Ame Hilary Mantel, the celebrated author who wrote some of Britain’s most famous historical novels, has died at the age of 70.
Born in Glossop, Derbyshire, the eldest of three children, she graduated from Sheffield University with a Bachelor of Jurisprudence and published her first novel Every Day is Mother’s Day in 1985 at the age of 33. Shortly after, she became a film critic for The Spectator before turning to writing novels full-time.
She was, in her own words, “very ambitious” and had always dreamed of becoming a lawyer and then a politician. But health problems got in her way – she suffered from a severe form of endometriosis, which lingered throughout her life. When she was a student, doctors thought her pain was psychosomatic and prescribed her a medicine chest full of drugs, leading to a nervous breakdown.
Mantel once told the Times that she thought, “Well, you better get a book up your sleeve, because even when you’re sick you can write.” However, her ambition never faltered, and she was a notorious one throughout her life Workaholic who sat in the back of the car while her husband drove in silence so she could keep writing.
She won the Booker Prize twice, once in 2009 for the novel Wolf Hall and in 2012 for the sequel Bring Up the Bodies. Speaking to the Guardian about her first win, she joked that she would spend her £50,000 on ‘sex, drugs and rock and roll’ before adding: ‘It buys time. That’s what an author wants.” In 2012, she told the Times about winning the award: “It’s been consistently positive for me. I just thought, oh well, they’re giving me a big check!”
Although the Booker Prize was undoubtedly her best-known award, the author had won and been nominated for numerous awards, including the Sunday Express Book of the Year Award for the 1992 novel A Place of Greater Safety and the Hawthornden Prize for the novel In love with experiment from 1996.
She lived with her husband, geologist Gerald McEwen, for most of her life. The couple married when she was just 20 years old. They divorced in 1981 but remarried a year later and remained together until her death.
They lived together in Botswana for four years in the 1980s and then in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, an episode that Mantel wrote about in the London Review of Books. In 2010, she wrote an article in the Guardian, saying of leaving Jeddah: “In a moment four years’ compulsion dissolved, the extent of my inner impoverishment became clear” and that it was “the happiest day of my life”.
Never one to pull her punches, she wrote in an essay in LRB about the royal family in 2013, saying: “Kate Middleton, just as she was, seemed to have been designed by a committee and built by craftsmen with a perfect plastic smile.” and the spindles of their limbs turned by hand and varnished brightly.
“When it was announced that Diana was to join the royal family, the Duke of Edinburgh is said to have given her his approval because she would ‘brood at a certain height’. Presumably, Kate was designed to reproduce in a way.”
Mantel also denounced the Catholic Church, telling The Telegraph in May 2012: “I’m one of nature’s Protestants. I should never have been raised Catholic. I think that the Catholic Church is not an institution for decent people today.”
In 2014 she was made a Dame and in 2017 she was selected to present the prestigious Reith Lectures on BBC Radio Four (other leading figures selected to present are Jonathan Sacks, Atul Gawande and Kwame Anthony Appiah).
If you’re new to Mantel or have always wanted to read some of her novels but weren’t sure where to start, here’s our rundown of her best work.
A Place of Greater Safety (1992)
A historical novel set during the French Revolution, this book focuses on the revolutionary leaders Georges Danton, Camille Desmoulins and Maximilien Robespierre and traces their lives from childhood to Georges Danton’s death in 1794.
The New York Times wrote at the time: “More novel and less story might not be a better fit for this author’s unmistakable talent.”
A Climate Change (1994)
This book, set in Norfolk in 1980, describes Ralph and Anna Eldred’s life falling apart as repressed memories of a catastrophic event in their past surface.
The New York Times Review of Books states: “Some readers may find themselves re-examining their own ideas about the artist’s right or obligation to represent politically inconvenient truths. Others may choose to consider none of it at all and simply delight in Hilary Mantel’s intelligent, astringent, and wonderfully harrowing fiction.”
Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (1988)
The third of Mantel’s novels, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, tells the story of an English woman who moves to Jeddah with her husband, inspired by Mantel’s own experiences.
The novel reflects on the West’s relationship with Islam, and Mantel told the Telegraph in 2009: “I was a bit frustrated because as events unfolded I felt a kind of I got it it got it. “
The Spectator said there is a “peculiar dread emanating from this narrative”.
Giving Up the Ghost (2003)
In 2003, Mantel published her memoir Giving Up the Ghost. Speaking to The Times in 2012, she said, “They say, ‘Never apologize, never explain,’ and I think if you’re a really strong person, that’s the philosophy that could guide your life. But I’m not like that and I wanted to explain it.”
She wrote in LRB: “You come to this place, in the middle of life. You don’t know how you got here, but suddenly you’re staring fifty in the face. If you turn around and look back over the years you see the ghosts of other lives you may have had; All houses are haunted.”
Apparently, she started writing the memoir because her stepfather had died and, while going through his belongings, she had started making notes on items that evoked long-forgotten childhood memories.
“The story of my own childhood is a complicated sentence that I’m always trying to finish, finish and get over,” she wrote in the LRB.
Wolf Hall (2009)
Wolf Hall, the book that truly made Mantel famous and earned the author her first Booker Prize, traces the rise of Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII to the execution of Sir Thomas More in 1535. It took Mantel five years to to write it.
In 2015 it was made into a BBC drama (along with its sequel, Bringing Up Bodies), starring Damian Lewis as King Henry and Mark Rylance as Cromwell. The book’s name comes from the Wiltshire manor house where Jane Seymour grew up.
The Observer said: “It is this lithe movement between laughter and terror that makes this rich portrayal of Tudor life her most humane and enchanting novel.”
The Times wrote: “As soon as I opened the book I was captivated. I read it almost continuously. When I had to put it down, I was filled with regret that the story was over, a regret I still feel.”
Educate Body (2012)
Bring up the Bodies, which also won the Booker Prize, continued Cromwell’s story, this time leading up to the execution of Anne Boleyn, which took place in 1536 not so soon after the events of the first book.
The New York Times said, “The wonderful thing about Ms. Mantel’s retelling is that it brings these events once again fresh and chilling.”
The Mirror and the Light (2020)
The third part of the trilogy was finally published in 2020 and was longlisted for the Booker Prize, but did not earn the author a hat-trick of prizes. Writer Stephanie Merritt wrote in the Guardian: “Needless to say, ‘The Mirror and the Light’ is a masterpiece. With this trilogy, Mantel has redefined what the historical novel is capable of.” She added that the three Cromwell works are “the greatest English novels of this century”.