Dame Hilary Mantel was a writer of immense skill and originality, and her death represents an incalculable loss to British literature. She will be chiefly remembered for her trilogy on the life of the Tudor politician Thomas Cromwell.
The grace and vigour of these gripping novels transformed our understanding of what historical fiction can do. They were extraordinarily successful. Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012) both won the Booker Prize (she was the first woman to win the prize more than once), and The Mirror and the Light (2020) was longlisted. I was a member of the jury that awarded the Booker Prize to Bring Up the Bodies, and we were of one mind about the superb quality of that novel.
Adaptations for both television and stage followed, and it is a tribute to the power of Mantel’s exploration of the ambiguities surrounding Cromwell’s dramatic life that these versions brought many enthusiastic new readers to her novels. She became, relatively late in her life, a literary star.
The popularity of Mantel’s trilogy should not overshadow the remarkable range of her achievement. Her treatment of Thomas Cromwell brought a mass readership, but the accomplishment of her earlier novels had already won critical recognition.
A writer’s life
Mantel graduated from LSE and Sheffield University, and married Gerald McEwan, a geologist, in 1972 (they divorced in 1981, and remarried in 1982). A short spell of employment as a social worker lay behind her first published novel, the darkly comic Every Day is Mother’s Day (1985), and its sequel Vacant Possession (1986).
A major 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 throughout Mantel’s writing, a far-sighted grasp of the sweep of history and politics was fused with the inward particularities of individual experience.
Mantel had a lyrical sense of the irreducible strangeness of the world, with its vivid moments of beauty and threat, but this was never removed from her understanding of the moral imperatives of our shared responsibilities. She was never a neutral observer of the ebb and flow of history.
Mantel spent extended periods of her life overseas – notably in Botswana and Saudi Arabia – and she was always alert to a world beyond Britain. Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (1988) is a tense account of misunderstandings between westerners and Saudis living in Jeddah. A Change of Climate (1994) draws on her life in Botswana, and the traumatic social divisions she had witnessed in southern Africa.
Mantel had an unusually wide and well-informed grasp of social and cultural politics, but she never lost her interest in lives that unfold on the edge of what might be perceived as normality. Fludd (1989), describes a quasi-supernatural stranger whose arrival turns a dismal Catholic community upside down. It is never quite clear who Fludd is, or where he has come from, or whether he is an agent of good or evil.
The Giant, O’Brien (1998), based on the Irish giant Charles Byrne and the Scottish surgeon John Hunter, is in part a rueful reflection on Mantel’s own Irish roots. The legacies of Irish Catholicism also shadow An Experiment in Love (1995), a novel that looks back on the lives of girls of Mantel’s postwar generation – eager to take advantage of new opportunities for education, but still haunted by the constraints of the past.
A rich legacy
The sense that another world exists, its presence flickering just past our everyday vision, underlies all of Mantel’s work. Beyond Black (2005) is an unsettling and brilliantly entertaining account of the life of a medium, who may or may not be a fraud.
Giving up the Ghost (2003), a searing memoir, repeatedly returns to the ghosts that stalked her early years – family ghosts, ghosts of unborn children, ghosts of lives that might have taken a different shape. Learning to Talk (2003), published in the same year, is a collection of short stories that turn on the same theme.
These stories are in part autobiographical recollections of Mantel’s childhood in Glossop, as she began to remove herself from the divided world of her family. Here too, it is the sharply observed details that linger – Miss Webster, for instance, the elocution teacher, with her careful accent – “precariously genteel, Manchester with icing”.
More recent short stories have been openly political, and sometimes controversial – notably The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, the provocative title story in a collection published in 2014.
This shining stream of writing has now come to an end. It’s good to know that Hilary Mantel experienced and enjoyed all the success she had so richly earned, and that we are left with such a rich body of writing to relish and revisit. But the sense of immediate loss is painful. She was a unique and generous talent, and she will be hugely missed.
Dinah Birch, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Cultural Engagement, Professor of English Literature, University of Liverpool.
Featured image: Author Hilary Mantel poses with her book Wolf Hall after winning the 2009 Man Booker Prize for Fiction at the Guildhall in London October 6, 2009. Photo: Reuters/Luke MacGregor/File