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23 September 2022

Hilary Mantel’s death is an incalculable loss to our national life and literature

The late novelist’s extraordinary talent was to take our collective history and make it new.

By Erica Wagner

Hilary Mantel and I were sitting in the Albemarle Suite at Hampton Court Palace. A wood-panelled chamber; the palace gardens stretching out beyond the glass. This was in 2020, and the final instalment of her Tudor trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, would be published in a few months’ time. We were discussing what it was like to feel so intimately connected to the past that it seemed as if you belonged there. She told me how, at 12, she had come down from her native Derbyshire for a visit to this very place.

“It was the first time I’d been to the south,” she said, in her distinctive voice: high, breathy and yet always authoritative. “We stayed with a cousin who lived near Richmond, and we came on the boat – which is the way to arrive. I was very emotional that day. I think you’ve so few skins at that age, and I was really moved by the beauty of the palace and by the Long Water [a man-made canal by the palace]. It was a glorious summer’s day, but when we went into those little panelled rooms, I did have a moment…”

She trailed off. Her beloved husband, Gerald, was sat off to the side, happily listening to our conversation. “I don’t know how to describe it. It wasn’t any sense of presences or ghosts or anything like that; it was a feeling of, ‘Well, I’ll just settle down in this corner and why should I ever go anywhere else?’ It was as if I’d walked into something very… consequential. It was a distinct feeling and the first time I had such a feeling. It was just, ‘This matters.’”

It mattered to all of us, in the end. Over the course of the past decade Dame Hilary became my friend, though we did not meet often; I had my own sense of mysterious connection to the past thanks to my passionate link to Washington Roebling, the chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. It was a link that began for me too when I was a girl. Hilary understood. After listening to her tell that story I described standing on the Brooklyn Bridge for the first time at 16 and thinking, this is the place for me. “That’s exactly it!” she exclaimed. “You’ve said it. ‘This is the place for me.’ Yes. And it’s more real, somehow, than other places.”

Hilary Mantel made the past absolutely real. How extraordinary to be able to take a familiar period of history and make it new: Wolf Hall, the first volume of the Tudor trilogy, introduced us to Thomas Cromwell, a figure whose consequential role in the reign of Henry VIII had somehow been previously ignored. “So now get up,” the novel begins, an imperative, commanding the reader’s attention. How canny of her too to understand, as she did very well, that 2009 was the only year in which to publish this book, it being the 500th anniversary of Henry’s accession.

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First one Booker Prize, and then another for Bring Up the Bodies (2012), the second book in the set. A stage adaptation of the books with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) followed, and there was a television adaptation starring Mark Rylance; she was made a Dame, she delivered the Reith Lectures, and became the only living author whose portrait was hung in the British Library.

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She loved the attention. She was being listened to – as she always should have been – at last. Up until that point she had been that creature of the dark corners, a literary author. She knew what it meant, however, to bide her time. A Place of Greater Safety, her magnificent novel of the French Revolution, was published in 1992 as her fifth novel – but it was, in fact, her first. She tried to get it published in the early 1980s but was told there was no market for historical fiction. Practical as ever, she returned to her desk and wrote Every Day is Mother’s Day (1985), a darkly comic contemporary novel that alerted her early readers to her fascination with the world of the spirits, later explored so brilliantly in Beyond Black (2005) and her pin-sharp memoir, Giving Up the Ghost (2003).

Mantel was not afraid to cause trouble. I sat with her – and Gerald, of course – in her seafront flat in Budleigh Salterton not so very long after her “Royal Bodies” lecture, delivered in 2013, in which she appeared to criticise (note my use of the word “appeared”) Catherine, then the Duchess of Cambridge, now the Princess of Wales. “Kate Middleton, as she was, appeared” – there’s that pesky word again – “to have been designed by a committee and built by craftsmen, with a perfect plastic smile and the spindles of her limbs hand-turned and gloss-varnished,” she said. David Cameron, the then prime minister, was outraged, leaping to the defence of the person he referred to (bizarrely) as “Princess Kate”. She laughed as she described photographers accosting middle-aged women on the promenade, hoping that each one might be Hilary Mantel. She, of course, had given them the slip.

The following year she published a short story collection: its title piece, “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher”, imagined the former prime minister’s death at the hands of an IRA gunman. The Daily Telegraph was furious; Timothy Bell, former PR adviser to Thatcher, called on the police to investigate.

But neither of these episodes sprang from a desire to provoke for provocation’s sake. Read “Royal Bodies” and you will understand the subtlety of her thinking; no sound-bite could do it justice. Subtlety, however, wasn’t always what was required. As to Margaret Thatcher: “I would say that she wrecked the country,” she told the New Republic. “I loathed her.” Yet the story itself is a small masterpiece of close observation and harrowing tension.

Her death is an incalculable loss to our national life and literature. How I was  looking forward to her observations on the reign of King Charles III; and to her next novel, on which she was hard at work. She had just published The Wolf Hall Picture Book, a collaboration with Ben Miles and his brother, the photographer George Miles. Ben Miles, who took the role of Cromwell in the RSC’s stage productions and was her literary collaborator in the adaptation of The Mirror and the Light, was, for Mantel, the perfect embodiment of her brilliant, cunning protagonist. They formed what can only be described as an eerie mind-meld; in 2014 Mantel told me that Miles was “the only one who really understands the structure of Wolf Hall”.

The picture book takes a sidelong glance at the past through the medium of the present: photographs taken by Ben and George Miles as the trio traced Cromwell’s routes through contemporary Britain over the past seven years. “The object was always to sneak around a location and get behind the obvious,” Mantel wrote in her introduction. “To see what Historic Royal Palaces left out for refuse collection, or to catch a glimpse of a ghost’s coat-tail whisk away from multipurpose conference rooms or banqueting venues. We believe that you don’t attune yourself to the spirit of the place by earnest enquiry. You just hang about, make yourself available. You show willing.”

Hilary Mantel showed willing, always. She was greedy for experience: watch her avidly shooting a Vickers machine gun – her grandfather knew its manual by heart – in the BBC documentary Hilary Mantel: Return to Wolf Hall and dare to doubt me. She began her Reith Lectures by quoting St Augustine: “The dead are invisible, they are not absent.” The past was always perfectly present for her; how grateful we must be she made it visible to us. The Mirror and the Light ends, as it must, with her avatar Cromwell’s death. “He has vanished; he is the slippery stones underfoot, he is the last faint ripple in the wake of himself. He feels for an opening, blinded, looking for a door: tracking the light along the wall.”

[See also: How Hilary Mantel became a publishing phenomenon]

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This article appears in the 28 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Truss Delusion