Dame Hilary Mantel was a writer of immense skill and originality, and her death represents an incalculable loss for English literature. He will be remembered mainly for his trilogy about the life of Tudor politician Thomas Cromwell.
The grace and power of these gripping novels has changed our understanding of what historical fiction can do. They were extraordinarily successful. Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012) won the Booker Prize (she was the first woman to win the award more than once), and The Mirror and the Light (2020) were longlisted. I was a member of the jury that awarded the Booker Prize for Bringing the Bodies, and we agreed on the outstanding quality of this novel.
Adaptations for both television and the stage followed, and the fact that these versions have brought so many enthusiastic new readers to his novels is a tribute to the power of Mantel’s exploration of the uncertainties surrounding Cromwell’s dramatic life. He became a literary star relatively late in his life.
The popularity of Mantel’s trilogy should not overshadow the phenomenal range of its success. His take on Thomas Cromwell brought a massive readership, but the success of his earlier novels had already garnered critical acclaim.
a writer’s life
Mantel graduated from LSE and the University of Sheffield and married Gerald McEwan, a geologist, in 1972 (they divorced in 1981 and remarried in 1982). Behind his first published novel, the dark comic Every Day is Mother’s Day (1985), and its sequel, Vacant Possession (1986), lay a brief employment as a social worker.
An important historical novel, A Place of Greater Safety (completed in 1979 but not published until 1992) is a characteristically innovative interpretation of the French Revolution. Here, as in all of Mantel’s writings, a farsighted understanding of the broad unfolding of history and politics was fused with the intrinsic features of individual experience.
Mantel had a lyrical understanding of the irreducible strangeness of the world, with its vivid moments of beauty and threat, but that never strayed from his understanding of the moral imperatives of our shared responsibilities. He has never been an unbiased observer of the tide of history.
Mantel spent long periods of her life overseas, particularly in Botswana and Saudi Arabia, and was always on the alert for a world beyond England. Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (1988) is a tense account of misunderstandings between westerners and Saudis living in Jeddah. Climate Change (1994) chronicles her life in Botswana and the traumatic social divisions she witnessed in South Africa.
Mantel had an unusually broad and knowledgeable grasp of social and cultural politics, but he never lost interest in lives that unfolded at the border of what could be perceived as normal. Fludd (1989) describes a semi-supernatural stranger whose arrival turns a dismal Catholic community upside down. It is never entirely clear who Fludd is, where he came from, or whether he is an agent of good or evil.
Based on Irish giant Charles Byrne and Scottish surgeon John Hunter, The Giant, O’Brien (1998) is a somewhat mournful reflection on Mantel’s own Irish roots. The legacy of Irish Catholicism is also overshadowed by Mantel’s An Experiment in Love (1995), a novel that looks at the lives of the daughters of the post-war generation – eager to take advantage of new opportunities for education, but still haunted by the constraints of the past.
a rich legacy
At the core of all of Mantel’s work is the sense that another world exists, its very existence vibrating just beyond our everyday vision. Beyond Black (2005) is a shocking and cleverly entertaining account of the life of a psychic, fraudulent or otherwise.
A searing memoir, Give up the Ghost (2003), returns again and again to the ghosts that follow his early years—family ghosts, ghosts of unborn children, ghosts of lives that may have taken a different form. Learning to Talk (2003), published the same year, is a collection of short stories dealing with the same theme.
These stories are partly Mantel’s autobiographical recollections of his childhood in Glossop, where he begins to distance himself from the divided world of his family. Here, too, details are sharply observed – for example, Mrs. Webster, the diction teacher with her careful accent – “precariously polite, Manchester icy”.
More recent short stories have been overtly political and sometimes controversial—notably The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, the provocative headline story in a collection published in 2014.
This brilliant stream of writing is now over. It’s good to know that Hilary Mantel has experienced and enjoyed all the successes she has so richly achieved, and we are left with such a rich body of writing for pleasure and revisiting. But a sudden sense of loss is painful. He was a unique and generous talent and will be greatly missed.