So Hilary Mantel has some gender stuff going on. If you’ve read her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, you know this is text, not subtext. I have a tendency to approach people with a bundle of proofs, not so much a brief as an excess. I am going to practice restraint here, and just say that Giving Up the Ghost is substantially concerned with a childhood Mantel spent — in order — expecting to turn into a boy, wishing she would turn into a boy, pretending to be a boy, longing for a time when it seemed possible to be a boy, and finally suffering a quick, brutal disconnection from embodiment, an operation during which she is fully conscious. At the end of that process, she’s ten.
Mantel declines to name these desires as trans desires, but in a way that doesn’t feel belligerent towards trans people. Nor does it feel like a species of denial. Mantel simply pulls out these old and ruined wishes, carefully spreads and dries them, and arranges them for display, breathing on them with the faint concentrating breath of a woman putting makeup on another woman. Perhaps the book would be different if it had been published after 2003, but somehow I doubt that it would be. Her work has too much control for that.
It’s concerned with these questions: what am I to do with this body? What has this body to do with me? Is this body my own? If it is not my own, is that because it’s at the mercy of others? She writes often of bodily experiences she shares with her characters — chronic illness, chronic pain, fatness, infertility, the intricacies of femininity and the pleasures of masculinity — in a way that often feels like a new form, a fantastically subtle and sophisticated essay in the form of a 900-page historical novel.
It’s also concerned with dissociation, a theme which reaches its peak in the Wolf Hall trilogy. Although her Thomas Cromwell is a financial and legal wizard who spends his time immersed neck-deep in the leylines of power, he’s traumatized to the point of cauterization by the blows of an abusive father; by the later loss of a chosen father; by the plague deaths of his wife and children. At times, Cromwell’s body is the only thing that seems to bring him joy. He often remarks to himself on his own ugliness and ungainliness, but also on his strength, his prowess in a fight, the dexterity of his fingers. But this body also feels, more than anything, like a tool to him. He engages it daily in the making of money, in the husbandry of princes, in the carting around (as in a sedan chair) of his cultivated mind and perfect memory. All the while, he describes his smallest actions as if they are the inevitable twitches of the muscle after death. He watches himself from a skin-sliver of remove.
The difference between Cromwell and his employer and murderer, Henry VIII, is that Henry can’t dissociate. As a young man, Henry is a lover and an athlete whose mind and body act in unison, never one behind the other. As he gets older and chronic pain overtakes him, he becomes increasingly miserable, because he’s never acquired the skill of disconnection from his body. He has no idea how to live with pain, how to place himself a little to the side of it, as Cromwell does.
If it’s not obvious, Mantel is neutral-to-positive on the subject of dissociation. In her work, it’s just another tool for living, very like what she delightfully terms “Cromwell flesh,” which is repeatedly described as firmer and denser than the flesh of the other characters. I said Cromwell viewed his body as a tool; I never said that he didn’t value his tools, like the blacksmith his father intended him to be.
The same idea — a character unable to dissociate — is explored at greater length in Beyond Black, a fantasy about one of my favorite themes, how much it would suck to be psychic. Alison Hart is a medium who was viciously abused as a child. The men who tormented her have died, but their spirits have become her co-workers, exploiters, and hangers-on. Alison has a keen insight into her problems and a bloody-minded commitment to self-care, but she also has access to far too much information: what’s buried under the bushes, how it feels to be shot, the undetected cancers of passersby, and the ways that people judge the size, shape, and visible scars of Alison’s own body. This information makes it impossible for her to detach, putting her into the same impossible position as Henry. The difference is that Henry has enormous earthly power, while Alison’s entire world is built to keep her from learning to zone out of her body. This novel’s main speculative element isn’t the psychic stuff; it’s the idea of a person trapped in a state of terminal mindfulness.
Mantel doesn’t argue that ignorance is a blessed state. Alison still benefits from what she knows, and increasingly recognizes the abusers in her life, both dead and living. Mantel’s characters, if they are heroic, are supremely self-aware. They know all the parts of themselves. Often, part of what they know is that they can’t live with themselves, at least not all the time. Permanent knowledge, a hard-wired Ethernet connection to the world, is always portrayed as a curse.
More than one of these books ends in beheading. I don’t think it’s too cute to say that beheading is Mantel’s ultimate figure for dissociation and disembodiment. Here is the swift operation that permanently separates body from brain, flesh from consciousness. In A Place of Greater Safety, she gives the revolutionary Danton his real last words as he faced the guillotine — “Show my head to the people; it’s worth the trouble.” Danton is used to seeing himself from the outside. He learns his worth that way. Beheading isn’t what any of these characters want, but it’s a kind of apotheosis, a literalization of their labors in life, a laying bare. At the end, Mantel always shows you the head, and it is always worth the trouble.