when the dying speak, they cannot lie

I was sad to read of the passing of the great English author Hilary Mantel. Here in the colonies we became acquainted with her powerful prose through the Wolf Hall trilogy. I thought that I would share this piece from Hilary Mantel’s essay “Blot, Erase, Delete,” published in Index on Censorship, Vol. 45, Issue 3, 2016.

It has always been axiomatic that when the dying speak, they cannot lie. I knew a man whose mother told him, as she lay dying, who his real father was: like a woman in a Victorian melodrama. She might as well have climbed out of bed and kicked his feet from under him. The truth was far too late to do him any good, and just in time to plunge him into misery and confusion and the complex grief of a double loss. Some truths have a sell-by date. Some should not be uttered even by the dying. Some cannot be uttered. When a victim of Henry VIII faced the headsman, the standard scaffold speech praised the king: his justice, his mercy. You didn’t mean this, but you had to think about the people left behind: some flattery might help them. Oppressors don’t just want to do their deed, they want to take a bow: they want their victims to sing their praises. This doesn’t change, and it seems there are no new thoughts, no new struggles with censorship and self-censorship, only the old struggles repeating: half-animated corpses of forbidden childhood thoughts crawling out of the psychic trenches we have dug for them, and recurring denials by the great of the truths written on the bodies of the small.

I have 97 notebooks in a wooden box. I do not count them as suppressed volumes. I work on the principle that there is no failed work, only work pending: that there is nothing I won’t say, only what I haven’t said yet. In my novel in progress I have written, “If you cannot speak truth at a beheading, when can you speak it?” A notebook written eight years ago says, “I am searching for a place where the truth can be uttered: a place, I mean, that is not an execution ground.”

This entry was posted in Books, Europe, Freedom of Speech, History, Theater, Writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to when the dying speak, they cannot lie

  1. margaret21 says:

    Reblogged this on From Pyrenees to Pennines and commented:
    In 2020, my lockdown treat to myself was Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, the final instalment in her trilogy charting the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell. Yesterday, Mantel’s death was announced. This post by Brian D Butler of Travel Between the Pages seems to me a fine tribute to her writing, and an introduction to it for anyone who hasn’t yet read any of her work.

  2. margaret21 says:

    I have re-blogged your post. You have used such an excellent and appropriate piece for this tribute.

  3. Carol says:

    I happen to be reading Wolf Hall after finding it one of those “Little Library” boxes in my neighborhood. I’m enjoying it but not sure I’m up for all books of the trilogy. This may be sufficient. I’d like to watch the BBC series when I’m done.

    • I encourage you to keep going. The most fascinating part is how she describes the evolution of Cromwell’s character from book 1 to 2, and to 3

      • Carol says:

        OK. I will persevere but I don’t know if I have more than one book in me. Do you know if the subsequent books are also covered by BBC TV series?

        • I thought only the first 2 books were covered, but I don’t have TV, nor netflix and the like (just DVDs from my library), so I’m not the excerpt

          • Carol says:

            After a few minutes on Google, I confirmed your guess. I don’t know why but this book just isn’t grabbing me. There seem to be too many brief tangents that don’t seem to have much to do with the main thread which is indeed interesting.

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