Dame Hilary Mantel obituary
Dame Hilary Mantel, who has died aged 70 after suffering a stroke, was the first female author to win the Booker prize twice, which she did for the first two volumes in her epic trilogy of the life of Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall (2010) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012). The novels, which collectively weigh in at about 2,000 pages, have sold 5m copies worldwide, were made into an acclaimed BBC series (2015) staring Mark Rylance, and adapted by Mantel herself for the RSC stage version (2014), a process that she loved. The trilogy culminated with The Mirror and the Light (2020) and the death of Cromwell; it turned out to be her final novel. All told in the present tense, the novels constitute a feat of immersive storytelling and a monumental landmark in contemporary fiction.
Before Cromwell, Mantel had written nine novels, including A Place of Greater Safety (1992), about the French Revolution; Beyond Black (2005), a characteristically dark and idiosyncratic tale of a medium in Aldershot; a memoir, Giving up the Ghost (2003); and three collections of short stories. Although she received good reviews, her sales were modest and none of her novels had even been longlisted for the Booker. “I felt very much like a niche product, very much a minority interest,” she said in an interview with the Guardian in 2020. But it was only with Cromwell and her decision “to march on to the middle ground of English history and plant a flag”, as she put it, that she found a huge readership. It was the novel she had been waiting all her career to write.
Born Hilary Thompson in Glossop, a village in Derbyshire, she was the daughter of working-class Catholic parents with Irish ancestry who had moved to Manchester; her mother, Margaret (nee Foster), like her mother before her, had left school to work in a mill when she was only 14. Hilary’s father was Henry Thompson, but she took her surname from her mother’s second husband, Jack Mantel.
Hers was not a happy childhood. “The story of my childhood is a complicated sentence that I’m always trying to finish, to finish and put behind me,” she wrote in Giving up the Ghost. If she were to give it a pigment, she continued, it would be “a faded, rain-drenched crimson, like stale and drying blood”.
When she was six, a man called Jack had come for tea, she wrote. “One day Jack comes for tea and doesn’t go home again.” The neighbours gossiped and children at school teased her about their living arrangements.
They all lived together until her mother and two younger brothers moved to a semi-detached house in Romiley with Jack. She never saw her father again. “My childhood ended so, in the autumn of 1963, the past and the future equally obscured by the smoke from my mother’s burning boats,” she said. Until she was 12, she was a devout Catholic, and she went to Harrytown Convent school, Romiley.
She met her husband, Gerald McEwen, when they were 16, marrying in 1973, the year that she graduated from Sheffield University with a law degree. Instead of becoming a barrister as she had planned, she got a job in a department store and started reading about the French Revolution. She said she never thought of becoming a novelist until she “actually picked up a pen to become one” and even then it was only because she felt she had missed her chance to become a historian. She started her first novel, A Place of Greater Safety in, 1974, when she was 22. It would be two decades before it was published. In 1977 she and Gerald were sent to Botswana for his work as a geologist. She started teaching, but in her head she was always in 1790s France, writing whenever she could.
The impulse to write grew out of her sense that something was seriously wrong with her. While she was at university she started having terrible pains, but was told they were psychological and was prescribed antidepressants and anti-psychotic drugs. There followed years of pain, misdiagnosis and denial. It was only in a library in Botswana that she self-diagnosed severe endometriosis. When she was 27 and back in England over Christmas, she collapsed and underwent major surgery at St George’s hospital, which was then at Hyde Park Corner, central London, “having my fertility confiscated and my insides rearranged”, as she described it.
But it was recovering from the operation that cemented her determination to write. Unable to find a publisher for A Place of Greater Safety – it was not a great time to be trying to publish historical fiction – she shrewdly changed tack, forming what she called “a cunning plan”, and started on a contemporary novel, Every Day Is Mother’s Day, which was immediately snapped up in 1985, followed a year later by a sequel, Vacant Possession.
While her literary career was finally taking off, her marriage was foundering, and a year after her operation she and Gerald divorced, with Mantel returning to Britain. Gerald also came home, and barely two years later they remarried so that he could take up a job in Saudi Arabia. They moved to Jeddah in 1982, and this provided the inspiration for her fourth novel, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (1988). A Place of Greater Safety was published four years later.
After returning to Britain, for many years she was a lead book reviewer for the Guardian, as well as film critic for the Spectator. Although sitting on various committees – the Royal Society of Literature, the Society of Authors and the Advisory Committee for Public Lending Right – and teaching, she never saw herself as part of any literary set, and was always slightly apart from her famous contemporaries such as Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie. The publication of The Giant, O’Brien in 1998 and Beyond Black in 2005 saw her begin to break out of being “a literary novelist” – at least in terms of sales.
And then came Cromwell. It was no small irony that after years of not being able to publish her first historical novel, she found fame with a book set during the reign of Henry VIII. “It was as if after swimming and swimming you’ve suddenly found your feet are on ground that’s firm,” she said. “I knew from the first paragraph that this was going to be the best thing I’d ever done.”
The debilitating pain and periods of ill health of her early years never left her. And in 2010, shortly after winning the Booker prize for the first time, she was back in hospital for yet more operations, a period she chronicled in a diary for the London Review of Books. “Illness strips you back to an authentic self, but not one you need to meet. Too much is claimed for authenticity. Painfully we learn to live in the world, and to be false,” she wrote.
After the success of Wolf Hall, she and Gerald moved to the Devon seaside town of Budleigh Salterton, which she had visited when she was 16 and where she had promised herself she would one day live. Gerald became her manager and was always her first reader. Never afraid of long hours, she liked to write first thing in the morning, and when she was deeply immersed in a novel she often would write in bursts during the night. She still had many notebooks full of ideas and projects she wanted to begin.
In 2013 she caused a minor outcry in a speech at the British Museum in which she described Catherine Middleton as a personality-free “shop window mannequin”, drawn from her fascination with public perceptions of the female body, and she wrote a powerful essay for the Guardian to mark the 20th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana. She was made a dame in 2014.
As her agent of nearly 40 years, Bill Hamilton, said: “You always have to remember how much her background and ferocious intelligence made her an outsider, and how her chronic ill health made her a stranger even to her own body. In her writing she had to invent everything from scratch. She wrote eloquently about how hard it was to know what each new sentence had to contain, and what surprises lay just round the corner, like the presences that populate her books: ghosts, and the ghosts of what the future might hold.”
Mantel did much to encourage other writers, and was generous with her time for anyone she met professionally. Equally, Hamilton said: “When success arrived she enjoyed it gleefully, as she knew it was so hard-earned.”