, and the charred paper where Satan had tried to burn her writings.

In 1899, when Gemma was approaching her 21st birthday, she became paralysed and remained paralysed for some months. She was so ill she received the last rites. In prayer she appealed to the Blessed Margaret Mary Alacoque, who two centuries earlier had been confined to bed for four years by paralysis, and who had made a vow to become a nun if she was healed. The cure was instantaneous and Margaret Mary began a career of spectacular saintliness. During the long nights when Gemma prayed she was visited by a strange presence, someone who touched her with burning hands and prayed with her. After nine nights she was out of pain and able to rise from her bed.

She recovered from her paralysis in February 1899. In May she went into a convent for a retreat. She followed the nuns' strict timetable for prayer and thought it 'too easy'. All the same, she wanted to stay with them, but they wouldn't let her because of her poor health. They demanded 'four medical certificates' before she could be considered. Later she would apply to several orders, and be rebuffed. She had no money for the dowry that convents demanded, but she offered herself as a lay sister - that is, one of the nuns who performs all the heavy work of the house. Nobody was keen to take her up on this offer.

Shortly after her rejection by the first convent, Gemma suffered a crisis. In June 1899, on the eve of the Feast of the Sacred Heart, the marks of Christ's wounds appeared on her hands. She put on gloves and went to church as usual. She said nothing to her local confessor. She was in the habit of concealing things from him - though she knew she shouldn't. This confessor, Monsignor Volpi, the auxiliary bishop of Lucca, never had much time for Gemma. He seemed to regard her as a potential embarrassment. He didn't accept that her experiences were divine graces and ordered her to terminate her ecstasies as soon as she felt them beginning. Even after the proceedings for her canonisation had opened, Volpi's opinion was that 'she was a silly little thing.'

Why such hostility? Volpi was a man deeply involved with church politics. During Gemma's short lifetime, the era of 'Catholic intransigence' was giving way to a tentative accommodation between church and state. The church in Lucca was as beleaguered as in any other city, anxious to give no ammunition to liberals and free thinkers, afraid of being mocked by anti-clerical rationalists. This fear governed the way clerics responded to Gemma. They did not like excess, or passion, or guest appearances by Old Nick himself. It was the church that was most anxious to be reductionist about Gemma's experiences, to debunk them as 'hysteria'.

On the occasion of her paralysis, several doctors had been sent in. Gemma hated doctors. 'What distress . . . to have to allow myself to be undressed,' she says. Having examined her, she goes on, 'nearly all the doctors said it was spinal meningitis, only one insisted in saying it was hysteria.' Now, after Gemma had received the stigmata, Volpi brought in a local doctor who said that the wounds on her head and hands were self-inflicted. He saw marks on her skin which were easily wiped away; he saw a sewing needle on the floor by her feet. After this, Volpi told Gemma that when she saw a vision of Jesus she should regard it as diabolically inspired. She should make the horn sign to ward off evil and spit in the apparition's face. You wonder if this advice would have placated the rationalist opponents of whom the church was so afraid - would they have found the auxiliary bishop even funnier than the would-be saint?

To Gemma it sometimes seemed the local clergy were doing everything they could to obstruct her passage to heaven. At every turn they sought to control and limit her experience. Her heart told her that the local priests were sometimes wrong, and yet she knew she would commit a sin if she was not obedient to the men who were set over her as spiritual authorities. They told her not to trust her imagination; to stop imagining. Yet her imagination was what connected her to Jesus. Her greatest trial was the emptiness she experienced when she didn't see him face to face. She solved this problem neatly. In one of her ecstasies she dedicated her imagination to the Virgin Mary. The Virgin Mary accepted it - which meant that from that day onwards heaven would work through Gemma's imagination. Imagination, in her view, was the essence of reality. Dreams and visions allowed her to see the true nature of events, discern motivation, penetrate disguises. The devil, satirical as always, assumed the form of Monsignor Volpi and followed her through the town. Just so she didn't miss him, he wore a mitre.

Then to her rescue came a professional saint-maker, Father Germano, a member of the Passionist order - a missionary order, founded in 1741, which shared with Gemma a devotion to the emblem of the Sacred Heart. Germano boasted that he could bring even Garibaldi to 'the honours of the altar'. He talent-spotted Gemma on a brief visit to Lucca, and asked Volpi if he could take over primary responsibility for her spiritual development. He would publish her biography four years after her death and it was in his interest that during her lifetime she should feed him material by putting on paper as much as he could persuade her to confide about her life and her thoughts. In the same way, Thérèse was ordered to write her life-story - but by her own elder sister, who was at that time superior of her convent. Thérèse took to the business with flair and verve, her mind flooded by recollections of her childhood. Gemma, on the other hand, was not particularly co-operative. Germano asked her to write him a 'general confession'. 'All the sins of the world, I have done them all,' she replied. Yet she began to set down the scant record of her life to date.

When the Passionists looked at Gemma they did not see a hysteric or a fake. Where Volpi's doctor had seen blood that could be wiped away, and that suspicious sewing needle on the floor, the Passionists saw eloquent wounds. In Julius Caesar, Antony promises to 'put a tongue in every wound of Caesar'. Father Germano undertook a similar duty for Gemma. Meanwhile, his advice to the people around her was to keep her busy - plenty of manual labour - and away from doctors. Catholic doctors could be just as bad as 'unbelievers and freemasons'. Gemma continued fainting, convulsing, vomiting blood and showing the stigmata; Germano advised her to pray for the cessation of these physical manifestations and to ask for spiritual graces instead.

Spiritual graces were safer; even Germano didn't want the girl making a holy show of herself. Bell and Mazzoni demonstrate how potentially subversive Gemma's physical eloquence was. The saint first affected by the stigmata was Francis of Assisi, but it has afflicted many more women than men. It insists on the likeness of the believer's body to that of Christ. It argues that the gender of the redemptive body does not matter. It undermines the notion of a masculine God. It shows that Christ can represent women and women can represent Christ - no wonder it makes the church nervous. There is a trap the church has created for itself - it wants Jesus to have a gender but not sexuality. Under the loincloth of the crucified Christ, what would you find? Only a smooth groin of wood or plaster. His ability to love has to centre on some other organ.

Throughout her life Gemma suffered from palpitations and pains in her chest. Sometimes the beating of her heart was so violent that everyone around could observe it; at autopsy it was seen (by a devout doctor) to be engorged with fresh blood. For Gemma, the heart is the place her pain is centred, the place where metaphors converge. She calls Jesus 'the powerful King of Hearts'. Hélène Cixous has pointed out that the heart is the place where male and female metaphors become one. Both sexes agree it is there that love is bred and contained. The heart beats faster when you see your lover, or in the sexual act. It is the place where Gemma's identity collapses into that of Jesus. She insists that her heart wants to enlarge; she uses an expression that also means, 'to take comfort'. In Saint Hysteria, Mazzoni shows how the woman mystic pushes language to do what it can, and abandons it when it reaches its limit. When telling is insufficient, she shows.

This was the church's great problem: men's language, frozen in liturgy and protocol, and women's language, plastic, elastic, expressed in the heaving bosom and the arched spine - the flicky tongue of hysteria, juicy with unspoken words. The church had got itself embroiled in competing systems of metaphor, parallel discourses which it was too intellectually cowardly or inept to try to reconcile; it could only shuffle into shady alliances with the kind of science that suited it. We can see, as 'Catholic neurologists' of the time did, that Gemma's symptoms are a representational strategy. They are an art form and a highly successful one; they are also (possibly) the product of mental pain and distress turned into physical symptoms. We must say 'possibly' because we don't know enough about Gemma's illnesses - at least, Bell and Mazzoni don't give us enough detail to judge whether they were functional or organic. It seems that her doctors were more interested in ascribing meaning to her illnesses than in recording their physical features. If you want to look at Gemma's life as Freud and Josef Breuer might have looked at it (Studies in Hysteria was published in 1895) you can collude with the church in describing Gemma as a hysteric. But where does that get us? Holiness and psychopathology can coexist, and perhaps by the time Gemma was making her career you couldn't have the first without what looked like the second. The state of virginity itself was pathologised, and part of the definition of psychological health was an ability to defer to men and accept penetrative sex. Gemma thought she could be both a hysteric and a saint. She clearly understood that the diagnosis was pejorative, and regarded it as just another of the humiliations that God had lined up for her.

At the heart of Bell and Mazzoni's endeavour is an understanding that a phenomenon may retain spiritual value, even after its biological and psychological roots have been uncovered. To describe the physical basis of an experience is not to negate the experience, as William James pointed out long ago. But now that neuroscience has such excellent tools for envisaging and describing the brain, we are tempted to accept descriptions of physiological processes as a complete account of experience. We then go further, and make value judgments about certain experiences, and deny their value if they don't fit a consensus; we medicate the mysterious, and in relieving suffering, take its meaning away. This won't do; there is always more suffering, and a pain is never generic, but particular and personal. We denigrate the female saints as masochists; noting that anorexic girls have contempt for their own flesh, we hospitalise them and force-feed them, taking away their liberties as if they were criminals or infants, treating them as if they have lost the right to self-determination. But we don't extend the same contempt to pub brawlers or career soldiers. Men own their bodies, but women's bodies are owned by the wider society; this observation is far from original, but perhaps bears restatement.

In the 'Saint's Alphabet' which concludes the Bell-Mazzoni book, Cristina Mazzoni works hard at making Gemma's story one of the triumph of the disempowered. It is true that the reckless intensity of her self-belief, combined with her passionate lack of self-regard, make her seem very modern: a Simone Weil by other means. But very unlike Weil, she speaks in the language of the nursery. She calls her confessor 'Dad'. She calls him 'Mum' as well, if she feels like it. She calls Jesus her brother and her lover and her mother. If she obeys Jesus - deferring to him as to one who has suffered and been humiliated - it can be argued that she took on his pain not in a spirit of masochism or passivity but in a spirit of solidarity.

When Gemma was canonised, the church made a weaselly accommodation with her career history, recognising the sanctity of her life but not the supernatural manifestations which surrounded her: manifestations which are so dangerously impressive to lay people, who are always looking for a sign they can understand - even an illiterate woman could have read the marks on Gemma's body. So Gemma got her reward for being downtrodden, humble, abject - not for being a living testimony to Christ's passion. Her bodily sufferings and her visions were not part of her claim to sainthood. The church recognised that Gemma had actually felt certain pains and sincerely believed that heaven had sent them; but they were consigned to the subjective realm. Within the church, pain can become productive, suffering can be put to work. But outside the church suffering loses its meaning, degenerates into physical squalor. It only has the meaning we ascribe to it; but now we lack a context in which to understand the consent to suffering that the saints gave.

Anorexia nervosa is said to be a modern epidemic. If you skimmed the press in any one week it would be hard to see what is perceived as more threatening to society: the flabby, rolling mass of couch-potato kids, or their teenage sisters with thighs like gnawed chicken-bones, sunken cheeks and putrid breath. Are we threatened by flesh or its opposite? Though the temporarily thin find it easy to preach against the fat, we are much more interested by anorexia than by obesity. We all understand self-indulgence but are afraid that self-denial might be beyond us. We are fascinated by anyone who will embrace it - especially if there's no money in it for them.

Bell emphasises in his introduction that what Gemma experienced was 'holy anorexia' and that it is different from anorexia nervosa. But what may strike the reader of a secular orientation is how similar they are. Starvation, as Bell shows in Holy Anorexia, was not an extension of convent practice, but a defiance of it. A fast is a controlled penitential practice. Most nuns fasted to keep the rule: the anorexics fasted to break it. Most nuns fasted to conform to their community: the starvation artists aimed to be extraordinary, exemplary. The secular slimming diet is also conformist and self-limiting. Dieting is culturally approved, associative behaviour, almost ritualistic. Restaurants adapt their menus to the Dr Atkins faddists; in a thousand church halls every week, less fashionable dieters discuss their 'points' and 'sins', their little liberties and their permitted lapses. Diets are prescriptive, like convent fasts - so much of this, so little of that. The anorexic, holy or otherwise, makes her own laws. Every normal diet ends when the dieter's will fails, or the 'target weight' is reached, at which point the dieter will celebrate, the deprived body will take its revenge, and the whole cycle will begin again - next Monday, or next Lent. Diets are meant to fail, fasts to end in a feast day. Anorexia succeeds, and ends in death more frequently than any other psychiatric disorder.

Should we be comfortable in regarding it as a psychiatric disorder? Is it not a social construct? If the fashion industry were responsible for modern anorexia, it would be true that we are dealing with a very different condition from holy anorexia. But the phenomenon of starving girls predates any kind of fashion industry. In The Disease of Virgins: Green Sickness, Chlorosis and the Problems of Puberty, Helen King has amassed a huge number of references to a disease entity that was recognised from classical times to the 1920s. Greensick virgins went about looking moony, and didn't menstruate, possibly because they didn't weigh enough; in all eras, food refusal was part of the condition. The cure was a good seeing to - within marriage, of course. The snag was that men weren't keen to marry women of unproven fertility. They must show, by bleeding, how worthy they were. If green-sickness was a protest against fate, it was a horribly conflicted and fraught protest. The cloister is the logical destination for those who protest too much. But in or out of the nunnery, how much should a good girl bleed? Should she settle for the natural orifice, or bleed from novelty ones - palms, eyes?

Sometimes the starving saints broke their fasts, were found at midnight raiding the convent larder. How did their communities accommodate this embarrassment? They simply said that, while Sister X snoozed celestially in her cell, the devil assumed her form and shape, tucked his tail under a habit, crept downstairs and ate all the pies. Starvation can be, must be, sustained by pride. Sîan Busby's book 'A Wonderful Little Girl' introduces us to this pride in a secular context. In 1869, a 12-year-old called Sarah Jacob starved to death in a Welsh farmhouse, under the eye of doctors and nurses who were watching her around the clock. Sarah had been a sickly little girl whose parents didn't want to force food on her. She became a local phenomenon; visitors came to look at her not eating, and left useful donations. It is likely she was fed, minimally and secretly, by her siblings. But when the medical vigil began, this source of supply was cut off, and Sarah was too polite to say she needed anything - even water. Politely, proudly and quietly, she slipped away while the doctors and nurses watched.

It is a grim story of social hypocrisy, deprivation and bone-headed stupidity, but it is also a shadowy story with a meaning that is difficult to penetrate. This is true of the whole phenomenon of anorexia. The anorexics are always, you feel, politely losing the game. When the fashionable and enviable shape was stick-thin, a sly duplicity was at work. One girl, considered photogenic, could earn a living from thinness; another girl, with the same famine proportions but less poster-appeal, would be a suitable case for treatment. The deciding factor seemed to be economic: could she earn a living by anorexia? If so, make her a cover girl; if not, hospitalise her. The case is now altered. The ideal body is attainable only by plastic surgery. The ideal woman has the earning powers of a CEO, breasts like an inflatable doll, no hips at all and the tidy, hairless labia of an unviolated six-year-old. The world gets harder and harder. There's no pleasing it. No wonder some girls want out.

The young women who survive anorexia do not like themselves. Their memoirs burn with self-hatred, expressed in terms which often seem anachronistic. In My Hungry Hell, Kate Chisholm says: 'Pride is the besetting sin of the anorexic: pride in her self-denial, in her thin body, in her superiority.'* Survivors are reluctant to admit that anorexia, which in the end leads to invalidity and death, is along the way a path of pleasure and power: it is the power that confers pleasure, however freakish and fragile the gratification may seem. When you are isolated, back to the social wall, control over your own ingestion and excretion is all you have left; this is why professional torturers make sure to remove it. Why would women feel so hounded, when feminism is a done deal? Think about it. What are the choices on offer? First, the promise of equality was extended to educated professional women. You can be like men, occupy the same positions, earn the same salary. Then equal opportunities were extended to uneducated girls; you, too, can get drunk, and fight in the streets on pay-night. You'll fit in childcare somehow, around the practice of constant self-assertion - a practice now as obligatory as self-abasement used to be. Self-assertion means acting; it means denying your nature; it means embracing superficiality and coarseness. Girls may not be girls; they may be gross and sexually primed, like adolescent boys.

Not every young woman wants to take the world up on this offer. It is possible that there is a certain personality structure which has always been problematical for women, and which is as difficult to live with today as it ever was - a type which is withdrawn, thoughtful, reserved, self-contained and judgmental, naturally more cerebral than emotional. Adolescence is difficult for such people; peer-pressure and hormonal disruption whips them into forced emotion, sends them spinning like that Victorian toy called a whipping-top. Suddenly self-containment becomes difficult. Emotions become labile. Why do some children cut themselves, stud themselves and arrange for bodily modifications that turn passers-by sick in the streets, while others merely dwindle quietly? Is it a class issue? Is it to do with educational level? The subject is complex and intractable. The cutters have chosen a form of display that even the great secular hysterics of the 19th century would have found unsubtle, while the starvers defy all the ingenuities of modern medicine; the bulimics borrow the tricks of both, and are perhaps the true heirs of those spider-swallowers. Anorexia itself seems like mad behaviour, but I don't think it is madness. It is a way of shrinking back, of reserving, preserving the self, fighting free of sexual and emotional entanglements. It says, like Christ, 'noli me tangere.' Touch me not and take yourself off. For a year or two, it may be a valid strategy; to be greensick, to be out of the game; to die just a little; to nourish the inner being while starving the outer being; to buy time. Most anorexics do recover, after all: somehow, and despite the violence visited on them in the name of therapy, the physical and psychological invasion, they recover, fatten, compromise. Anorexia can be an accommodation, a strategy for survival. In Holy Anorexia, Bell remarks how often, once recovered, notorious starvers became leaders of their communities, serene young mothers superior who were noticeably wise and moderate in setting the rules for their own convents. Such career opportunities are not available these days. I don't think holy anorexia is very different from secular anorexia. I wish it were. It ought to be possible to live and thrive, without conforming, complying, giving in, but also without imitating a man, even Christ: it should be possible to live without constant falsification. It should be possible for a woman to live - without feeling that she is starving on the doorstep of plenty - as light, remarkable, strong and free. As an evolved fish: in her element, and without scales.

* Short Books, 152 pp., £5.99, September 2002, 1 904095 23 2.

Hilary Mantel's memoir Giving Up the Ghost and a book of stories, Learning to Talk, came out last year. She is working on a novel to be called Beyond Black.