Dame Hilary Mantel obituary | Books

Dame Hilary Mantel, who has died of a stroke at age 70, was the first female author to win the Booker Prize twice, which she did for the first two volumes of her epic trilogy about the life of Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall ( 2010) and Raise the Bodies (2012). The novels, which together weigh some 2,000 pages, have sold 5 million copies worldwide, were made into an acclaimed BBC series (2015) starring Mark Rylance, and adapted by Mantel himself for the RSC stage version ( 2014), a process she kept. The trilogy culminated with The Mirror and the Light (2020) and Cromwell’s death; it turned out to be her last novel. All told in the present tense, the novels are a sample of compelling 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 typically dark and quirky story of a medium in Aldershot; an autobiography, Giving Up the Mind (2003); and three collections of short stories. Although she received good reviews, her sales were modest and none of her novels had even made the Booker’s long list. “I felt very much a niche product, very much a minority stake,” she said in an interview with The Guardian in 2020. But it was only with Cromwell and her decision “to march through to the center of English history and plant a flag,” as she put it, that she found a huge readership. It was the novel she’d been waiting to write her entire career.

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Born Hilary Thompson in Glossop, a Derbyshire village, she was the daughter of working-class Catholic parents of Irish descent who had moved to Manchester; her mother, Margaret (nee Foster), like her mother before her, had left school to work in a factory when she was only 14. Hilary’s father was Henry Thompson, but she took her last name from her mother’s second husband, Jack Mantel.

Damian Lewis as Henry VIII and Mark Rylance as outsider Thomas Cromwell in the TV adaptation of Mantel's wildly popular 2015 novel Wolf Hall.
Damian Lewis as Henry VIII and Mark Rylance as outsider Thomas Cromwell in the TV adaptation of Mantel’s wildly popular 2015 novel Wolf Hall. Photo: Giles Keyte /BBC/Company Productions Ltd

Her childhood was not a happy childhood. “The story of my childhood is a complicated sentence that I always try to finish, finish and put behind me,” she wrote in Giving up the Ghost. If she pigmented it, she continued, it would be “a faded, rain-drenched crimson, like old and drying blood.”

When she was six, a man named Jack came for tea, she wrote. “One day Jack comes for tea and doesn’t go home.” The neighbors gossiped and children at school teased her about their living situation.

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They all lived together until her mother and two younger brothers moved with Jack into a semi-detached house in Romiley. She never saw her father again. “My childhood ended like this, in the fall of 1963, the past and the future momentarily obscured by the smoke of my mother’s burning boats,” she said. She was a devout Catholic until she was twelve, and she attended Harrytown Convent school, Romiley.

She met her husband, Gerald McEwen, when they were 16 and married in 1973, the year she graduated from Sheffield University with a law degree. Instead of becoming a lawyer as she intended, 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 began 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 mind she was always in 1790s France, writing whenever she could.

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The impulse to write came from her sense that something was seriously wrong with her. While in college she suffered terrible pains but was told they were mental and was prescribed antidepressants and antipsychotics. Years of pain, misdiagnosis and denial followed. It was only in a library in Botswana that she herself 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 in Hyde Park Corner, central London, “where my fertility was confiscated and my bowels re-opened.” arranged,” as she described it.

Cloak with her Dame Commander of the British Empire Medal, awarded in 2015
Cloak with her Dame Commander of the British Empire Medal, awarded in 2015. Photo: Rex/Shutterstock

But it was recovering from the surgery that cemented her determination to write. Unable to find a publisher for A Place of Greater Safety—it wasn’t a good time to publish historical fiction—she cleverly changed course, formed what she called “a cunning plan” and embarked on a contemporary novel, Every Day Is Mother’s. Day, which was picked up right away in 1985, followed a year later by a sequel, Vacant Possession.

As her literary career finally took off, her marriage broke down and a year after her surgery she and Gerald divorced, and Mantel returned to Britain. Gerald also came home and just two years later they remarried so that he could take a job in Saudi Arabia. They moved to Jeddah in 1982 and this was 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, she was for many years a lead book reviewer for The Guardian, as well as a film critic for the Spectator. Although she sat on several committees – the Royal Society of Literature, the Society of Authors and the Advisory Committee for Public Lending Right – and taught, she never saw herself as part of a literary set and always stood a little apart from her famous contemporaries. such as Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie. With the publication of The Giant, O’Brien in 1998 and Beyond Black in 2005, she began her breakthrough as a “literary novelist” – at least in terms of sales.

And then came Cromwell. It was no small irony that, after years of being unable to publish her first historical novel, she rose to fame with a book set during the reign of Henry VIII. “It was like suddenly discovering that your feet are on solid ground after swimming and swimming,” she said. “From the first paragraph I knew 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 the hospital for more operations, a period she chronicled in a journal for the London Review of Books. “Illness strips you back to an authentic self, but not one you have to meet. Too much is being claimed for authenticity. Painfully we learn to live in the world and be false,” she wrote.

Wolf Hall book cover

After the success of Wolf Hall, she and Gerald moved to the seaside town of Budleigh Salterton in Devon, which she had visited when she was 16 and where she 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 wrote in bursts at night. She still had many notebooks full of ideas and projects she wanted to start.

In 2013, she caused a minor outcry in a speech at the British Museum in which she described Catherine Middleton as a personality-free “mannequin”, based on her fascination with the public perception of the female body, and wrote a powerful essay for the Guardian to mark the occasion. of the 20th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana. She became a lady in 2014.

As her agent of nearly 40 years, Bill Hamilton said, “You should always 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. She eloquently wrote about how hard it was to know what each new sentence should contain and what surprises lay just around the corner, such as the presences that populate her books: ghosts and the ghosts of what the future might hold contain.

Mantel did much to encourage other writers and was generous with her time for everyone she met professionally. Similarly, Hamilton said: “When the success arrived, she gleefully enjoyed it because she knew it was so hard-earned.”

Gerard survives her.

Hilary Mary Mantel, author, born July 6, 1952; died September 22, 2022

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