Dame Hilary Mantel, the novelist who has died aged 70, succeeded in her Wolf Hall trilogy in restoring the Tudor statesman Thomas Cromwell to a central place in the public consciousness, in an act of literary resurrection hailed by critics as so powerful that it bordered on the uncanny.
The relationship between Hilary Mantel and Cromwell struck some observers as something more symbiotic than that of author and character: indeed, so vividly did she inhabit him that more than one reviewer of Wolf Hall suggested that she was his reincarnation.
Both came from working-class families and yet succeeded against the odds in reaching the top of their professions. The appeal of writing about Cromwell, Hilary Mantel said, was that he was “someone whose whole career ought not to be possible”. When she described him feeling that he had to “edge blackly into a room” in the early years of his working life in deference to his betters, she was, she admitted, drawing on her own long-standing insecurities.
And if she dealt kindly with Cromwell – not only cementing his place in the minds of readers as one of the most interesting figures in English history, but eliciting sympathy for him even at his most ruthless and inflexible – he was equally good to her, establishing her in late middle age as not just a leading novelist but a central figure in 21st-century culture, three decades into a career that had seen her books win extravagant critical praise but never quite chime with the public.
When Wolf Hall was published in 2009 it was greeted so rapturously that the bookies declared it the closest there had ever been to a dead cert to win the Booker Prize – which it duly did. Comments such as that made by the broadcaster Andrew Marr – “Wonder of wonders, the book I most enjoyed [this year] was the one that won the Booker Prize” – were widespread, and the novel was a commercial success beyond the dreams of most Booker winners.
When the second volume in the trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies (2012), also succeeded in carrying off the Booker, Hilary Mantel broke records as the first woman to win the prize twice and the first author to win with a sequel.
She went on to collaborate with Mike Poulton on a two-part stage adaptation of the novels, performed by the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon and London in 2014. The following year the two books were adapted as a BBC television series, with Mark Rylance giving an outstanding performance that conveyed Cromwell’s nobility, awkward charm and capacity for cruelty, as delineated in the novels.
The pressure on Hilary Mantel to match her success with the concluding volume of the trilogy was thought to be the explanation for the lengthy gap that elapsed before its publication in 2020, although interviewers and friends reported that she was unfazed and perhaps unfazable. The Mirror and the Light was generally regarded as not quite up to the quality of its predecessors but still a remarkably vibrant and subtle work by any other standard; when it came to the Booker, however, it did not proceed further than the longlist.
Hilary Mantel’s success also set the seal on the efforts she had made over many years, along with other writers of her generation such as Sebastian Faulks and Pat Barker, to elevate the reputation of the critically despised genre of historical fiction. But although her cerebral, knotty books demonstrated she had little in common with the likes of Jean Plaidy, she won a comparably large audience – although she was gracious enough to admit that she was off to a flying start in securing a readership by writing about such perennial favourite topics as Henry VIII and Tudor politicking.
She was tickled by a newspaper headline that read: “Booker Prize is won by Henry VIII”. “He’d have claimed it. That’s the thing about Henry. Wolsey warned Cromwell that ‘He will take credit for all your successes and he will blame you for all your failures’.”
The fascination with “the great lecherous brute”, she suggested, was due to the complexities of his personal life being “so recognisable in terms of modern family dynamics, and yet it’s all so much nearer the bone because the stakes are so high”.
Ultimately, however, she took the view that her late-flowering popularity stemmed from her having finally found the subject matter that would truly release her creativity. Starting work on the trilogy, she said, felt “like at last delivering what’s within you … an enormous shout from a mountain top”.
What made her achievement all the more poignant was that she knew she was not guaranteed to survive to complete this Herculean project, and that its fruition marked a triumphant conclusion to a working life that had been shaped and circumscribed by serious illness.
She was born Hilary Mary Thompson in Glossop, Derbyshire, on July 6 1952, the daughter of Henry Thompson, a clerk, and his wife Margaret, née Foster, who worked in the local mill. Both parents were from Irish families, and practised what Hilary found to be an oppressive Catholicism: “From about the age of four I had begun to believe I had done something wrong,” she later wrote.
Appropriately for the future chronicler of the Tudors, she learnt early about the possible complexity of marital relations, when her mother moved her lover, Jack Mantel, into the family home, and her father was downgraded to the spare room.
After years spent living as “a ghost” in the house, her father moved out when she was 11, and she never saw him again. Late in life, after he had died, she discovered that he had gone on to remarry: one of his stepdaughters told her that he once caught sight of her on television at a Booker ceremony in the 1990s, and declared: “I think that’s my daughter”.
To avoid scandal, Hilary and her two younger brothers took Jack Mantel’s surname and were told to present themselves to the world as his children – she found she took to dissembling quite easily.
She was always in delicate health – the local doctor dubbed her “Miss Neverwell” – and the family moved to Cheshire so that she would not have to travel far every day to attend Harrytown Convent School.
She later said of her schooling: “My convent years left me a legacy, a nervous politeness, an appearance of female timidity which will probably stand me in good stead if I am ever on trial for murder.”
She lost her faith at 12 – “I just woke up one day and didn’t believe anything any more” – and had a low opinion of priests: “I began to think that they were rather worse than the average human being, not better.”
At 18 she went to study Law at the London School of Economics, but dropped out after marrying Gerald McEwen, a geologist, when she was 20. She resumed her legal studies at the University of Sheffield after her husband’s work took him there, but had become disillusioned by the time she graduated: “I hadn’t realised how hard it was for a woman, and from the North, and with no family money, to become a barrister.”
Instead she became a social work assistant in a geriatric hospital, and when that palled, worked as a shop assistant in Manchester. By this time she was in constant pain from an apparently undiagnosable condition. For several months she was treated with drugs that induced psychosis, in what she remembered as the worst period of her life.
“My options were closing off, because the things I felt I might do, I clearly wasn’t going to be able to do,” she recalled. “What I needed was a project under my control.”
She began work on a novel about the French Revolution, although she had never considered writing fiction before: “I only became a novelist because I thought I had missed my chance to become a historian.”
“If it hadn’t been for my poor health, would I have become a writer at all? Probably not,” she told The Daily Telegraph in 2010, adding: “I think I’d choose the health.”
In 1977 her husband was offered a job in Botswana, where she fell into a job as a schoolteacher: “I was 25 and my oldest pupils were older than I was.” She finished her novel and, having been told by numerous doctors that her illness was all in the mind, diagnosed herself with endometriosis after reading through all the medical books in the university library in Gaborone.
Returning to England on leave in 1979, she presented her doctors with the fruits of her research and, after some resistance on their part, was proved correct: she found herself undergoing emergency surgery to remove her womb and ovaries and part of her bowel.
She had not decided whether she wanted to have children, but always regretted that the choice was taken from her. There was a further blow when she submitted the manuscript of her novel to several publishers, who responded as one that there was no market for serious historical fiction.
She returned to Botswana, but remained in precarious health: “Too much active endometriosis had been left behind, and it continued to damage my body … I had to find ways of living with the condition, but it meant that my body was unreliable and life was quite narrow and effortful.”
Her condition took its toll on her marriage and in 1981 she and her husband divorced, only to reconcile and remarry the following year.
She embarked on another novel, a black comedy inspired by her period as a social worker: “Writing a contemporary novel was just a way to get a publisher. My heart lay with historical fiction,” she recalled. This time she was successful, and Every Day Is Mother’s Day was published in 1985, swiftly followed by a sequel, Vacant Possession.
Between 1983 and 1987 her husband’s work took the couple to Saudi Arabia, which became the setting for her third novel, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (1988). Hilary Mantel later judged the book to have been prescient in its treatment of terrorism and the clash between Islam and the West, although, she recalled, the critics – largely male – ignored the political elements and praised or dispraised it as a domestic study.
After that came Fludd (1989), a brittle comic tale about the devil visiting a dreary Northern town in the guise of a curate, which earned favourable comparisons with Muriel Spark. Her novels were only selling moderately, however, but she became a prolific book reviewer, and, after winning a travel writing competition in The Spectator, was invited to succeed Peter Ackroyd as the magazine’s film critic.
Then in 1992 she finally secured a publisher for her novel about the French Revolution. A Place of Greater Safety, which many critics still regard as her finest book, was intended to redress the tendency in historical fiction to concentrate on “the aristocracy and their sufferings” instead of “a far more interesting group – the idealistic revolutionaries, whose stories are amazing”. It sold well, although she noted that male critics still chided her for such transgressions as writing too much about wallpaper.
Two books gave a further boost to her reputation in the new millennium: Beyond Black (2005), the Gothic tale of a psychic who knows that the afterlife is not as rosy a place as she makes out to her clients; and Giving Up the Ghost (2003), a memoir. The latter revealed the true extent of her ill health, which had been compounded by thyroid problems and resulted in her putting on excessive weight – her body “rising like a loaf left in a warm place”, as she put it.
Reflecting on why she wrote the book, she noted how “ignorable you become when you are fat – like a piece of furniture. I’m like a comic-book version of myself. My body is intent on telling the story [of my ill health], so my mind had better go along with it and write the memoir.”
Her admirers rejoiced when the Wolf Hall trilogy made her earlier work more widely known. She found herself, in her 60s, in a new role as a public intellectual, and in 2017 she delivered the BBC Reith Lectures, on the subject of historical fiction.
She had always been a caustic commentator on public affairs, but after her first Booker win found that the media took a new, intense interest in her opinions. In 2013, in the course of a lecture that she intended as a sympathetic discussion of the way in which women who marry into the royal family are forced to surrender their individuality, she described the then Duchess of Cambridge as “a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung”.
The remarks were seized upon by the press as a grievous insult, and she was criticised by the Prime Minister, David Cameron, and the Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband. “I was appalled at their bad judgement, allowing themselves to comment on something they know nothing about,” she observed later.
She was equally unrepentant when she was denounced in 2014 for publishing a short story collection entitled The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. Although Lady Thatcher was by then dead, Lord Bell insisted that this was so serious a provocation to violence that the police should investigate.
In 2021 she said that she hoped to take Irish citizenship, being “ashamed… to be living in the nation that elected this Government and allows itself to be led by it”.
Although Hilary Mantel vowed that she would spend her prize money “on sex, drugs and rock’n’roll” when she won the Booker, she lived a quiet life, admitting that she had few close friends as she needed to harvest her energy for her work.
She professed to be envious of Cromwell, who was also a workaholic but, unlike her, able to enjoy his leisure time. “He makes you think, ‘Well, couldn’t I have a slightly more human life?’ But I have not quite adapted to that.” Her major relaxation was watching cricket.
Although she could seem austere and reserved on first meeting, she was much liked in the literary world. She had an appealing fondness for bad puns: a 2020 collection of her essays was entitled Mantel Pieces.
Hilary Mantel was appointed CBE in 2006 and DBE in 2014. Her husband survives her.
Hilary Mantel, born July 6 1952, died September 22 2022