“She died of Robespierre”: Hilary Mantel's intoxicating Reith Lecture

Her voice, on BBC Radio 4, is exceptionally unusual.

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“If anyone thinks that writing is therapy, I beg them to look at this life . . .” Hilary Mantel, in her third and best Reith Lecture yet, addressed an audience in Antwerp (27 June, 9am). Her voice, as anybody who has heard it might agree, is exceptionally unusual. In the lower register, it can sound like a flute being tentatively blown after essential repairs. At other times, its spiky tone embodies Virginia Woolf or Muriel Spark. Empresses. Great put-down artists.

In this dual voice, she told the intoxicating biography of the solitary Polish writer Stanisława Przybyszewska, who in the 1920s wrote gigantic plays about the French Revolution. With no fire in the impoverished Danzig winter, and no daylight for months, Przybyszewska longed only “to be alone” with history, her plays reading like endless verbatim transcripts of the revolution, until she keeled over in 1935.

“Multiple causes of death were recorded,” said Mantel, “but actually she died of Robespierre.” There was ever the hint that Mantel – two fat bricks of novels about Thomas Cromwell in and with another on the way – has done some choosing of work over life, too. “There’s a tension in the artist between the outer and inner lives,” she said, sighing, serving up that universal platitude as the only weakish moment in the lecture.

One of the ways of solving the inner/outer question is to do exactly as Mantel has done and make your outside inside, by writing historical fiction: living in old libraries and among vellum in record rooms. Research, research. Mantel’s description of Przybyszewska’s dogged decline contained a profound suggestion of something that is also evident in her own novels – an understanding that people’s characters don’t really change; they just deepen and become more inscribed.

And that, I think, is the nicest – and the most realistic – feeling a novel can give you: that sense of being stuck with someone. The full heft and awfulness of a whole other fairly fixed personality. So you sit there reading Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Mantel’s (wonderful) Beyond Black, thinking, “I’ve kind of had enough, but I’ve got another 150 pages left.” Rather like life! 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

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