“Writing”, Hilary Mantel told me in an interview at the end of 2020, “is the arena of peril.” The author, who has died at the age of 70, wrote 17 books with style and vast imagination. She had a knack for the intricacies of the human psyche and spun life and closeness into historical fiction.
Her 12th book, Wolf Hall, the first in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, catapulted her to unquestionable fame. She was in her late fifties when it won her the Booker Prize in 2009. The second Booker would arrive with her follow-up, Bring up the Bodies. The Mirror and the Light, published in 2020, brought her that rare book-world fanfare, queues lining the streets.
She was a brilliant novelist, short story writer and critic, one who understood closely her own sense of craft. She knew the necessity of practice and routine, while never denying the elusive magic that snakes its way through. As a person, she was decent, generous, sly, honest. She read contemporary fiction by younger writers with interest, paid attention to the news cycle.
Mantel was born in Glossop, Derbyshire, and grew up in Hadfield, a small town near Manchester, then Cheshire, where she attended a convent school. She was brought up by her mother and stepfather (whose surname she took). She transferred from the LSE to the University of Sheffield to study law, where she met her husband Gerald McEwan (who she married twice). “The story of my own childhood is a complicated sentence that I am always trying to finish, to finish and put behind me”, she wrote in her 2003 memoir Giving up the Ghost.
In that bracing yet playful book, she describes the beginning of a life-long struggle with endometriosis that began as a teenager and remained undiagnosed until her late twenties, when searching through a textbook she recognised her illness on the page. Her university doctor had sent her to a mental health clinic, convinced she was imagining her symptoms. When he caught her writing, he decided her stories were dark evidence of madness and told her to stop. Mantel has campaigned to raise awareness and research for the disease.
Gerald’s job as a geologist led them to Botswana in the 1970s for five years and Saudi Arabia for four. She described Saudi Arabia as “an intensely lonely kind of life. My mind often goes back there.” Gerald gave up his job to work for Mantel. In 2010, they bought a flat in Budleigh Salterton, Devon, where they have lived and worked ever since, Mantel setting off up the hill to her office every day, keeping her writing and living neatly separated.
Mantel was president of the literary festival there, and recently auctioned her desk for more than £4,000 to provide funds for its literacy outreach work. But they had plans to move to Ireland — “Brexit is making me very unhappy”, she told me in 2020. “I think it would actually break my heart to leave here. But there are considerations that make me uncomfortable in England now.”
A recurring theme in her writing was death, or alternatively, how the dead survive: the aliveness of the past, what is forgotten and what returns. Her 2005 novel Beyond Black, about a medium called Alison, “was all about how can the dead speak?”
A penetrating and funny critic, she had published pieces in the London Review of Books since 1987. She received a damehood in 2015 but has been outspoken about the monarchy. A lecture she gave at the British Museum in 2013 made the front pages of national newspapers, when she described Kate Middleton as a “shop-window mannequin”. The (shrewd) criticism of the monarchy, and what is expected of women in the public eye, was twisted into a personal attack. A short story about the imagined assassination of Margaret Thatcher, 20 years in the writing, courted controversy too. A gracious, wise writer, but a cheeky one too, she saw through authority, whether it was the Catholic church, the monarchy or the Conservative party.
Meeting writers can be a disappointment, but Mantel was everything you wanted her to be. Her first and only agent, Bill Hamilton, said in a statement: “We will miss her immeasurably, but as a shining light for writers and readers she leaves an extraordinary legacy.”
Mantel believed in things beyond our understanding and had an openness to possibilities. In a recent Q&A with the FT, she was asked if she believed in the afterlife. “Yes”, she said. “I can’t imagine how it might work. However, the universe is not limited by what I can imagine.” Her imagination was vast, yet beyond what she could imagine, she believed, was still more.