Hilary Mantel, who has died at the age of 70, was frequently credited with reinvigorating historical fiction. Prior to Wolf Hall, the first volume of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, the genre was seen, she said, as “chick lit in long frocks”. Her approach – intense imagining amounting to projection (she even developed a Tudor hand for her book-signing signature), a deep and thorough soaking in the historical sources and the highly nuanced intuition that resulted – was at times uncompromising. Mantel, however, was unapologetic; to change the way she perceived and wrote about distant times would not just be impossible but untruthful: “You simply cannot run remedial classes for people on the page.” She never did.
Born in 1952 in Glossop, Derbyshire, Mantel studied law at the London School of Economics and Sheffield University, and went on to work in a geriatric hospital – an experience that would inform her first novel, Every Day is Mother’s Day (1985). Mantel married the geologist Gerald McEwen in 1972. Wolf Hall was published in 2009 to instant critical acclaim. The trilogy – Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, both of which won the Booker Prize, were followed by The Mirror and the Light in 2020 – has sold more than five million copies to date.
The Cromwell books were not her first essays in the style. A Place of Greater Safety (1992) and The Giant, O’Brien (1998) predated them and treated respectively the French Revolution and a Georgian outsider. Wolf Hall was her tenth novel and it was perhaps the culmination of all her earlier works. In them, regardless of setting – London’s dormitory towns (Beyond Black), Saudi Arabia (Eight Months on Ghazzah Street), a mental asylum (Every Day is Mother’s Day) – Mantel showed her familiarity with what might be termed a non-standard psychology. Her world, both on the page and in person, was one of ghosts and spirits and dark corners of the psyche. She claimed to have met the Devil twice.
Before Wolf Hall, although her critical reputation was high, she claimed that: “I had no identity in the mind of the reading public.” After the prize wins, stratospheric sales, and successful adaptations of her work for both television and the stage that followed, she suddenly had a public profile. It was double-edged: she was on the receiving end of huffing outrage for her short story “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher”, and when she suggested that the primary role of the new Princess of Wales was to subsume her personality and produce an heir. Not that it tempered her. She wrote in the New Statesman in 2017 of how “the new Tories will never confess to a social wrecking agenda, or the old Tories to their indifference to interests other than their own”. She considered Brexit a populist disaster that left her and her husband Gerald planning to move to Ireland.
Mantel’s immersion in the court of Henry VIII also gave her highly tuned instincts for modern royalty. In an interview with Rachel Cooke for the NS last year, Mantel pondered the reaction to the death of the Queen: “My reading of it is that people will say, ‘She was a very old lady,’ then there’ll be all the obituaries in which she is Boudicca, Gloriana and all the rest of it, and then people will start to feel it quietly, and for a long, long time. When there’s such continuity, people must feel it at a deep level. They’ll think it doesn’t matter, and then they’ll discover that it does.”
Unlike the Queen, Mantel wasn’t an old lady, or Boudicca or Gloriana, but her death will also be felt at a deep level. Her books mean that it matters too.
Michael Prodger is associate editor of the New Statesman. He was on the Booker judging panel that awarded “Wolf Hall” the prize in 2009.