What an honour for Hilary Mantel, the novelist! Her portrait has been painted and it is to be hung in the British Library, the first time such an accolade has been accorded to a living writer. We read in the Telegraph:
Roly Keating, executive director of the British Library, hailed Mantel as ‘one of the great literary figures of our time’, as he described her being among the ‘very, very select company’ of authors with their likeness hung in the building.
Miss Mantel is a good author, and she has written some excellent books. Her story of the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety, was a great read, in my opinion, and shed new light on an already much written about period. It focussed on Danton and his young wife; Danton had his head cut off, but was not altogether a bad person; her current work about another decapitated hero, is, to my mind, less good. But she has won the Booker Prize twice, and she undountedly deserves to be in the British Library, and not just on the shelves.
Once upon a time, and how long ago that seems, the very greatest of our writers were all seemingly prominent Catholics: I mean the age of Waugh and Greene. Catholicism and literature went together extremely well. Catholicism and culture too seemed like very comfortable bed-fellows. But now the greatest titan in the pantheon is a well-known ex-Catholic, one who has said that Catholicism is not a religion for respectable people. More than just an ex-Catholic, Miss Mantel is an anti-Catholic, as her remarks in an interview with Lynn Barber make clear. Moreover, these sort of views are pretty typical among opinion-formers today.
So, what went wrong? The abuse scandal clearly played a major part in this, and will continue to do so for years to come. That is something we need to get used to. The Catholic Church, to people like Miss Mantel, stinks of abuse. But something else happened too, I think, something important: fashions changed. This might sound banal, but there are currents in popular thinking that can suddenly go into reverse. In the early years of John Paul II, the Church was riding high. Then came the fall: the abuse scandal was the occasion of that fall, but not the sole cause of it.
Does it matter that Miss Mantel does not like us? In a way, yes. That so many people in public life are keen critics of the Church represents a danger: it may mean that the Church spends much of its energy caring about what Miss Mantel thinks. Well, we should care about it, but not too much. It is not the mission of the Church to be liked – it is the mission of the Church to be faithful to the Gospel of Christ. In that our unpopularity stops us being faithfiul, then it is a problem. If our unpopularity means it is easier for us to focus on our core mission, then that may be a blessing.
If you have not read it already, I would strongly recommend Evelyn Waugh’s biography of Edmund Campion, easily the best book ever written about Tudor England (Yes, and I include Miss Mantel’s book in that sweeping judgement too). It is an exciting read, and it is also theologically astute, in that it shows us, better than any argument, that the Catholic Church was never truer to its mission than in those dark Elizabethan days, when it was the focus of so much popular hatred.
As for Miss Mantel, we are all waiting for the third volume of her Cromwell series, when the great man finally gets a taste of his own medicine, and when he who condemned so many to the axe, suffers it himself. Cromwell is an odd hero: he is the founder of modern Britain, in many ways, as GR Elton so rightly identified. And I would add, all the things so wrong with us today – the greed, the materialism – are the fruits of seeds sown by Thomas Cromwell.